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How Burnout Can Feel Like 'Double ADHD'

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Burnout has become a recurring character in my life. Some may say it’s because I still need to work on healthy coping mechanisms and recognizing when I need to slow down, which would be entirely true, but I like to tell myself it’s because I feel good about myself when I feel like I’m being productive or hardworking. For most of my life (and to some extent, even now), I’ve derived my self-worth from my accomplishments and capabilities.

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But the truth is, the more I do that, the more burnt out I get. I’ve noticed when I’m getting burnt out, one of the first things to slip is my ability to manage (also read: mask) my attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This makes sense because for most people with ADHD, being sleep deprived or tired or stressed out or overwhelmed can make ADHD feel worse, and burnout checks off all four of those boxes.

I’m not entirely sure if when I’m burnt out my symptoms of ADHD seem to worsen, or if my capacity to manage those symptoms diminishes, but I presume it’s some combination of both. I also think having ADHD makes me more susceptible to burnout. Basic functioning for someone with ADHD takes a lot of effort and is really hard — to then be productive and efficient and a good employee takes even more effort, more than it would take the average person. I find myself getting burnt out even when other people in similar situations who don’t have ADHD are doing fine. So it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle, where ADHD contributes to feelings of burnout, and then the burnout makes ADHD more prevalent, which only makes me more burnt out, which… you get the idea.

It makes sense ADHD and burnout are intertwined, especially if you think about how people with ADHD, myself included, often leave things to the last minute because they need that pressure to motivate them to do something. That adrenaline rush feels great in the moment because you can finally do the thing you’ve been unable to do for so long, but it’s a quick and easy shortcut to burnout and exhaustion.

Here are some of the key areas of my ADHD I’ve noticed worsen during periods of burnout:

1. Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD).

When I’m burnt out, I’m tired, which means that I don’t have the same energy and capacity to manage my RSD, one of the most difficult parts of my experience with ADHD. Low energy and tiredness diminishes my mood, making me more depressed. My sensitivities are heightened, and my ability to rationalize through those feelings becomes nonexistent because I’m burnt out. I also hermit more because social interaction feels so tiring, so that isolation can make me more prone to experiencing rejection.

2. Focus and attention span.

Work is usually where I feel the most burnt out, and I find it much harder to focus or stay on task when I’m burnt out. It doesn’t help that usually when I’m burnt out it’s probably because work is busy and I need to focus extra hard. I’ll find myself jumping around from task to task, feeling busy, but then never accomplishing anything because I’ve started a million things and completed none. I zone out in meetings more and lose track of what is happening. When I’m burnt out, my (already limited) attention span completely goes out the window and everything is a distraction.

3. Organization.

Sticky notes flying everywhere, emails clogging up my inbox, old dishes laying around, crumpled clothes on the floor, and unanswered text messages are all clear markers I’m burnt out. I’m by no means an organized person, but it’s especially bad when things are overwhelming and I’m tired. It’s almost like the physical disorganization is representative of how overwhelmed and scattered my mind feels.

4. Memory.

On a good day, I have the memory of a goldfish. I forget due dates at work, conversations I had with coworkers or friends, and worst of all, I often forget I’ve made plans with friends. During times of burnout, I constantly find myself double booked or having to apologize to friends for cancelling because I forgot about our plans. I feel bad because it’s purely unintentional, but now my burnout is impacting other people and not just myself. I think that’s the hardest part — recognizing I’m not the only one who faces consequences for the things I have to juggle.

Some of these may not just be my ADHD getting worse, but they are also similar to symptoms of burnout in general. In fact, if you think about symptoms of burnout, they sound very similar to ADHD symptoms I face:

  • A lack of motivation.
  • Exhaustion/sleep deprivation.
  • Feeling useless, like a failure, or depressed.
  • Difficulties with focus/concentration.

So if I’m experiencing all those things on a regular basis with ADHD, and then I start to get burnt out, it’s no wonder the ADHD feels worse, because burnout can look and feel just like ADHD. It’s like double ADHD. The negative impacts of burnout are staggering, so it’s important to try and be as preventative as possible versus reacting when it’s too late.

If you struggle with this, don’t be afraid to take breaks often so you don’t get burnt out, and reach out to friends and family when you start to get overwhelmed. Burnout and ADHD can feel really lonely sometimes, so slowing down and getting help can be the greatest act of self-care.

Getty image by Elena Medvedeva

Originally published: March 10, 2022
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