One: Poor Emotional Regulation
ADHDers are no strangers to the spiral. My good friend, the spiral, comes to visit at the slightest hint of a negative emotion or situation and quickly plummets into an intense (usually internal) reaction. Down this spiral, everything is black and white. I didn’t just buy the wrong almond milk at the store again, I’m the most careless person on the planet. I didn’t just miss a detail in instructions, I’m stupid. I didn’t just make a mistake, I’m the worst friend/wife/family member anyone could ever have. I’m not just feeling upset, I want to die. The spiral, once I’m sucked into it, is very hard to bounce back from. It’s not fun knowing rationally something really isn’t a huge deal, but still feeling so emotionally out of control about it.
Two: Working Memory
Even having mentioned the spiral, I think for me the most frustrating part of ADHD is my poor working memory. From minor inconveniences like walking into a room or picking up my phone and not remember why I did a majority of the time to potentially costly or embarrassing ones like locking myself out of my car or work, losing important items, having a hard time keeping up in learning/playing complicated board games, or completing forgetting commitments I’ve made, working memory is at play. Yes, there are external systems and hacks to help make up for the deficit, but not entirely–and it would be so much more efficient to just be able to remember!
Overwhelm, for me, typically comes from one of two places: noticing everything or not being able to break down something I need/want to do. For example, sensory overload happens when my brain isn’t filtering out irrelevant environmental inputs, like a background noise or the way my shirt feels. Little things like this can add up and leave me feeling depleted by the end of the week. Whenever I’ve been in an overstimulating environment, like a loud restaurant or in my classroom when one of my toddler had a rough day, my brain can become fried and overwhelmed very quickly. There’s just too much going on. This can go for emotional things as well–picking up on other people’s emotions from the cashier at Walmart to a parent of one of my students at drop-off to the character in the TV show I watched to my husband when I get home can be exhausting.
And then there’s not being able to break something down, like a task or change in schedule My thoughts are moving in a thousand different directions and can’t seem to work together to decide what steps will be required, where to start, or how to get it done. This leads to the thing appearing insurmountable and overwhelming. When it comes to a change in schedule, my brain flips out–a predictable schedule gives me a sense of control. Whenever it is changed by someone who is not me, my brain has to recalibrate which is an overwhelming task because, if you will recall, my thoughts are moving a thousand different directions (and my schedule had been the one thing standing still!). Tears are not uncommon whenever this happens.
I will say, before wrapping this thing up, I’ve built on my own and with the help of my ADHD coach many strategies and systems to cope with and work around the hard parts of ADHD. In addition, medication has helped tremendously with my emotional regulation and feelings of overwhelm. My spirals are less frequent and nowhere near as deep; I can pull myself out more easily. And, because I am more in control my thoughts (which happen to be moving at a more reasonable pace now) I am better able to process information and tackle projects. I am thrilled with my decision to trying medication this summer.
With or without medication, the good and the bad, my brain is what it is. Creative and scattered. Empathetic and overly sensitive. Observant and forgetful. Resilient and fragile. I love myself. I’m grateful for all the things my brain can do despite of and thanks to my ADHD. It is what is and I will continue to find gratitude even if no one is wearing a cape. I hope you can too.
Alissa writes regularly about her journey through life with ADHD and anxiety.