Can’t Get Anything Done? Why ADHD Brains Become Paralyzed in Quarantine
At first, stay-at-home orders felt like an opportunity to tackle those back-burner projects and lingering to-do items. But as the global pandemic has worn on, we feel drained. We can’t seem to get anything done and yet we’re tired all the time. Concepts in neuroscience and psychology, however, can decode our behaviors and point the way back to productivity.
The country is still largely frozen — or slowing thawing — but, ironically, we’re seeing more messaging around productivity and more people measuring their worth based on achievement during the time of nothingness.
We feel we should be able to conquer all of those lingering projects cluttering our homes and our minds. But by the end of the day, we’re overwhelmed with fatigue and feelings of listlessness. Aggravating it all is out-of-control productivity shaming — something that individuals with ADHD, and especially women, know all too well. Our to-do lists actually seem to be growing, and we’re left beating ourselves up, asking, “What’s really going on with me?”
The weariness you’re feeling right now is real. It stems from stress, which affects the alertness and arousal pathways of the mind; unique aspects of the ADHD brain further impair our ability to regulate those channels. Basic but effective coping mechanisms, however, can help us regain some footing during this time.
Why You Can’t Get Anything Done Now: ADHD Brain Primers
Everyone experiences ADHD and stress uniquely. The chaos and intensity of this global pandemic are stimulating for some. Others feel they are just barely treading water — working hard just to stay afloat. Women with ADHD and other marginalized groups, accustomed to facing societal pressures and demands well before this pandemic, are largely in the latter group.
These are just some features of the ADHD brain that help set the scene for our responses to this pandemic:
1. The ADHD brain struggles with emotional regulation. People with ADHD are easily flooded, tend to be highly emotional, and have a low frustration tolerance. In this period of heightened emotions, it’s no wonder that the emotional facet of our brains makes coping feel uncomfortable and overwhelming.
2. ADHD brains struggle to regulate arousal states. Brain scans show that ADHD minds can sometimes be “hyper-aroused” or “hypo-aroused.” It explains why people with ADHD fall asleep when they’re under-stimulated — it’s not about fatigue at all — or freeze up when over-stimulated. Our arousal states are also drastically impacted by stress.
3. ADHD minds have a tendency to wander. In neurotypical brains, the default mode network — the background, stream-of-consciousness chatter — shuts off when engaging in a task. For ADHD brains, that switch doesn’t happen so smoothly, so our minds can get stuck wandering. When we’re in a space of anxiety, we can get ruminative, especially about something that’s causing us stress.
To better understand why recent stressors are particularly paralyzing to ADHD minds in quarantine, we can turn to relatively new concepts in the fields of behavioral neuroscience and psychology.
An Integrated Model: The Polyvagal and Window of Tolerance Theories
The “Window of Tolerance” and polyvagal theories posit, in part, that we all inhabit neutral-like spaces in which we feel like we’re present, content, able to engage, and be our best selves. In so many terms, we are “on” in this optimal state, which also requires us to feel some level of safety and comfort. In the language of the polyvagal theory, this window is called the “ventral vagal state.” The vagal refers to the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the gut.
At each end of this window of tolerance are the zones of hyperarousal and hypoarousal. When we experience stress, as we are now in response to this pandemic, we go into the hyperarousal zone. This is where our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and our fight or flight responses are triggered. In this zone, we feel anxious, reactive, irritable, and, above all, threatened.
When we spend more time in this heightened state and can’t seem to escape our stressors, as is happening now, we go into overwhelm — this is when we enter the zone of hypoarousal, or the “dorsal vagal freeze state.” We can look at this zone as a protective path of last resort. We become numb, we feel disassociated, and are unable to act. We effectively shut down.
The ADHD brain, even without a global pandemic, sure seems to bounce frequently between the two zones. We tend to gravitate to the hyperarousal space because it satisfies cravings for stimulation and because of our struggles with emotional regulation. We are often able to return to the neutral window, and we do our best to avoid the zone of hypoarousal.
But faced with this collective, continuing trauma — the pandemic news cycle, lost jobs, sick loved ones, mourning the ones we’ve lost, remote schooling, work, and more — we’ve lived in a hyperarousal state for so long that we’ve passed it and merged almost semi-permanently into the hypoarousal. All we can do in this state is sit down on the couch, stare into space, and think, “I can’t.”
Finding the Way Back to Your Window of Tolerance
We can shift our stress responses back into our window of tolerance by developing a meaningful set of coping skills. The following mechanisms, while simple and potent, are merely suggestions — they appear in no particular order, look different in practice from individual to individual, and do not represent all the tools that can help.
In this unprecedented pause, we don’t want healing to become another rat race toward greater productivity. Hold yourself with compassion and validation in the process of healing, and understand that there is no perfect way to cope — to our benefit. When we let hardships impact us, that’s when we can become stronger and learn to trust ourselves.
Pause and Notice
Another name for pausing and noticing is mindfulness, which doesn’t necessarily mean meditation. As the saying goes, it’s “the space between stimulus and response” where choice lies.
The ADHD brain, as we know, does not automatically do well at putting on the brakes. But when we practice pausing, we are able to create the space to regulate and reason against stressors.
We feel safest in our windows of tolerance, so creating a sense of safety even when weathering the storm can help our minds regain some sense of control. There are three areas to focus on when thinking of safety:
Emotional and mental safety: As with pausing, creating emotional and mental safety means literally taking time and space to regulate. For example, it takes about half an hour on average for our nervous system to come down and “drain the flood,” so it’s crucial to work into our days fragments of time for ourselves — more so when uncertainty and unpredictability are at play.
Environmental safety: This means physically changing your space. That could be making a “timeout” for yourself at home, or setting boundaries around social media and news. It could be getting away from the stress at home, under the guise of running an errand, and sitting at a park bench or a parking lot.
Relational safety: We need to create time and space for ourselves without being tied to our children, roommates, spouses, or others. Doing so is hard, especially for women, as we’re socialized into being people-pleasers and keeping the peace when things get tough. But it must be done. Tell your kids, partner, and others that when you’re creating space for yourself, you’re not walking away from them, but helping yourself and your relationship with them.
Regulate Your Mind and Body
The following mind-body activities are based in somatic experiencing, or body sensations, that are proven to snap the stress response back.
- Take a cold shower
- Do a body scan — paying attention to how your body feels by moving in sections from the feet to the head
- Deep breathing — we want to stimulate the vagus nerve, so focus on strong exhales. Hold them for as long as possible; 7 to 10 counts if possible
- Ground yourself by doing sensory-stimulating activities like wrapping yourself in a weighted blanket or walking barefoot on the grass
- Practice gentle movement like dancing, stretching, walking
- Seek positive stimulation through cooking, gardening, painting, and the like. For ADHD in particular, it’s essential to keep the dopamine flowing
This article is based on Michelle Frank’s ADDitude webinar, “‘I Thought I’d Be More Productive!’ Why Women with ADHD Are Struggling While Staying at Home,” which was broadcast live on May 13, 2020.
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Updated on December 10, 2020