Stress & Anxiety

When Panic Attacks: How to Fend Off ADHD Stress

They say the first step is the hardest. And, you know, sometimes they are right. When you feel too overwhelmed and overloaded to even begin a project, use these techniques to move forward — without all the ADHD stress.

Stressed woman with ADHD pulling hair
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Why We Overreact

Most adults with ADHD have trouble planning. When 'fate' seemingly throws a wrench in our lives, we tend to overreact because we didn't see it coming. We just want a life that we can control – not one that controls us. But when we try to tackle the 98 items on our to-do lists, we become too stressed and overwhelmed to even get started. This plan, however, can stop the panic and the negative self-talk that comes with it BEFORE it begins.

A businesswoman experiencing ADHD stress puts her head in her hands at her office desk
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1. Stop Negative Thoughts

When stress begins building because you have too much to do, negative thoughts might start replaying in your head. "I'm going to fail again." "I can never do much of anything." "I'm useless." You attribute your inability to get things done to some character flaw or personality problem. This is called attribution theory – looking for internal attributes to explain behavior. So, in addition to feeling overwhelmed, you feel like something is wrong with you as a person. Remember, it's not you, it's the ADHD. So stop that broken record of negative thoughts in its tracks.

An illustration of a brain experiencing ADHD stress
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2. Freeze, Flee, or Fight

What's responsible for keeping people with ADHD from getting things done? Amygdala highjacking. The amygdala is a center in the brain that protects you from danger, priming the body to freeze, flee or fight. The problem is that it can't tell the difference between emotional stress and physical, lethal danger.

When you feel overwhelmed, its because this fear response takes over and pulls resources from the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that lets us think clearly and make decisions. You procrastinate because the willpower to keep going is a higher-order cognitive skill that goes offline when the amygdala takes over.

A road sign that says crisis ahead. People experiencing ADHD stress feel this way all the time.
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3. Stop Stress

To prevent a stress response, interrupt the pattern of feeling overwhelmed before the amygdala takes over. When you start to feel brain fog, generalized disorganization, or anxiety, try meditation to quiet your mind. Use rituals like deep breathing to activate the relaxation centers in the brain. Try tapping on certain meridian points of your body, and repeating positive affirmative statements like, "Even though I feel stressed, I can handle this." This can lay down new neural pathways in place of old, negative ones, and help stop fear from gaining control.

A messy desk, covered in books and drawers. This could cause ADHD stress.
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4. Keep It Simple

When you need to get something done, a string of decisions is your enemy. You walk in to a messy room and your heart starts pounding, your head hurts. You think, "I don't know where to start. This is going to take all day." So you walk away. Instead, use a system that takes the decision making out of it so you can start the task without being stopped by feeling stressed before you start begin.

Three organized canvas bozes full of clothes. A system for laundry can reduce ADHD stress.
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5. Create an Easy Plan

When faced with a complex task, narrow your mission into three categories: Trash, Action Items, and I Don't Know. Then, set a timer for 15-30 minutes. If you're cleaning a room, sort all of the loose items in to one of those three boxes. Take care of the Action items right away. Save the "I Don't Know" items for another day. You don't have to finish it all in one shot. You just need to practice starting a task without the stress response triggered by negative thoughts.

A sign in the center of a conference table full of people that says pause, a reminder to stop periodically to reduce ADHD stress
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6. Give Yourself Space to Think

When you start to feel anxiety during a conversation, and can't leave to meditate, try buying yourself some time. Say, "Hang on a second. I need to think about that." Take a deep, calming breath during your pause. If you feel overwhelmed at work, try scheduling your meetings at the same time each week. Practice what you'll say ahead of time, and when you'll speak. Eventually it will become automatic.

A man looking into a dryer is experiencing ADHD stress because he dyed his clothes blue
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7. Request a Body Double

Certain specific tasks — say budgeting or cleaning bathrooms or preparing tax documents — are just complete torture. Thinking about or avoiding them can be very stressful. So ease the pain, ask a friend or a coach to walk (or sit) through the process with you. When you feel butterflies in your stomach, or find yourself clenching your fists thinking about a task, that's a clue. Notice those symptoms and ask for help. You can't necessarily fix your organizational skills, but you can address those overwhelmed feelings.

White puzzle pieces on a green background, a metaphor for leaving projects incomplete when ADHD stress is too great
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8. It's OK Not to Finish

Give yourself permission to leave a task incomplete. Then, make a conscious effort to talk to yourself in a way that is charge-neutral, without judgement. You might see yourself as lazy for not being able to finish. Replace that thought with one that says, "I didn't finish, and I know why." When you don't finish the project, consciously decide to just walk away and come back at a later date to give it another shot. Pick it up when you have more brain power available.

Clothes and an iron on an ironing board. Doing chores you dislike can trigger ADHD stress.
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9. Put It On Your Schedule

For tasks that you really dislike, like folding laundry, it can help to schedule it on your planner like you would a doctor's visit. Or pair it with a task you enjoy, like folding laundry while watching a documentary. Use lists and schedules so you don't have to remember it in the moment. Then you can free up all of your energy to get things done.

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