Managing ‘Overwhelm’ (and other invisible symptoms of ADHD/ADD)

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

By: Christina Crowe, RP, ADHD Therapist & Coach

(This article will reference ADHD and ADD interchangeably, which for the purposes of this topic, makes sense).

The relative ‘invisibility’ of the symptoms of undiagnosed (or unmanaged!) ADHD can feel like both a blessing and a curse. If you think you might have ADHD, but aren’t diagnosed, to be totally transparent, there are debated pros and cons of being ‘officially’ diagnosed, and I have also seen compelling arguments (around accessibility) supporting moving forward with an unofficial or ‘self-diagnosis’ in the neurodivergent world.  Regardless of one’s personal choice regarding formal diagnosis, symptoms still exist and can be problematic, for lots of different reasons.  

Symptoms affect every unique ADHD brain to different extents, but one general ‘rule’ seems to be that the more things are on your plate at whatever phase of life you are in, the more your symptoms show up.

​If your symptoms don’t bother you, it’s no big deal right? (Maybe …. if you live alone, aren’t in close intimate relationships, or don’t depend on healthy relationships for your wellbeing). Picture author JD Salinger, living in a cabin in the woods, in isolation.  

​If you ARE interested in helping your loved one’s get over the hump of the label, remember how amazing you are, and want to actively work on how to, perhaps, gain more insight into how your symptoms affect you (and them), then read on, my friend. Ultimately, it’s the invisibility of ADHD that allows this unique condition to go undiagnosed for as long as it does in many cases.  The struggles of ADHD are often not obvious to both the person with ADHD, as well as those in their life.  

​When the potential for diagnosis comes – usually because either one’s child has been diagnosed, and we hear it’s highly heritable (genetically influenced), or one’s life is falling apart in a variety of ways, and then it can be both a relief and still upsetting. 

The blessing is that ADHD brains to go undetected – we may or may not be conscious we are unwitting experts at the old ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ adage.  In doing so, we have been forced to adapt and come up with all kinds of strategies for making our lives happen.

​But these can be hard fought battles that sometimes, we need to be able to admit we are losing.  It’s not that people with neurotypical brains don’t struggle. They just don’t deal with the same symptoms at nearly the level that an ADHDer does on a daily basis.  

​Taking a closer look can help shed some light on why things have and continue to go down in your life the way they do. 


COMMON INVISIBLE SYMPTOMS:

  1. Overwhelm,
  2. Hyperfocus tunnel vision (can be confused for OCD),
  3. Time-blindness,
  4. Emotional hyperarousal (feels a lot like generalized anxiety),
  5. Rejection sensitivity (intense emotions that can be misdiagnosed or misattributed to a co-existing condition like anxiety, depression, bipolar or borderline personality disorder),
  6. Priority – setting problems.
ADHD coach in Caledon_all_Ontario Dig A Little Deeper, Psychotherapy

​The really important biological piece about all of these things, is they are all mediated by our brain’s ability to use 2 really important neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine.  

​Researchers suspect a gene involved in the creation of dopamine, which controls the brain’s ability to maintain regular and consistent attention, may be traced back to ADHD.  Dopamine specifically is the neurotransmitter responsible for signalling the brain to “do it again” for all the things humans need to survive/thrive (like all extensions of eat, sleep, have sex and connect with other humans for safety). It’s really important! 

As mammals, we humans will seek from our environment what we don’t have on the inside (and can’t really produce optimal levels of). 

​Interestingly, use of substances like nicotine and cannabis have been shown in research studies to mediate dopamine receptor activity, which might explain why smoking is overrepresented in the ADHD population.  

This also helps explain recent longer-term data showing children with ADHD treated medically with stimulant medication (giving them the dopamine they need) have a lower risk of problematic substance use in later years, versus children who have not been treated with stimulant medication (reasonably start self-medicating on their own). 

Whether one is diagnosed or not, the reality is many of the behavioural interventions for ADHD are actually sensible and reasonable interventions for all of us.  

​For example, ‘overwhelm’ is that feeling that happens at any time of day, but commonly in the morning, or whenever a new task is assigned/received.

