ADHD paralysis: How to identify signs and mitigate symptoms

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects focus, concentration, and memory, and often causes hyperactive or impulsive behavior. People with ADHD can find tasks like complex projects or deciding between too many choices overwhelming, and often get distracted or find themselves avoiding tasks altogether when faced with stress. 

This feeling of overwhelm is often referred to as ADHD paralysis. This occurs when someone with ADHD is unable to start or finish tasks or make decisions while stressed.

What Is ADHD Paralysis?

ADHD paralysis is seen when someone with ADHD has a very difficult time focusing, thinking properly, or executing tasks. It usually occurs when the subject is under stress or feeling overwhelmed, making their brain “freeze” in a certain sense and limiting their executive functioning. This state can affect professional productivity as well as one’s personal life. 

Is ADHD Paralysis Real?

Yes—ADHD paralysis is very real. Many people see people with ADHD struggling with ADHD paralysis and assume they’re “lazy,” or simply don’t understand why they can’t just get things done. It can be fed by the fact that people with ADHD won’t usually have trouble doing activities that they enjoy, but instead only struggle with doing things they don’t like. However, there’s a reason for this.

Stress or pressure, even caused by something as small as making a call that you don’t want to make, can seriously affect a person’s ability to focus or complete tasks when they have ADHD. ADHD paralysis occurs because ADHD brains have impaired executive function, and therefore respond to stress differently than neurotypical brains do.

Executive function encompasses the brain’s ability to concentrate, exert effort, regulate emotion, stay alert, organize thoughts and tasks, and self-motivate. When someone has ADHD, these functions are inhibited, meaning that they have trouble controlling these factors.  

Another reason for ADHD paralysis is that people with ADHD tend to lack dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that helps motivate the brain. Dopamine rewards you with good feelings and plays a role in regulating motivation, attention, and memory. Without regular levels of dopamine, it’s harder for people with ADHD to get a “push” from their brain to get going or pay attention. 

This doesn’t mean that people with ADHD are incapable of motivating themselves or getting things done, but it does mean that they have to jump through a few more hoops to get there. With ADHD paralysis, this process gets impeded even more. 

ADHD paralysis makes tasks that sound unappealing feel daunting and intimidating, causing you to feel overwhelmed and freeze or shut down. The reaction can snowball as the task or choice is avoided and guilt starts to accompany these feelings of dread and unease.

ADHD Paralysis Symptoms

ADHD paralysis can function differently in everyone, but there are a number of common patterns and symptoms.

If you have ADHD plus a number of these symptoms, you might be experiencing ADHD paralysis:

  • Irritability
  • Distractibility
  • Time blindness, or not noticing the passage of time
  • Brain fog, inability to concentrate
  • Exhaustion 
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Social isolation
  • Managing time poorly
  • Brain pauses or “freezes” caused by executive dysfunction
  • Mood instability, rapidly changing emotions

Though these symptoms might seem like things normal people experience from time to time, people with ADHD experience multiple at a time, and on a very regular basis. What might come off as someone being emotional or disorganized might actually be a sign that they are overwhelmed and are struggling to regulate all the conflicting emotions they’re feeling.

What Types of ADHD Paralysis Are There?

Essentially, there are three different kinds of ADHD paralysis. Your paralysis symptoms can affect your executive function differently depending on the stressors you’re experiencing. Here are the three types of ADHD paralysis:

  1. Mental paralysis can affect your ability to quiet your mind, resulting in a “shut down” due to overstimulation. This can also result in brain fog, making it hard to discern what you want and how you feel.
  2. Task paralysis makes it difficult to start or finish tasks. It might feel like the brain power needed to do the task is making it feel more overwhelming than it is, causing you to abandon it. This might look like spending minutes or hours zoning out or finding other unnecessary tasks or activities to do to avoid the task at hand.
  3. Choice paralysis has to do with decision making, specifically the inability to do so. Also known as analysis paralysis, choice paralysis happens when you can’t stop overthinking a decision, either because there are too many options or because there is too much stress associated with the decision.

However, just because there are certain types of paralysis does not mean that you can only suffer from one. Someone with ADHD might experience a number of these feelings throughout their lifetime.

Is Decision Paralysis a Symptom of ADHD?

Yes, choice paralysis can be a common indicator of ADHD if it occurs often and acutely enough. Having trouble making a hard choice is one thing, but analysis paralysis as it relates to ADHD can be debilitating and uncontrollable if you don’t have the coping strategies to tackle it.

Why Do I Have Task Paralysis?

Task paralysis can arise due to a number of stressors that are unique to you and your circumstances. It might be that the task at hand has too many steps, or maybe the topic is something that will take a lot of time to dissect.

Since it can’t be attributed to a specific cause, avoiding task paralysis requires a thorough understanding of your own triggers and stressors. ADHD paralysis can cause even mundane tasks to feel overwhelming, so it’s good to take steps to break yourself out of a paralysis cycle or prevent one altogether.

