Stress & Anxiety

“When Mental Fatigue Overwhelms My ADHD Brain…”

Mental fatigue can trigger physical, emotional, and psychological exhaustion in adults with ADHD navigating stress and uncertainty. Here is how I have learned to reactivate my mind, get calm, and move forward.

Mental fatigue is not about forgetting to transfer the laundry or thaw the chicken for dinner. It is not finding your phone in the fridge or your keys in the trash. It is not a temporary albeit embarrassing slip up. It is debilitating and it not at all rare, it turns out, years into a pandemic.

When mental fatigue sinks its claws into my ADHD brain, my energy levels decline while my procrastination increases. Sleep is unattainable. Exhaustion permeates every muscle of my body. Negative thoughts spiral out of control. Getting out of bed requires a Herculean effort. I carry an invisible 50-pound load on my back. And I hate myself for feeling this way, but I can’t shake it off, no matter how hard I try.

Mental fatigue is not just mental, it turns out. It is physical, emotional, and psychological.

Physically, my muscles move as if pushing through a swamp of peanut butter. Likewise, my brain slips into delay mode — everything moves more slowly, which is actually quite disconcerting when your mind is usually spinning, calculating, and creating. Lately, my ADHD mind is like a dead car battery that keeps grinding and whining, but never turning over. I need a jump start to awaken my idle mind.

Triggers for Mental Fatigue

Stress overload, fear of an unknown future, worries about the health of your loved ones and yourself, sleeplessness, and emotional bombardment all cause fatigue. They also define these last years for many of us.

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Instead of generalizing or fixating on why I feel the way I do, I do my best to dive deeper and identify the ADHD traits that are blocking me from moving forward. It’s essential but also impossibly hard when your brain is fogged over and your energy is sluggish at best.

My motivation was low, but the discomfort of slothing around all day was becoming so depressing that finally I reached out for help. After a few sessions with a cognitive behavioral therapist, I was able to create a personalized system to reboot my body and brain.

Here are the steps that helped me to feel awake, alert, and alive again. I hope they help you better battle mental exhaustion:

1. Accept Help

I am tough. You are tough. We think we can carry the world on our shoulders without any help. We are wrong.

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The pandemic has pushed all of our lives into the unknown. The fear associated with not knowing can be unbearable. We suffer in silence. While circumstances forced us to go through periods of social distancing, remember that isolating, hiding, and withdrawing is harmful to our mental health. The truth is this: Sometimes, the burden of your situation is too heavy to lift without the help of a loved one, relative, friend, therapist, and/or coach.

Don’t wait for someone to contact you. Reach out, share openly, and find the support you need to break through the fatigue. Begin with a trusted friend or one of many mobile apps like Talkspace or BetterHelp.

2. Locate Your Blockage

When I’m stressed, my executive functions slow down. I can’t concentrate, and my energy level drops. If I have to complete a difficult task, it goes to the bottom of the to-do list and lingers there for way too long.

Why and how do these barriers pop up and block my ADHD brain? Some days, I’m bombarded with worry. Other days, I’m overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. And still others, intense emotions block my attention. All I see is what I feel.

Now, when something interferes with my ability to concentrate, I pause, take a step back, and think about what’s getting in my way. Careful not to overthink, I take time to contemplate the cause (they tend to repeat) and think about the solutions that have worked in the past.

3. Practice Conjuring Calm

With every news alert or tweet, my stress levels spike. In my moments of blinding panic, I cannot find the reins much less take them. My ability to feel calm doesn’t have an on/off switch. The only way I’m able to settle my heart rate and breathing is through practice.

Achieving calm is a life skill we must learn when not in a state of panic. It requires daily practice and routine, like brushing your teeth. To begin, set aside five minutes twice a day to bring calm into your life. Then, when you need it most, the muscle memory will be there for you. Whether it’s walking by the water, breathing in the sunlight, sitting quietly in nature, or listening to music, think about what soothes you and do it daily.

4. Find Five Minutes

When overwhelm sets in, I cannot begin one single thing. I know I’ll feel better after I exercise, but starting seems impossible. I can’t relate to how I’ll feel later; now is all that exists, all that matters.

Whether it’s making my bed, exercising, or working on a project, my mindset flips when I commit to five minutes. I’m sure I can do that, and so I do.

The best advice I have ever received was from my writing teacher, August Birch, who said, “Start writing one word per day, without missing a day, for at least 60 days. One word becomes five sentences, which becomes three pages.” I’ve tried to follow other authors’ writing advice, but they almost always suggest writing a page a day. And some days the mere thought of a whole page stopped me from writing one word.

Like many adults with ADHD, I resist habits. Doing the same thing every day is tedious torture, but it is also incredibly helpful when trying to manage a project that feels unmanageable.

Work on a project you’re avoiding for only five minutes. Take one tiny action. The confidence you will gain from that first tentative step will inspire you to leap eventually.

5. Celebrate Your Successes, However Small

My mother used to say my eyes were bigger than my stomach. And it’s true that I tend to bite off more than I can chew — literally and figuratively. Like many other adults with ADHD who are consciously or subconsciously counteracting a lifetime of “lazy” and “unmotivated” labels, I commit to doing more than I possibly can. My heart says “Yes,” but my executive functions say “No,” and this leads to perpetual disappointment, and a repeating cycle.

You see, I fear (and avoid) to-do lists. Struggling with energy and doubting myself, I don’t want to make a list that will remind me of all the things I will never finish.

As a result, I often feel like I don’t accomplish much. I feel unproductive and useless, even when I’m frantically running around most of the day. I judge myself harshly. I call myself a failure. It’s an old fictional story I keep telling myself. But I’m working on counteracting this and regaining confidence with my “I-did-it” lists.

The premise is simple: Change your mindset by making a to-do list and an I-did-it list. When you start taking inventory of the tiny tasks you’ve completed, your dopamine and energy levels shoot up. You can then ride the wave of that energy to complete yet more tasks. The cycle is invigorating and effective.

6. Move Your Body Everyday

Exercise is the fastest and most effective way to clear the fog from your brain and remove the slimy film from your sluggish body. In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise (#CommissionsEarned), Dr. John Ratey states that “exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”

Movement is powerful, and music is magical. One song can be invigorating and inspire you to move your body. Turn on your favorite playlist and move your body. Start dancing, or even just walking to the rhythm. It will feel good to align your movement with the beat.

Show Yourself Some Compassion

At times, I want to work, but I’m frozen. As hard as I try, I cannot jump start my mind. In addition to the barriers that block my fatigued brain, my energy levels are unpredictable. A void opens up between my understanding and my effort.

At times like this, I have learned to stop fighting myself. Instead, I mindfully pause. I sit quietly with the emptiness, seek out peace, and practice being gentle with myself. I am perpetually surprised by what happens next: the emergence of a revitalized brain. With even a brief peaceful pause, I’m able to say goodbye to mental fatigue and experience exhilaration. By relinquishing control, I’m able to regain it again.

Mental Fatigue and ADHD: Next Steps

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