More than 8 million adults in the US are reported to have ADHD, and research shows that up to 80% of them have a co-occurring diagnosis like depression, anxiety, or substance use disorder. Because ADHD and other mental health challenges often co-exist together, a lot has been written about how to manage your ADHD symptoms while you're navigating other mental health issues. What’s not written about as often is when ADHD co-exists with a chronic illness.
Why does the intersection of ADHD and chronic illness matter?
ADHD doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does physical health. When you are dealing with both things, there is an interplay between the two that can make managing the symptoms of each that much more difficult. Adding to the challenge is that the symptoms of ADHD and chronic illness can also mirror one another, but because the root cause of each differs, it can be hard to know what to do about it.
Here are three unique examples of how ADHD and chronic illness can intersect and exacerbate some of the symptoms you might be struggling with.
Same Symptom, Different Reason
People with ADHD don’t have a great working memory because ADHD affects Executive Functioning abilities. And people with chronic illnesses might struggle with working memory because of the brain fog that often accompanies chronic illnesses.
While working memory is affected in both instances, the reason why is not the same. With ADHD, your brain absorbs the information, but then the information tends to drift away. With brain fog, your brain isn’t even capturing the information. If you focus solely on tools that address your ADHD to improve your working memory, you might not be solving the right problem.
Consistent Habits & Behaviors
Effectively managing a chronic illness often requires consistent behaviors. Everything from taking medication on time to eating regularly to having a consistent sleep schedule can have an impact on your chronic illness.
Here’s the intersection with ADHD… folks with ADHD can have a hard time being consistent with routines and habits. This difficulty can become a legitimate barrier to behavior change and creating the consistent habits and routines you need to effectively manage your chronic illness, which can exacerbate all of your symptoms.
People with ADHD often engage in something we like to call magical thinking, where you overestimate what you can accomplish in a certain amount of time.
When magical thinking is at play, you are likely underestimating how long it will take you to accomplish certain tasks. As a silly yet relevant example, we all know that a shower takes 10-20 minutes on paper… but as an ADHD’er, how many times has your shower actually taken you just 10-20 minutes?
Engaging in magical thinking can lead anyone with ADHD to overcommit and increase your stress trying to do everything you planned on doing. Now add in the energy limitations that chronic illness can bring and bam… you have even fewer available resources to complete everything you committed to.
Diversifying Your Tools
So, what can you do if you have to navigate this intersection of ADHD and chronic illness?
If you have both ADHD and a chronic illness, traditional ADHD management skills might not be enough. You might need to diversify your tools and integrate additional tactics to help you navigate life’s challenges.
Here are some helpful tips that go beyond traditional ADHD tools to offer support for your chronic illness.
Understand Your Battery
Unlike the Energizer Bunny, our energy is a finite resource. We have one energy battery that needs to get us through the day, and this single battery has to supply all our cognitive energy, physical energy, and social energy.
Having ADHD tends to burn through cognitive energy quickly while having a chronic illness might leave you with fewer energy resources in general. This means being realistic about your energy management and knowing when to slow down are two crucial factors in setting yourself up for success.
Try these tactics to manage your energy levels:
Take regular breaks.
Learn your limits. Respect your limits. Communicate your limits.
Know when your energy peaks. Schedule tasks that require a lot of focus during that window and tasks that don’t require much attention during low-energy times.
Adults have to make decisions all day long, which can easily drain your cognitive energy and lead to decision-fatigue when you have ADHD. Having a chronic illness and ADHD can affect the amount of cognitive energy you’re starting with, leaving you even more susceptible to decision fatigue. Making decisions in advance can help you avoid this.
Try these tactics to help you avoid decision fatigue:
Plan your outfits in advance so you know what you’ll wear every morning.
Cook ahead and freeze your leftovers so you can easily pull out a meal when you can’t decide what you want for dinner.
Create 1-2 phrases you can use in response to requests that delay the need to make a decision in the moment. Statements like “Let me think about that” or “I’m not sure, but I’ll get back to you” are great to use.
Simplify Your Systems
People with ADHD benefit significantly from organizational systems. And, it’s easy to get lost in the organization and make them more complicated than they need to be. The simpler your organizational systems are, the more likely you will be to use them.
Try these tactics to help you simplify your organizational systems:
Color-code your calendar, but use a minimal number of categories (i.e., Personal, Work, Medical).
Use a meal prep service instead of trying to meal plan every week.
Set certain household items to auto-delivery, like coffee, pet food, and paper products.
Get the Right Support
Dixon Life Coaching knows what it’s like to struggle with ADHD and has designed a number of self-guided and live coaching programs for high achievers with ADHD. We’ve also created programs specifically for folks with ADHD and chronic illness. If you’re looking for additional support to help you navigate this intersection, check out our free health cheat sheet or Focused Health ADHD, our live 4-week group coaching program specifically for folks with ADHD and chronic illness). I also highly recommend Live Well ADHD, which is our 6-module hybrid live and online course designed to put you back in control of your limited energy.
The bottom line is that having ADHD can be hard, and having ADHD and a chronic illness can be even harder. You don’t have to struggle all alone or figure it out for yourself. We’re here to help you.
- FREE RESOURCE -
We have a free resource to help people who struggle with ADHD and chronic illness. My Health Cheatsheet is a free guide to help you learn how to organize your health information in a simple and easy-to-use format. We include a step-by-step workbook that takes you through the process of building a health notebook, teaches you how to use it, and helps you build a plan for updating it.
Click here to sign up to get your free copy of My Health Cheatsheet.
About the Author
Emily Whelden, JD is an attorney-turned-coach and a Team Coach for Dixon Life Coaching. She specializes in coaching lawyers and legal professionals navigating ADHD and provides support for individuals managing ADHD alongside chronic illness. As a former attorney who also has multiple chronic health issues, she understands how difficult it can be to manage life while dealing with ADHD. Read more about Emily.