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Navigating Overwhelm with ADHD: A Guide to Overwhelm Management

Updated: 1 day ago

The sensation of being flooded with all the emotions, causing chaos in your mind and prompting a desire to escape, is a common experience also referred to as overwhelm. ADHD is not just about making it challenging to complete tasks; individuals with ADHD are more susceptible to overwhelm, and when it hits, the intensity can be overwhelming.


Man distressed with headphones on

Why does this happen?

While overwhelm is universal, those with ADHD not only encounter it more frequently but also experience it more intensely than others. This overwhelming sensation often leads to a frantic spiral, a cascade of emotions tumbling down and colliding with a formidable wall of negative experiences, including criticism, self-doubt, unmet potential, failed intentions, and missed opportunities. This wall might start to surface at the slightest hint of uncertainty, bringing back a flood of all your past struggles.


So why are ADHD brains more prone to frequent and intense overwhelm?

The key lies in the ADHD brain's filtering mechanism—or lack thereof. Unlike other brains, ADHD brains fail to filter information, stimuli, and incoming data. Every piece of data bombards the brain, intensifying the feeling of overwhelm. Coupled with the brain's poor regulation of emotional intensity, individuals with ADHD endure this relentless wave of data and emotions throughout the day.


What overwhelms the ADHD brain?

The ADHD brain, lacking the ability to filter, struggling with organization, prioritization, and initiation, can succumb to overwhelm from various sources.


These might be:

  1. Too much stimulation: ADHD Overstimulation

  2. Too many thoughts: Cognitive Overwhelm

  3. Too many feelings: Emotional Overwhelm

  4. Too many tasks: To-Do List Overwhelm

  5. Too much stuff: Clutter Overwhelm

  6. Too many logistics: Logistical Overwhelm


What to do when you feel overwhelmed?

Recognizing the signs of overwhelm is crucial. These signs could manifest as headaches, blurred vision, foggy thinking, or a strong desire to retreat.


Once identified, a four-step process can help regain control:

  1. Notice the signs: Identify your personal signs of overwhelm, such as headaches, a need to escape, or entering a worrying spiral. Having that awareness can allow you to take the necessary steps for an early intervention.

  2. Step away: Distance yourself from the overwhelming situation. Whether taking a walk, hiding in a closet, seeing a friend or a change of environment. Stepping away is crucial and will help you to think more clearly about what steps you can take next.

  3. Identify the overwhelm: Determine the type of overwhelm you're experiencing—be it too many thoughts, a flood of emotions, logistical challenges, or other forms.

  4. Take the next step: Choose a strategy from the provided chart based on the identified type of overwhelm to begin addressing the issue.


Depending on what type of overwhelmed you are feeling you can try out these strategies:

Overstimulation:

  • Step away and limit overwhelming stimulation.

  • Incorporate calming techniques to calm the nervous system.

    • Butterfly Hug The Butterfly Hug is a self-soothing technique to help manage distressing emotions. To perform the Butterfly Hug, cross your arms over your chest so that your hands rest on your upper arms, with your fingertips touching your shoulders. Then, gently tap your left and right hands alternately on your upper arms in a rhythmic, butterfly-wing-like motion while focusing on a distressing memory or emotion. This bilateral stimulation is believed to help calm the nervous system and reduce emotional distress.

    • Box Breathing Also known as square breathing or four-square breathing, is a relaxation technique commonly used to manage stress, anxiety, and promote focus and concentration. It involves breathing in for a specific count, holding the breath, breathing out for the same count, and then holding the breath again, forming a "box" pattern. For example, you might inhale for a count of four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and then hold your breath again for four seconds before repeating the cycle. This rhythmic breathing pattern can help regulate the autonomic nervous system and induce a sense of calm.

    • Finger Breathing Finger Breathing is a mindfulness exercise that combines deep breathing with tactile stimulation to promote relaxation and reduce stress. To practice Finger Breathing, hold one hand in front of you with the palm facing up. Use the index finger of your other hand to trace up the outside of your thumb while you inhale slowly and deeply. Then, as you exhale, trace down the inside of your thumb. Continue this process for each finger, inhaling as you trace up and exhaling as you trace down. This exercise encourages mindful breathing while also providing a tactile sensation that can help anchor your focus and reduce racing thoughts.



Cognitive Overwhelm:

  • Try out a mind dump by listing every thought you are having and that feels overwhelming on a piece of paper.

  • Once you did the mind dump, you can also sort through the thoughts you put on paper. 

  • Categorizing your thoughts on paper into two different categorizes “what is actually important”, “what can I leave for now”. This can help you to feel less overwhelmed. 


To-Do List Overwhelm:

  • Consolidate all lists into a master list.

  • Cross off, delegate, or eliminate less important tasks.

  • Identify the top three priorities and break down the most challenging task into small steps.


Clutter Overwhelm:

  • Select a spot and follow an ADHD-friendly three-step process for tidying.


Tips for coping with overwhelm:

  • Monitor self-talk and avoid self-blame; overwhelm is not a reflection of personal character!

  • Take a break and allow yourself to recalibrate before tackling the situation.

  • Practice deep breathing to calm the nervous system.

  • Be kind to yourself; overwhelm is a product of brain function, not a personal failure.


Understanding the specific type of overwhelm and implementing tailored strategies can empower individuals with ADHD to navigate overwhelming moments with greater ease.



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