Is Paralysis a Symptom of Anxiety?

Yes, anxiety can cause a similar paralysis to ADHD paralysis that makes it difficult for someone to think or act. Usually, this is because the anxiety is so strong that it leaves you unable to function, inhibiting your daily life. Though these symptoms are similar, one does not equal the other, and they should not be treated the same. 

If you have severe paralysis symptoms like these, talk to a doctor right away to determine what’s causing them. Finding the cause is the best way to get effective treatment.

ADHD Paralysis vs. Procrastination

Though they can look similar, ADHD paralysis is very different from procrastination. The most basic difference is that procrastination is a voluntary decision to delay or put off responsibilities until you no longer can, while ADHD paralysis is not voluntary. 

ADHD can make it difficult for someone to concentrate for long periods of time, like a normal eight-hour work day. They can get overloaded if stuck with too many tasks at once or if they feel behind, and can start to feel frustrated very quickly. 

This frustration can lead to distraction or even full shut-down. These reactions are something people with ADHD don’t have control over. They can use tactics to try and avoid stressors or help themselves redirect, but in the end, the behaviors are not their choice, but rather a compulsory reaction to stress.

Procrastination also involves the avoidance of tasks and, often, shutting down productivity, but can affect anyone. Because procrastination and paralysis look so similar from the outside, people with ADHD or experiencing paralysis can be seen as lazy or careless, which is not the case. Especially in rigid, in-person work environments, people with ADHD can struggle with controlling their stressors and chafe against the inflexibility of their environment.

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ADHD Paralysis in Adults

ADHD paralysis can greatly impact someone’s ability to function, hindering their motivation and problem-solving skills, a state also known as executive dysfunction. Small responsibilities like washing dishes, cleaning rooms, making appointments, or anything requiring prolonged concentration often feel unappealing to people with ADHD, to the point where they get avoided in favor of other tasks or activities. 

Due to having impaired executive function, people with ADHD can become overwhelmed more easily than those without it, and can experience “overwhelm freeze.” Feeling overwhelmed can be perceived as a certain kind of threat, even if it’s just to your mental well-being, causing a freeze reaction much like others might respond with “flight” or “fight.” This might look like avoidance, ignoring responsibilities, or procrastination.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific mental capacities that ADHD paralysis can inhibit:

  • Working memory, which is one’s ability to remember and process important facts and information (such as a name or an address), can be affected. It plays an integral part in problem-solving, thinking logically and critically, and decision-making. When this process is impeded, it can cause issues with ordering and accomplishing tasks.
  • Inhibitory control, or a regulatory function that works to prevent impulsive behavior, can also be affected, causing a variety of issues. It can make it harder for people with ADHD to suppress impulses, keep out distractions, and resist procrastination, since they aren’t able to regulate their reactions to them.
  • Cognitive flexibility is also commonly impacted. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adjust thoughts or behaviors based on new and changing information. Being cognitively inflexible makes one unable to alter their thought processes or mode of action when their environment requires a change of plan. 

ADHD paralysis will likely inhibit a person’s function in one or more of these ways. The stress, dread, and anxiety they feel will overwhelm them by affecting these faculties, rendering them stuck. From the outside, their tension might be hard to understand when the tasks seem doable, but on the inside, redirecting from those feelings and continuing to be productive is next to impossible.

How Do You Break Out of ADHD Paralysis?

ADHD paralysis treatment won’t look the same for everyone. ADHD paralysis isn’t a diagnosable condition, but there are many methods you can use to get out of a paralysis rut. 

Here’s a list of 15 practices you can use to break out of ADHD paralysis:

1. Put responsibilities in writing.

Keeping track of your responsibilities is hard, especially when you’re prone to forgetfulness. That’s why writing everything down can be a great way to relieve stress. Keeping a calendar or even just putting plans on sticky-notes can help you stay on top of things in a stress-free way. However, it can still be easy to forget to write them in the beginning, so it’s important to make it a habit. The more you put it into practice, the more natural it will be to do it. 

2. Break down tasks.

Splitting tasks up into smaller chunks allows you to take more frequent breaks, which can help reduce the amount of monotony in your day and make big projects seem less daunting.

Starting your day with smaller tasks can also give you a feeling of accomplishment and the energy to tackle bigger tasks as your day goes on. Small tasks allow you to start and complete something quickly, and feel good about accomplishing something.

3. Designate project time.

It’s important to designate time windows to projects, and make sure you only work on one task during that time. When you have too much to do, it might feel like you should be doing everything you can in the moment, but multitasking is easily distracting and can also be overwhelming. For people with ADHD, especially when experiencing paralysis, it’s best to allot your time for one project for a short period, take a break, and come back to it.

This will also make starting your task easier; starting something that will take you 10-15 minutes is much less daunting than trying to complete an hours-long project in one sitting. 