The sudden flood of panic, paralysis, feelings of inadequacy, inability to know where to start, fear of never finishing said task, all rush through us in a matter of seconds.

It quite literally sets off the ‘anxious’ feeling of nervous system dysregulation we are all familiar with – heart rate increasing, tightness in chest, jumbled thoughts, nervous stomach or butterflies, or even nausea or actually throwing up.  ​And then depending on what your go-to survival style (your autonomic nervous systems preferred way to deal with threatening situations) is: fight, flight, freeze or fawn, the overwhelm flood might make you cranky and angry, paralyzed and late for your day, or maybe finds you avoiding all possible opportunities to even think about the task (also called procrastination).  

THEN you have to interact with the people in your life, who have NO idea that all of this stuff is going on inside your head and body (because ‘overwhelm’ to this extent doesn’t happen to them and they for the life of them cannot fathom how you make it through your days). 

But you might not know that, since you were born with your ADHD brain, and you don’t know what you don’t know.

​For example, if you were born without vision, you simply don’t know what it’s like to see (as opposed to being born with sight and slowly losing it over time). Why would it occur to you that your process has organically been harder for you from day one? It just seems like you struggle more, that things seem easier for other people, and why should you ask for/need more help, no one else seems to need help? 

​Sound familiar at all? 


Image of an analog clock, recommended for ADHD brains

HYPERFOCUS AND ‘TIME-BLINDNESS’

​Overwhelm can be relieved sometimes by our brain’s unique ability to latch onto something we DO find interesting – turning on hyperfocus, which also is related to ‘time-blindness’.  

Hyperfocus can be awesome – if the thing you love is also the thing that you can make money at, or say, you are a grad student and the thing you are studying is the thing you are truly interested in? I’ll take a neurosurgeon with ADHD and an interest in brain surgery for myself over a regular neurosurgeon any day of the week.

​It’s also why, perhaps many Olympic athletes have ADHD – it takes an insane amount of focus, sweat and practice to achieve what those athletes achieve – they were interested in the sport and their hyperfocus (the media calls it ‘dedication’) is what propelled them to the top. 

The downside to hyperfocus is when it’s in something that takes you away from things that help you take care of yourself (like playing video games for 10 hours straight).  

In either case, you experience an overall lack of balance in your life. You know you have experienced hyperfocus when there is something you get engrossed in: you can forget to eat, or go to the bathroom and before you know it, an entire afternoon or day has gone by, and it’s all you’ve done. Oops. 

Time-blindness plays out here, when we both lose track of time, aren’t great at estimating time, and really struggle to picture or act with future consequences in mind. ADHD brains can struggle with task-switching (away from things that are interesting, as well as paying attention to too many things at once). Post-it notes from our parents or spouses with sweet (or angry) reminders, do nothing for our brains if they aren’t extremely specific and required within the next 24 hours!

Sometimes its procrastination due to anxiety, or emotional avoidance, but a lot of the time, its just random, which causes anxiety. There is a difference! 

One simple way ‘time-blindness’ has been described is that for an ADHD brain, there is NOW and NOT NOW.  If I don’t need to do it now, it gets filed away in ‘later’ (and we all know, later rarely comes).  Now, if you have lived a lifetime with a neurodivergent brain and not known it, reasonably you’ve come up with lots of interesting coping mechanisms, ways to stay minimally organized and have learned not to sweat the small stuff.  

The amount of cognitive energy it takes you to stay afloat may not be something you have considered managing differently. If you could spend all that cognitive energy on other things – so you don’t experience as much overwhelm for example, that could be cool. 

EMOTIONAL HYPERAROUSAL AND REJECTION SENSITIVITY

Emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity help explain to our neurotypical brained loved ones why we seem so touchy sometimes, and how we can go from totally carefree to extremely worried and anxious in an instant.

​The INTENSITY of the emotions can be really upsetting, and often lead to misattributions to co-existing conditions, or full on misdiagnosis especially in girls and women.  

