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“I Thought I Knew How to Take Breaks. Turns Out I Was Resisting Them All Along.”

“My partner likens my ADHD’s speed and intensity to ’90s racecars, with powerful engines and terrible brakes. My system is bound to overheat and needs to cool down somehow. I’m learning that I can choose how I want to cool down, and I’ll take the discomfort of regular, adequate breaks over crashing into bed out of sheer exhaustion every night.”

Woman lying on sofa with pile of pillows over her head.
Credit: Getty Images/Muriel de Seze

All my life, I’ve operated under two modes: “On” like the Energizer Bunny, or “off” and asleep. I knew no in-between.

I understood, in theory, that everyone needed breaks. Breaks are good and necessary. So I tried to take breaks, and genuinely believed that I took them. Except I’d been wrong all along. I recently learned that stopping an intense task to do a different one just as intensely does not constitute a break.

What even is a break? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? Or can it be two minutes? How many breaks a day are okay? Does watching YouTube count as a break? Does my mind need to be “off” for a break to count as a break? I was stumped.

I asked Google. I looked up research literature on breaks. In therapy, I explored how breaks might help my ADHD brain feel less exhausted – physically and mentally – and strategies that might help me actually take them.

Yet I kept ignoring the alarms I’d set to start my break, or I’d get to the sofa, only to watch some intense, thought-provoking YouTube video. I instituted a “No-YouTube rule,” only to find myself reading some intriguing online article or forgetting about the rule and watching YouTube again.

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I thought I couldn’t get myself to take breaks because I didn’t need them, despite the fact that I was so exhausted in the evenings that brushing my teeth became a struggle.

Mental Exhaustion and Headaches: The Consequences of Not Taking Breaks

The turning point came when my doctor asked me about the headaches I had apparently reported frequently having on some mental health inventory update.

“Huh?” Do I get headaches? What counts as a headache? Is it that feeling I get when I hyperfocus too long, and my head feels pressurized like it’s filled with TV static? Had I been so desperate to keep my mind occupied and avoid the visceral pain of boredom that I never realized it caused me headaches? “Yeah, I guess I get headaches a lot,” I said.

A few weeks later, when I noticed I had a headache, I went all-out. I would do nothing except lay on the sofa and notice whatever happened inside me. I wanted to see if my headache would subside.

[Read: How To Slow Down Your Racing ADHD Brain]

For the first 10 minutes, buzzing thoughts ricocheted in my mind like pinballs, and my leg muscles were so tense I felt like I was about to run a race. Twenty minutes in, my quad muscles twitched and released. After 30 minutes, I could finally take a full, deep breath and realized that my headache was gone. Not only could I think again, but I felt ready and excited to do my next thing.

I was horrified and relieved. Horrified because this properly restful break took half an hour of marinating in my internal chaos. (I can barely tolerate waiting for a red traffic light to turn green, so 30 minutes of waiting is excruciating.) Relieved by this more precise definition of a break: a headache signals break time, and its dissipation means my break can end. I finally had proof that I am not a robot with only an on-off switch. I am a human who needs rest beyond nightly sleep to be my best.

It’s not just human beings who need breaks, of course. Even machines need them. Last summer, my partner and I visited Mount Washington in New Hampshire. On the drive down from the summit, signs warned us to stop frequently so our car’s brakes wouldn’t burn. My partner, a thrill-seeker and avid sim racer, shrugged off my concern when we skipped a turnout. When we did stop at the next parking area, our red Toyota Corolla was emitting visible heat waves and melting-rubber fumes. Before I had the chance to get angry about not stopping earlier, a silver Honda wagon screeched to a halt ahead of us, dark gray smoke rising out of its tires. The stench of burning rubber hit our noses.

The consequence of not taking a break wasn’t lost on me. After doing too much, too fast, for too long, I could be that car. Just as the car’s driver could have prevented this by taking a break earlier, I ultimately have the choice to take breaks in my own life. The smoking car proved to me that breaks are worth taking.

I Need a Break, No Matter How Much I Avoid It

Don’t get me wrong: I still resist taking breaks and don’t particularly enjoy them. Getting myself to stop a task is like ripping Velcro apart, and my mind’s always making up new excuses to avoid slowing down. But that’s okay. Elite race-car drivers travel at mind-boggling speeds and have a team ready to repair the vehicle, so they don’t wipe out on the track.

My partner likens my ADHD’s speed and intensity to ’90s race-cars, with powerful engines and terrible brakes. My system is bound to overheat and needs to cool down somehow. I’m learning that I can choose how I want to cool down. I’ll take the discomfort of regular, adequate breaks over crashing into bed out of sheer exhaustion every night. If I give myself the breaks I need to recharge the energy my ADHD saps, I can do more of the awesome things I dream of doing without the danger of smoke and burning rubber.

‘I Need a Break’ and Mental Exhaustion: Next Steps

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