I was observing the people in one of my group coaching workshops last week. This was the third coaching group of the week, and something weird was going on in all of the groups. People were tired… I mean, really, unusually tired. And, also stressed...more than the usual amount of stress. And, working really hard to implement tactics to help with their ADHD, even successfully doing so, but were more frustrated with their ADHD than they typically are. What the heck was going on?
While I was trying to figure it out, one man was sharing his experience of his week with the group. He said, “This is a constant struggle. Multiple priorities, project management, deadlines, communication, now and not-now thinking, hiding and masking my ADHD, task tunneling, so much thinking all the time, getting started, sticking with habits, over-relying on urgency and emergencies…” He took a breath. And, then, asked the group, “Are you burned out yet? Because I am!”
Suddenly everyone was nodding and raising hands; they were feeling the burnout too!
But what is burnout when you have ADHD? And, what can you do about it?
Is it Burnout or ADHD?
Burnout is defined as emotional exhaustion resulting from prolonged stress. Burnout symptoms include:
Inability to focus consistently or mind-wandering
Emotional reactivity, meaning over- or under-reacting
Feelings of shame and self-criticism
Increased trouble with self-supportive habits, like sleeping, exercising, eating well, and with avoiding bad-for-you habits
Increased physical signs of being unwell - headaches, high blood pressure, blurred vision, taking sick days
Adopting a more cynical or negative worldview
Yikes! That is a dreadful list, indeed. But, the odd thing is that this list of terrible things is pretty familiar to most of my clients. If you have ADHD, you will immediately see that it might be difficult to identify burnout as burnout and not just another day with ADHD because the symptoms overlap.
So, how do you know when you're leaving ADHD territory and heading into the deep dark waters of burnout?
Signs of ADHD burnout:
1) Exhaustion is much more extreme than usual.
You might find yourself craving sleep, stealing (even more) “me time” from your workday, or feeling like the things you typically can do (albeit with a struggle) are now feeling impossible.
2) Fatigue is more consistent.
If you have ADHD, you will experience fatigue on a regular basis, but it is typically not consistent. Meaning, one day you will be really dragging, and the next you will be bursting with energy. When the fatigue becomes “all the time” then you might be verging on burnout.
3) Your ADHD is getting worse, even though you are doing the right things.
To reduce the negative impact your ADHD has on you, you have gotten the right kind of support and implemented effective strategies for your ADHD. But, if these tactics are solidly in place and your ADHD symptoms like poor focus, emotional dysregulation, and lack of motivation are getting worse, then burnout might be to blame.
Are you more susceptible to burnout because… ADHD?
Admittedly the world has been a little more challenging for all of us lately. Everyone who is paying attention is feeling more burnout these days. No need to review. But, why does having ADHD make things more challenging?
In general, adults with ADHD rely on external influences to direct their mood, focus, and productivity. Implementing robust external structures (like using a calendar or writing a to-do list) is one of the helpful ADHD-informed strategies that we use in our coaching programs. But, all of that focus on external stuff can become overwhelming very quickly when the world becomes uncertain, unsafe, and loaded with too much information and stimulation.
It turns out that people with ADHD tend to be more creative, sensitive, and empathetic. I look at ADHD as the natural tendency to amass information, creatively solve problems, and empathetically reflect on the world around you. All of this can backfire when there is simply too much to focus on.
On top of that, the whipsmart, interesting, engaged, and mind-spinningly talented ADHD people I work with frequently over-commit. (If you are smirking in acknowledgment right now, then read on). People who think that those with ADHD are lazy could not be more wrong. Adults with ADHD have to work harder than those without ADHD to get through their days, responsibilities, relationships…lives. But, because they are told that they just need to work harder, they tend to adopt the strategy of working harder.
People with ADHD are also famous for being optimistic, employing magical thoughts like That will only take a minute or I can finish all 65 tasks on my to-do list today! Because it is hard for you to say no to new projects, requests from other people, and to put boundaries around tasks, you tend to become wildly overcommitted.