​If you are a woman, and have been trying to manage ‘anxiety’ for many years and aren’t really getting anywhere, think about seeing your family doctor to have adult ADHD ruled out.

ADHD Overwhelm ADHD coach in Caledon_all_Ontario Dig A Little Deeper, Psychotherapy

SELF-MANAGEMENT

​The basic principles of self-management that benefit neurodivergent AND neurotypical brains are about balance, planning and self-advocacy.  

Neurodivergent brains need to take the extra step of setting up systems in their lives that both automate and create the structure for cognitive downtime.  

Some easy things to automate

  • Have all your bills on auto-pay!
  • Set out your clothes the night before (down to your undies and shoes!), and for SURE, pack your lunch the night before. 
  • Book (block) the last hour of your working day in your agenda to go over all your texts and emails for messages from people you love so they don’t feel ignored and invisible to you.
  • Do NOT bring your cell phone into your bedroom at night (don’t give me the ‘it’s my alarm’ – go buy an alarm clock from the dollar store). 

An over-aroused brain can lead to sensory overload – an inability to be intentional about our responses and a tearful, irritable, or aggressive “crash” – with a sudden demand to withdraw, tune-out, or have alone time.

​It’s a neurological balancing act, that can be frustrating to experience for both us, and the neurotypicals in our life. 

ADHD Overwhelm ADHD coach in Caledon_all_Ontario Dig A Little Deeper, Psychotherapy

In an article previously posted, I shared some strategies to help ADHD brains make the most of planning in advance to make life a little easier – whether you have medication ‘on board’ or not.  

But every unique individual can take the time to consider how these symptoms show up in their life, and what they can do to make tailored adjustments that are most meaningful to them.  Perhaps Sunday is the day, where you sit down and not only glance at your week ahead, but meal prep, schedule in your downtime, plan your rewards, schedule in reminders to connect with your romantic partner, your kid, your best friend. 

Finally, the self-advocacy part is about being honest with yourself about evaluating where you need more support, and practicing asking for help.

Repeatedly.

Until you get it. A lot of the stigma with mental health that is the biggest problem is not out thereIt is inside of all of us.

For everyone who doesn’t ask for help when they could use it (most likely because the response to a previous request resulted in being ignored or being publicly humiliated, so totally reasonable), it’s time to own it, and realize that nothing changes if nothing changes.  

What I know for sure is this: when you own it, no one can use it against you. Change IS possible, especially when it’s finally on your terms. Remember, it’s not about ‘fixing’ something that’s broken.

​It IS about not feeling defeated by a world built for sameness (neurotypical). Feeling your own sense of competency, feeling better about yourself, having healthy relationships and finding the balance that is right for you IS possible. 


RESOURCES

Did you miss our Pro Tips for ADHD in Part I?
Click here: Christina’s ADHD pro tips: Mastering your beautiful brain.

VISIT THE HUB: ​ADHD RESOURCE PAGE

DIY*ADHD, FOR THE NEWLY DIAGNOSED

Christina’s starter course, for the newly diagnosed:
DIY*ADHD online coaching course –  you can enrol today!
(HCP’s: earn 3 CEC’s through OAMHP)

LIKE PODCASTS?

Check out The Christina Crowe Podcast: making the invisible VISIBLE, wherever you listen to podcasts. 


ESSENTIAL ADHD READING:

  1. ADHD: A Hunter in a Farmer’s World, by Thom Hartmann. ​
  2. Driven to Distraction (Revised): Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder by Dr. Edward Hallowell, John Ratey.
  3. ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship, by Ari Tuckman
  4. The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals. by Lidia Zylowska, Daniel Siegel ​

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Picture of ​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

Registered Psychotherapist, Validated Clinical Supervisor, ADHD Therapist & Coach Podcast Host The Christina Crowe Podcast Christina is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist, a member of CADDRA's Advocacy Committee and relentless mental health advocate. Christina believes great mental health information should be available to everyone, loves creating content that makes invisible things VISIBLE and finding new ways to bring healing experiences to as many people as possible.

2 thoughts on “Managing ‘Overwhelm’ (and other invisible symptoms of ADHD/ADD)”

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