When Extrinsic Motivation Vanishes, ADHD Brains Get (Even More) Creative
No motivation? ADHD brains rely on external structure to keep them driven and determined. So when their normal, extrinsic routines disappeared this spring and summer, ADDitude readers developed creative new strategies for building motivation all over again.
August 28, 2020
The ADHD brain both resents and relies on external structure.
The school bus schedule. The yoga studio’s class schedule. The therapist’s appointment schedule. We once cursed these obligations as unwelcome opportunities to be late, stressed, and/or unprepared. But as soon as they vanished with COVID, we discovered the extent to which they grounded our lives, powered our habits, and motivated our actions.
ADHD Motivation Without External Structures
“I’ve lost my routine — gym, friends at the dog park, socialization, in-person neurofeedback sessions — of which really helped me maintain a functioning life,” wrote a mother with ADHD, anxiety, and depression who answered ADDitude’s pandemic check-in survey on August 24.
The survey, our 10th since early April, drew a straight line from our disrupted schedules and obliterated structures to a rampant and distressing lack of motivation among both adults and children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Two-thirds of the 501 adults surveyed said their motivation and productivity has worsened over the last six months; only 10% said it has improved. The results were nearly identical for children with ADHD, according to 202 caregivers surveyed.
“I crave some sort of structure,” wrote one Michigan mother with four children at home and a husband laid off from his job. “I’m now beside myself trying to figure out what to do next or how to start. It’s so loud in my head and home.”
“The pandemic, especially in the beginning, sucked my energy out of me,” wrote one woman who was working from home until recently. “I really lost all intrinsic motivation and only did things that were absolutely necessary.”
“Absolutely necessary” for most ADDitude readers, it turned out, included little more than keeping everyone alive. According to the survey, adults report that all of their healthy habits — sleep, nutrition, self-care, social connections, and exercise — have worsened during the pandemic. The only habit that hasn’t deteriorated: treatment adherence.
Adults with ADHD: Impact of Pandemic on Healthy Habits
The outlook is only slightly better for children with ADHD, who report worsened exercise habits but not-quite-as-awful sleep and nutrition problems these past six months.
Children with ADHD: Impact of Pandemic on Healthy Habits
For many children with ADHD, no baseball season or in-person school or summer camp has meant more lethargy and isolation. It has also meant more time for gaming, which is beckoning 24/7 these days.
“The lack of social time has led to more screen time,” wrote one parent of an 8th grader with ADHD and a 9th grader with autism spectrum disorder. “This has, in turn, created less motivation and behavior outbursts.”
“My son only wants to play games on a device — whether it’s a phone, computer, or video game console,” wrote the mother of an 8-year-old with ADHD. “When he plays too long, he becomes dysregulated and emotional. It has been a challenge to help him understand why we must still maintain some normalcy, like bedtime and limits on screen time.”
In other words, loss of structure has drained our motivation to follow healthy habits, leaving more time and brain space for gaming and for social media, which only succeed in causing further emotional dysregulation and anxiety. All of this keeps the downward spiral going in perpetuity.
Motivation Challenges This Fall
At the moment, this cycle is gaining strength — like a hurricane hitting warmer and warmer waters. Why? According to the survey, only 28% of our children are returning to their old, familiar school schedules this fall — 8% with a return to homeschooling and 20% with a return to in-person school five days a week. For the rest of us, change and uncertainty is the new normal, which is not normal at all.
This is true for families and for adults with ADHD as well. The survey tells us that 39% of ADDitude readers are still working from home and another 10% have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. For these people, the loss of ‘body doubling’ opportunities at the office, clear work-life boundaries, and visible accountability continue to weigh heavy. And then there is the challenge of simultaneously doing two full-time jobs: parenting and working.
“I feel like I’m working 24/7 as well as parenting 24/7,” wrote a mother with ADHD in Texas. “I never thought that working from home would be so difficult. I am the mother of two boys — 8 and almost 2. While I have help from my parents and husband for childcare, my children do not understand that I have to work during the day, and I cannot be at their beck and call.”
For the vast majority of ADDitude readers, all of this stress and uncertainty has caused unprecedented levels of anxiety. In this latest pandemic survey, 72% of you said you’re feeling anxious and worried now; the same number is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and this has been going on for months now.
“My anxiety has definitely worsened, and it isn’t just anxiety directly related to the pandemic; it is also about the bad habits that I’m falling into (lack of exercise, poor diet, poor sleep) as a result of the pandemic,” wrote one mother with ADHD in New York. “I worry that things may never be the same again.”
“I feel numb after all this time of anxiety, as if my emotions are just tapped out,” wrote one young adult with ADHD and anxiety in Oregon. “I’m too tired from being stressed to bother with good meals… I just want easy and, frankly, would go without because I don’t care to deal with the decisions or emotions related to how I am eating.”
When ADHD Anxiety Manifests as Anger: Two Solutions
For both adults and children, anxiety often manifests as anger, hostility, and even self-harm. Many survey respondents conveyed challenges with managing their own anger during the pandemic and reported unusual spikes in anger among their children.
“I think my anxiety has sublimated into anger, for the most part,” wrote one man with ADHD in Melbourne, Australia.
“She has been very clingy and emotional along with being super angry and throwing whopper temper tantrums,” wrote the parent of one 2nd grader with ADHD. “It’s been really hard to deal with.”
Yes, it is hard. Very hard. Still, some solutions did rise to the surface in the ADDitude survey. Here are two of the most common cited by readers who have successfully fought back anxiety, lack of motivation, and deteriorating habits in recent months.
1. Delete your news and social media apps.
Don’t watch the news at night, don’t engage in political “discussions” on Facebook, and don’t waste time comparing your life to the filtered photos of others’ lives. None of this is helpful in a time of crisis.
“To reduce anxiety, I take everything one day at a time and focus on the present day,” wrote one man with ADHD in Canada. “I also reduced my news consumption. I keep up with friends and family over the phone/video (not social media) and visit a select few who I know have been following the pandemic safety protocols. Safe human connection really helps to reduce anxiety.”
“I keep my anxiety at low/manageable levels by avoiding things that I know make me anxious (social media, politics) and by spending more time doing activities that help me relax (exercising, meditating, playing online games with friends),” wrote a young woman with ADHD in North Carolina.
2. Create new external structures to replace those lost.
This means joining online classes, setting walking dates with friends, and generally re-introducing accountability into your routine. Begin filling your calendar with appointments again and prioritizing those commitments, even if they are virtual.
“I am now attending three online groups my health care provider offers, one is Introduction to DBT, one is a depression group, and one is a group for adults with ADHD,” wrote a middle-aged woman with ADHD in California. “I find I really enjoy them.”
“I don’t watch TV (yes, I know, I’m weird), so I’ve been gardening, reading books, writing, attending online book clubs, and taking free online classes. One of those classes was “The Science of Well-Being” through Yale at Coursera. I believe that learning and doing the re-wiring activities for this class kept me from getting depressed,” wrote a California woman with ADHD who also joined a local “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook. “I think everyone should take that class; it truly made me happier and it’s not hard at all.”
Apps to Spur Motivation in ADHD Brains
Many readers also reported finding essential structure and support in various mobile apps and web sites designed to build back healthy habits lost during the pandemic. Click the links below to see their recommendations for ADHD-friendly apps that offer incentives and rewards to following through with healthy habits:
- 20 great nutrition and diet apps for ADHD brains
- 20 great exercise and activity apps for ADHD bodies and brains
- 21 educational apps for distance learning for kids and adults with ADHD
- 19 great self-care and sleep apps for ADHD brains
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Updated on September 8, 2020