How to Focus

Brain Freeze: Why People with ADHD Need Downtime

Go ahead and hyperfocus – but when you come out of it, tune out, recharge, and let your brain process what you missed while you were away.

Right now, I’m beating my head against the desk because I’m stuck. I can usually come up with some pretty good tips on maintaining a happy and fulfilling life as someone with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), but today, I have nothing. Zip.

I’m in that uncomfortable spot called stagnation. I’m not moving forward. My wheels are spinning like crazy, but I just can’t get traction. Most people with ADHD know and despise that “stagnant” feeling. We shouldn’t take it all out on stagnation, though, because for me, stagnation is the end result of being overwhelmed.

People with ADHD are great at hyperfocusing. We can do it for hours, days, or months, depending on how interesting the project is. During that period we don’t need food, water, sleep, or hygiene – though our friends and family may disagree with the hygiene part. It feels good to hyperfocus when something seemingly normal like focus is actually hard to come by. What we don’t realize is that, for long periods of time, busting our butts means busting our brains.

[Free Download: Secrets of the ADHD Brain]

People with ADHD need downtime. We need alone time. We need time to process things in our brain that we haven’t had time to do. We don’t process as it’s happening. We have to break it all down later when we can give the act our undivided attention. When I’m in tune with the needs of my brain, I’ll take some time to sit on my couch and look out the window, sometimes for an hour or more. I don’t even know what goes on in my brain as this is happening, because I’m not an active participant. I let it do its thing. I know thoughts are tumbling around and problems are working themselves out, so I kind of observe the process and, when it’s over, I feel less anxious and more focused. Basically, I’ve just made a bunch of room in my brain to allow things to settle in nicely. This gives me a sense of being more on top of things.

When I’m less in tune with my brain’s needs, I go full-throttle, forgetting that I have a bunch of unprocessed thoughts bouncing around in there. If they don’t get processed, they take up room and I can tell you that, with this ADHD brain, the elevator gets full fast.

When I have less room and more thoughts inhibiting my mental space, at some point everything comes to a screeching halt. My brain gives me the middle finger salute and locks the doors. It is closed for business. At this point, I’m out of luck. I can kick the doors, rattle the windows, and try to pick the locks, but until my brain has had its necessary down time, I am in the “Stagnation Zone.”

So here I am. I’ve run myself down. I’ve over-committed. Holidays keep happening, and I can’t get myself together. I’m still trying to kick in those doors and now, after writing this, I kind of feel sorry for what I’ve put my brain through lately. I need to respect its needs to operate at optimal power. I am officially letting the idea of breaking and entering go. Go in peace, brain. Do your thing. If you love something, let it free, blah, blah, blah…you’re coming back, though, right?

[“The 3 Ways I Overcommit, Get Overwhelmed, and Fail”]

2 Comments & Reviews

  1. I keep a daily diary to record my thoughts, and today I thought… “it feels like brain freeze.”

    I searched “ADHD Brainfreeze” on Google with little expectation of finding anything.

    I’ve been experiencing this cycle for so long, and it led to a misdiagnosis / mistreatment with heavy doses of medication at the age of thirteen.

    I developed a severe distrust of doctors, and a distrust in myself.

    I have since been treated for ADHD, but as I entered my adult years, I wondered “is this mood swings? Or am I just so incredibly excited to be focused that I drive myself into mental exhaustion?”

    I’ve only just begun to understand that these “tides” of activity are directly related to my level of interest in my current life activities. They’re predictable, and I guess I need to treat them with more respect.

    When I get interested, I get focused. When I get focused, I tend to get so caught up in my mind that I neglect the fact that my mind is a product of an organ; an organ that requires proper sleep and care.

    I guess I need to learn how to recognize when my brain is exhausted, learn to be patient and to let it rest, and learn to accept that the focus will be back.

    Thanks for posting this

  2. I personally had an experience just the other day where I can relate to “I’m beating my head against the desk because I’m stuck.” I was in a college level English course for my senior year of high school, but I didn’t take it for credit because I didn’t do well with the teacher last year. I am best in Math/Computer Science, so if you have ADHD you could imagine the amount of “overwhelming focus” I had when it came to English (and not working on another programming project).

    Since I didn’t take the course for college credit, I decided to take it over the summer. Let me tell you, I still wonder weather I was in a college level class in high school. But either way, ADHD me waited until the day this essay was due to even read the paper it was about. This was fine, because I did it with a paper the previous week and got a good grade on it. What wasn’t good was how I was wanting to bang my head through a wall for pretty much the entire afternoon and evening. I finally got that ADHD hyperfocus boost, but it was a half hour before the essay was due. It ended up taking an hour and a half to write my essay.

    I struggled a lot as a 2E student (honors/gifted student with ADHD) the last quarter of my senior year, and I thought I would fail honestly. Thankfully I had a best friend to support me and motivate me even when my self esteem wasn’t the best. Looking back on my senior year and my essay the other night, it wasn’t that I was wasting my time and being inefficient, but rather I was just having a brain that was overloaded.

    Trying to explain how this works to someone who doesn’t have ADHD could be like the video game Papers Please. In the game, you work on the first border checkpoint in years in the country of Arstotzka. You have to sort through several documents, including passports, work permits, travel visas, etc. You have to check all these papers to make sure that there are discrepnancies with your limited workspace. In the midst of this, you have to keep in mind the most wanted criminals, a secret order trying to take down the Arstotzkian government, and possible intruders you will have to fumble around with your key to get a rifle to exterminate the intruder before they cause harm.

    Sounds like a lot? It sure is. People with ADHD live a life that is constantly like playing Papers Please. You have limited space and processing ability in your brain to be able to take in all the thoughts. You have to process little details, while keeping the big picture in check. Once you are all set on hyperfocusing on these little thoughts, other things can come in and “cross your border” which throws you for a loop.

    It’s overwhelming and tiring. In the end, I think by reading this article it is good to make sure to take a break and let your brain work. For me, focusing on that writing that essay AND all the thoughts going on inside my head was too much. It was like playing two games of Papers Please at once. It’s sort of impossible. When overwhelmed, just take a moment to breathe and let the thoughts sort themselves out. I’ve heard of brain dumping, where you get a paper and pencil and write down absolutely everything on your mind. It allows your brain to sort out your thoughts and put things in place. Just like in Papers Please, it’s important to have all the documents sorted. Having your brain clear of clutter of random thoughts allows you to be able to process everything more clearly and work more efficiently.

    Maybe I should turn this into an article here. After all, I am learning about persuasive writing…

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