What Is ADHD Paralysis? Signs, Symptoms, and Management

Medically reviewed by: Shane Trujillo, EdM
Wednesday, May 3 2023

Picture this: You have a big presentation that you need to complete by Friday. It’s incredibly important for you to do well on this presentation. Unfortunately, you can’t find the motivation or brain power to sit down and get started on the presentation. You know it’s important, but the pressure is so overwhelming that you simply avoid the work altogether. 

If this sounds familiar, and you are someone living with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), you may be experiencing “ADHD paralysis.” 

Here, you will learn about what ADHD paralysis is, why it happens, its symptoms, and how to manage it so you can start checking tasks off of your to-do list. 

What is ADHD paralysis? 

ADHD paralysis is a symptom of ADHD that leads a person to feel so overwhelmed by the situation, tasks, or decisions that their brain “freezes,” limiting their cognitive functioning. This can lead a person to struggle with focus, problem-solving, motivation, and task completion. Someone experiencing ADHD paralysis may find it challenging to start or complete even the most important tasks, which may impact their performance in academic and professional settings.  

ADHD paralysis can manifest differently based on the stressors that the person experiencing it is faced with. There are three main types of ADHD paralysis. Here are brief explanations for each type: 

Mental paralysis 

This occurs when the person experiencing ADHD paralysis is so overwhelmed by racing thoughts, emotions, or information that they experience sensory overload. Sensory overload can make it challenging to move, speak, or express your thoughts. Essentially, your brain gets so overstimulated that it shuts down, making the completion of tasks more difficult. 

Task paralysis 

This makes it particularly difficult to find the motivation to start or finish a task. Those experiencing task paralysis may feel that the amount of attention and brain power needed to complete a task is so overwhelming that they avoid the task altogether. This could lead to ‘zoning out’ or dissociating for several minutes at a time, or even engaging in other activities so you don’t have to complete the task at hand. 

Choice paralysis 

Also known as analysis paralysis, choice paralysis is the inability to make a decision when faced with several options or the decision appears too significant. 

When too many decisions are presented to the person experiencing ADHD paralysis, they may overthink or overanalyze the situation, making them so overwhelmed that they’re incapable of making a decision. 

Why does ADHD paralysis happen?

Due to an imbalance of dopamine levels (the hormone associated with pleasure and motivation)  in the brains of those with ADHD, finding the motivation to complete tasks, especially important tasks, can be much more difficult. 

For those who do not experience ADHD, their stable dopamine levels often allow them to find enough motivation to complete boring or unpleasant tasks because they can focus on the positive feelings they will experience once the task is completed. For those who are living with ADHD, their brain isn’t producing enough dopamine to find future rewards enough of a reason to be motivated. 

What are the symptoms of ADHD paralysis? 

While symptoms may vary from person to person as well as by differing types of ADHD paralysis, there are several consistencies in those experiencing it. Here are some symptoms to look out for if you suspect your or a loved one may be struggling with ADHD paralysis:  

  • Overthinking or overanalyzing a problem
  • Inability to start even the most important of tasks 
  • Loss of focus or feeling your mind go “blank” 
  • Poor time management  
  • Jumping from task to task 
  • Avoiding tasks that require a significant amount of focus
  • Rapidly changing emotions 

5 tips for overcoming ADHD paralysis

Overcoming ADHD paralysis can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is possible. Here are five tips for managing ADHD paralysis in your daily life so you can get back on track to reaching your goals:

1. Write out a (realistic) to-do list 

When you’re prone to forgetfulness, keeping track of all of your responsibilities can feel unreasonable, but you don’t have to rely on memory. 

Writing out a to-do list will not only help you keep track of tasks, but it will also leave you feeling more accomplished and satisfied with your progress each time you check one off. It can also help to make your tasks more realistic and manageable by breaking them down. 

2. Break down tasks  

When experiencing ADHD paralysis, seeing a major task like writing a research paper on your to-do list may feel daunting. Instead, try breaking a major task into smaller, more manageable tasks. You may find it takes some of the pressure off. 

For example, instead of putting “write my research paper” on your to-do list, try breaking it into several tasks, such as:

  • Find sources
  • Write the outline
  • Write the introduction 
  • Write the first page 

Breaking up tasks will also allow you to take more frequent breaks and add in rewards for your hard work. 

3. Make it fun 

Whether you make a game out of your to-do list or schedule rewards for yourself once you finish a task, adding a little fun to mundane tasks can take some of the pressure off of the situation. It may even help to turn some of the dread you may be feeling into excitement. 

4. Throw perfection out the window 

Striving for perfection can often increase the effects of ADHD paralysis. The need to do a task perfectly can lead to unnecessary pressure and stress that may be preventing you from attempting the task at all. Instead, it’s better to just focus on completing the task. You might find that many of your tasks don’t need to be done perfectly, they just need to be done. 

5. Find support  

You don’t have to manage symptoms of ADHD paralysis alone. Getting support with talk therapy will offer you space to discuss your experience with ADHD paralysis and learn new tools to manage its effects. 

SonderMind can connect you with a licensed mental health professional who understands your unique needs and works with you to manage your everyday tasks so you can reach your goals.

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