4. Tap into the powers of music.

Making an upbeat playlist of music you enjoy can be helpful for breaking out of paralysis. Music can boost dopamine levels, and also might inspire you to move around a bit, which is also a good tactic.

5. Don’t set out for perfection.

Since people with ADHD often have a hard time with going back over things and revising, it’s tempting to try and do it right the first time. However, that puts a lot of pressure on yourself and the assignment at hand, and can feed into the feelings of dread and stress surrounding it.

People with ADHD can tend to give themselves too much work, and later are stuck between getting it done on time and doing it well. This can also make you favor trying to do it well on the first try. In reality, taking away the need for perfection causes fewer stalls in working and less room for doubt. 

6. Schedule rewards.

ADHD paralysis can come with a lot of guilt, so another good tactic is to make sure to celebrate when you do accomplish goals. Taking time to do something nice for yourself, like getting a sweet treat with lunch or buying something you’ve had your eye on, can be a great motivator to complete tasks in the future. It can also help move thoughts about doing assignments or chores from dread to excitement, potentially making it easier to get started on them in the future.

7. Avoid digital overstimulation.

Just like any other source of stress, sensory overload can contribute to paralysis. Screens are now a huge part of daily life, but sometimes they can be too much for your senses when they consume too much of your day. If possible, try and spend some time away from your screens when you’re feeling agitated, and see if it helps to calm you down and redirect your focus.

8. Create realistic to-do lists.

Having a to-do list full of big projects can be unhelpful and stressful, but having a to-do list of small, doable tasks and crossing them off can be very motivating. It can also help relieve stress for those who struggle to remember to do those small tasks. Writing out your to-dos and crossing them off has a similar good feeling to setting and achieving a goal, and can motivate you to continue the behavior.

9. Take breaks to move around. 

Taking time to move around throughout the day is an excellent way to stimulate your body and mind and shake you out of an emotional funk. As we’ve discussed, taking breaks is vital to helping people with ADHD avoid tension and paralysis. 

Movement is a great activity to work into your breaks. Activities like a short walk or even just moving to another room to meditate can increase dopamine levels, lower stress, and give the brain a sign that we’re breaking out of a freeze state or shut down.

10. Eat snacks. 

Hunger can be distracting, so eating snacks throughout the day when you feel irritable or overwhelmed can provide fuel and a good break. Food can also increase dopamine naturally. Foods like kiwi, cheese, fish, meat, dairy, red bell pepper, almonds, and quinoa each have the ability to boost dopamine.

11. Incorporate novelty into the day. 

Breaking up the monotony of mundane life is another great tactic for getting away from ADHD paralysis. Small things like going to a new coffee shop before work, listening to new music, or reorganizing a space can reinvigorate you and help redirect your energy.

12. Do something that energizes you. 

Find activities that fill you up and give you energy. Incorporating hobbies or new activities into your weekly routine can give you motivation and help you move past the rut of paralysis. ADHD paralysis can be a sign that your brain needs new stimuli and a change of pace, and though giving into that impulse might look counterproductive, listening to them might be exactly what your brain needs.

13. Trust your instincts.

Overthinking is a big part of ADHD paralysis, so avoiding that rut altogether can be beneficial. It’s good to make informed decisions, but if you find that you’re even more stuck after your research, try trusting your gut. As you make more decisions, you’ll be able to better judge when your gut might be right or wrong, but trusting your first instinct will help get the ball rolling at the very least.

14. Talk to a medical professional about managing your symptoms with medication.

Getting diagnosed with ADHD and finding treatments that work for you can also help your paralysis. Medication, whether it be stimulants or non-stimulants, can be especially helpful for controlling symptoms of ADHD, including ADHD paralysis. If you think medication might be the most helpful route, talk to a medical professional about getting a prescription.

15. Find healthy coping mechanisms with help from a therapist.

Talking out your issues with ADHD with a therapist is also an excellent method for helping with ADHD paralysis. Discovering stressors and triggers, as well as understanding which symptoms you experience are important parts of overcoming your paralysis. A therapist can also help you find healthy coping mechanisms so that you can prevent or better manage ADHD and bouts of paralysis.

Try using a number of these tactics and see which style works best for you. If your ADHD paralysis feels debilitating or like it is severely affecting your life, talk to a medical professional about what treatment options would be beneficial.

Living with ADHD paralysis can be guilt-ridden and frustrating, but it’s important to be kind to yourself. Have patience as you learn what solutions work for you, and remember that these methods might take time to achieve the results you want. Fighting with yourself to complete a task is less productive than working with your brain and adapting to its needs. Through that, you’ll be able to find what strategies and tactics work best for you and use them in the future.

Table of contents

What Is ADHD Paralysis?

Is ADHD Paralysis Real?

ADHD Paralysis Symptoms

What Types of ADHD Paralysis Are There?

Is Decision Paralysis a Symptom of ADHD?

ADHD Paralysis vs. Procrastination

ADHD Paralysis in Adults

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Theresa Lupcho, LPC

Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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