Let’s take a look at the word “over” and see how it can lead to those with ADHD being more susceptible to burnout. High achievers with ADHD overdo it all the time. They overcompensate for perceived and real limitations: they overwork, overthink, overjudge, over-negotiate, over-decide, over-perfect, over-anticipate – all of which leads to (you guessed it) – burnout and overwhelm.
The 4 Steps to Reducing ADHD Burnout
If you think you might be leaving ADHD land and traveling into burnout territory, here are 4 simple steps that can help you reduce ADHD burnout.
1) Identify your burnout symptoms.
If you have ADHD, your burnout will not look like everyone else’s. Your unique self will come up with a customized version of burnout. So, take a look at the “symptoms” from the list above. Write down those that you are experiencing. Are they more extreme than usual or are they typical for you? Are they holding steady or getting worse?
2) Seek support for burnout.
DLC Team Coach Melanie Sobocinski is fond of saying “If you smell smoke, get out of the building; don't go hide under the bed.” If you think, Huh, I think this might be burnout, then get support. Your therapist and/or ADHD coach can help you to reduce the stress contributors in your life while increasing the things that bring you rest, safety, consistency, and joy. (Looking for an ADHD coach who gets ADHD burnout? Check out our Team Coaches).
3) Design ways to reduce the “overs.”
Speaking of reducing stress, one of the most powerful things you can do when experiencing burnout is to reduce your tendency to accept all of those “overs” – overcompensating, overworking, overthinking, overcommitting, overanalyzing, etc.
So that you don't overdo this step (uh-huh), I am going to suggest you write down 1, 2, or 3 (and, no more) ways in which you are currently over-ing.
Is there something that you have overcommitted to?
Are you overworking something?
What are you over-perfecting right now?
Once you have your list of 1-3 things, identify one small step you can take to reduce. What specific step can you take to reduce your commitment? Can you take a small step to underwork rather than overwork? Is there one thing you can do to get something off your plate without over-perfecting it?
If you need more help reducing your “overs,” you can learn a lot more about that in our Live Well eCourse. It is such a powerful strategy for ADHD self-support that we have integrated it throughout the entire 6-module course.
4) Externalize your designs so you can follow through.
You may have noticed that I have been saying “write down” your symptoms and how you are over-ing and the steps you will take. At DLC, we talk a lot about externalizing for ADHD. Externalizing means getting things out of your brain and placing them in the external world. So, writing things down is an externalization.
Externalizations help people with ADHD to implement the plans they have designed. If you think you are experiencing burnout, recognize that you are vulnerable and overwhelmed right now, so your externalizations may need to be stronger than those you use for your non-burnout ADHD self.
Here are a few simple ways you can begin to externalize:
Place a sticky note on your computer screen that reads, “Say no!”
Set time limits on tasks so you don't take longer than you’d like and plot times into your calendar. (Helpful hint: to set time limits more effectively, plan to do the task before something else that you have to show up for and that will force you to stop, as in I will reply to an email from my boss for 20 minutes before my 3 pm meeting.)
Look at your to-do list and physically cross things off even though they are not done. Choose not to do them. Actually crossing things off is an externalization because it happens in the world outside your head. This makes your head feel less overwhelmed, so can help to reduce burnout.
Get Help When You Need It
I know I said this already but it’s worth repeating… if you’re fighting with ADHD and burnout simultaneously, please get support. Life is hard enough with ADHD… adding burnout to the picture has the potential to put you in a pretty precarious position at work, at home, and in life. Whether it’s a skilled ADHD coach or therapist, make sure you seek out someone who understands the ins and outs of ADHD. Just because you have ADHD doesn’t mean you need to suffer from burnout too.
Want to learn more tools to help you cope with burnout while having ADHD? Check out some of these resources straight from the Dixon Life Coaching playbook:
Get control of your ADHD with the Live Well ADHD eCourse
Tune into this special episode of the Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast with Nikki Kinzer and Pete Wright - with special guest, Casey Dixon, as they talk about Breaking Free of the Burnout Blues!