ADHD and Stress

Stress is a difficult and emotional sense of state that is only heightened for those with ADHD. General life stressors can be made so much worse when you have ADHD as you struggle to find coping mechanisms and find the motivation to get around the problem, never mind a global pandemic that’s going on around us right now.

ADHD symptoms can be heightened when dealing with stress, which in turn makes dealing with the stressful situation more difficult because you are now fighting a battle with your ADHD too. Symptoms such as lack of sleep or an irregular sleeping pattern, lack of focus and concentration, and procrastination become more frequent when dealing with stress, but it’s totally normal too.

What Is Stress?

Brown desk with open book and open laptop with words 'Deadline due: tomorrow' on laptop screen.

Stress is the body’s response to feeling under pressure or threatened, which is known as the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response, which allows the body to react as needed, such as slamming on the car breaks to stop an accident. This response can be incredibly useful when dealing with deadlines, but when stress becomes a constant, it becomes ‘chronic stress’.

Chronic stress is when the body has not left the fight-flight-freeze mode, which means that all responses that are used when dealing with sudden stress are left with you in your daily life. Chronic stress can cause a whole host of problems, including lack of appetite, lack of sleep, and high heart rate. We experience these symptoms because sleep and hunger are not things that your body is concerned about when it perceives danger, as escaping that danger is much more important than getting sleep or food.

Symptoms of chronic stress can include:

  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and tension (clenching your jaw anyone?)
  • Stomach aches and indigestion problems
  • Chest pain or faster heart beat
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation
  • Problems with decision making
  • Being forgetful
  • Being snappy and agitated
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Eating too much or too little

How Does Stress Affect ADHD?

ADHD and stress is a confusing relationship. We often find we’re incredibly useful in sudden high-stress situations, I’ve had my friend set the toaster on fire, and whilst she was panicking and not knowing what to do I just calmly dealt with the situation and stuck the toaster outside. Or you have two days before your deadline and you have three months of work to do in two days and you somehow complete it. But when it comes to long term stress such as jobs, long term school work, or a global pandemic, we start to suffer.

Those who suffer from ADHD are much more likely to deal with stressful situations such as school failure, financial problems, and maintaining relationships, which means we are also much more likely to deal with chronic stress over our lifetime.

Chronic stress is known to cause a lack of motivation and focus, restlessness, and anxiety, which are already symptoms of ADHD, so when chronic stress is combined with ADHD, our symptoms become much more difficult to handle. This can create a vicious cycle of not finding the motivation to fix the problem, creating more stress as you’re not dealing with the problem, and the cycle continues.

This cycle can be torturous, I dealt with extreme stress trying to complete the final year of my degree in the middle of a pandemic where I lost all sense of routine and normality after being kicked out on a days notice, coupled by the fact we had our three week Easter break which meant I had no contact with my support tutor, I just couldn’t cope. I cried at just the thought of my work, never mind trying to complete some. I felt so incredibly helpless, and I genuinely would not wish that nightmare upon anyone.

How To Deal With Stress

Month of September calendar hanging on light yellow wall

So we know why ADHD can make stress so much more difficult to deal with, but there are some things that you can do to help combat it.

1. Plan your time

Time management is not our strong suit, but planning out your time can be incredibly helpful in managing your stress. Create a timetable for the week to give an overview of what you need to do and any deadlines you have coming up.

An important thing when time planning is overestimating how much you can actually complete in a week. Think about fluctuations in your motivation and focus so you can allow yourself a bit of leeway should you need it.

If possible, get a friend or family member who knows you well to see if what you’re putting down is achievable. I never realised how much I was overstuffing my planner that I would end up anxious and frustrated that I didn’t get what I set out to do.

There are two simple timetables available to download in the Resources section at the bottom of the page. I prefer to print them out and write by hand, but you can edit them digitally too!

2. Take a break (a real one!)

I often find that when I’m stressed I will spend a lot of time stressing but not a lot of doing. If I find myself in this mindset I try and give myself a proper break, whether it’s taking a bath, going for some exercise, or just taking a nap.

Taking breaks can also increase motivation and productivity, as well as increasing the amount of ‘aha’ moments, meaning when you come back you have a fresh mind to tackle your problem.

Never feel guilty about taking a break. If you’re feeling out of focus and have lost your productivity there’s no point wasting more time in that state of mind, your time will be much better spent if you have just a half an hour break.

3. Do some exercise

Similar to taking a break, setting aside time for exercise in your weekly planner can help reduce the feeling of stress. Exercise releases endorphins, the body’s ‘feel good’ chemical, which means that after a good workout you feel much better for the activity.

Exercise is also great for helping you sleep, especially if you struggle from sleeping due to medication. I used to swim from 9-10pm most weekdays and I’d come home shattered and ready for bed, and I’d wake up much more refreshed too.

Again, don’t feel bad about doing 30-60 minutes of exercise, it is time well spent.

4. Get some sleep

I mentioned previously that chronic stress can lead to a lack of sleep, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore your body’s signs. If you find you struggle to fall asleep try some rigorous exercise (swimming is my favourite!), or if racing thoughts are an issue listen to an audiobook or podcast when going to sleep. I find when listening to an audiobook, I’m able to stop myself from worrying and creating horrible scenarios in my head (I’m currently listening to Harry Potter on Audible!).

If possible, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (it’s not easy, trust me!). Having a consistent routine allows your body to know when sleep is coming so it can prepare itself by releasing melatonin, meaning falling asleep is much easier.

Resources

NHS – Stress

Mind

Timetables

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