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What Is ADHD Paralysis and How Can You Cope With It?

Written by Sarah Norman

Review by Alina Ivan

Tagged in

  • adhd


Jun 8, 2023, 8 min read

For anyone with ADHD the term ‘ADHD paralysis’ may be all too familiar, but if you have just been diagnosed, suspect you may have ADHD, or know someone who might, you may never have come across it before.

At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about ADHD and its symptoms, we’re here to help.

Here, we’re looking at ADHD paralysis; what it is, why it happens, how to identify it, and more…

What is ADHD and what are the symptoms?

ADHD is also known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is a type of neurodivergence. There is a difference in how the brain is hard-wired in those with ADHD when compared to neurotypical individuals, and ADHD can cause a number of symptoms.

In adults, the main symptoms of ADHD include things like trouble focusing for a long time, impulsivity, and inattentiveness. This may interfere with learning, studying, working and other tasks they need to get done throughout the day. Organising things, remembering things, following through on instructions, and managing time can all be issues for people with ADHD.

In the case of children with ADHD, they may struggle to play quietly, take simple instructions without getting distracted, or they may struggle with hyperactivity. ADHD can present differently in girls than in boys, as girls are often less hyperactive and show more inattentive features of ADHD.

What is ADHD and ADHD paralysis?

What is ADHD paralysis?

ADHD paralysis is a symptom of ADHD where someone will become so overwhelmed with everything they need to do that they struggle to take action on anything at all.

It may seem on the outside that they are doing nothing, but inside they may be feeling like they cannot move or even explain what is wrong — they are overcome with stress and overthinking everything they need to do. They may not even have a lot on their to-do list for the day, but having multiple tasks can overwhelm them. Getting started on the tasks at hand can feel impossible, so ADHD paralysis leads to them doing nothing at all.

Is ADHD paralysis a real thing, or just procrastination?

Depending on your career and the people you surround yourself with, there may be expectations for you to be productive every day. For those with ADHD who struggle with motivation and prioritisation, this can be a lot of pressure.

ADHD paralysis is more than procrastination or laziness; it can be incredibly stressful for the person experiencing it, and may make them feel like they are trapped inside their own mind.

Why does ADHD paralysis happen?

ADHD paralysis tends to happen when someone with ADHD experiences a kind of “brain freeze” which is generally caused by altered executive function around planning and executing tasks - in short, it’s easier for those with ADHD to get overwhelmed and stressed, which results in a paralysis such as avoiding, ignoring, or procrastinating over things.

Stuck in ADHD paralysis

Studies using brain imaging have shown that the transmission of neurotransmitter dopamine is different in people with ADHD and could affect the motivation to pursue certain tasks. It might make it difficult to pursue tasks that are not seen as intrinsically rewarding (including those considered boring, repetitive and uninteresting) and lead to preferring or wanting to prioritise high reward activities, making it difficult to prioritise and pursue tasks. In many cases, this can lead to postponing tasks until the last minute.

When this feeling occurs, it can be difficult to focus on any task at all, and you may end up doing nothing.

Most of us rely on some sort of intrinsic motivation to achieve things in daily life, whether this comes from an internal desire to reach a goal, or an external reward or pressure. People with ADHD have motivation, but they may struggle to access it at times. They are more likely to focus on an activity that matches their personal interests or excites them; this is not a “lack of willpower” as is so often assumed, but a very real challenge with cognitive functions “moving” in order to undertake tasks. The relationship between emotion and thinking (including memory) is not new, but it has not yet been studied extensively in relation to the specific challenges of ADHD.

What are the signs of ADHD paralysis?

As with other symptoms of ADHD, ADHD paralysis can look different for everyone. However, some of the main signs include:

  • Avoiding starting tasks
  • Avoiding making important decisions
  • Being unsure of where and how to begin a task
  • Overthinking tasks so much that you fail to get going
  • Experiencing a mental block or blank mind when you attempt to begin
  • Wanting to start a particular task but feeling like your body is unable to take action

Another sign of ADHD paralysis could be if your loved ones become frustrated that you seem to be able to take action on certain tasks but not others.

Why does ADHD paralysis happen?

“My mom would get mad at me in high school for forgetting things or tuning out during a conversation (having “my head in the clouds,” as she’d say). An ex-girlfriend criticised me for starting creative projects but abandoning them when I hit a hurdle or lost interest… It wasn’t that I didn’t want to finish things; I just couldn’t. Without understanding the underlying reasons for this, though, I couldn’t do anything to change it.” - Austin Harvey, writer with ADHD, via Medium

How do I know if it’s ADHD paralysis or lack of motivation from depression?

There is a comorbidity between ADHD and depression, so if you are experiencing feelings of low motivation, this can be a result of either ADHD or depression. You can usually tell the difference by identifying the task you have in mind.

ADHD paralysis vs depression

In the case of depression, lack of motivation tends to feel less specific to a particular task, and more consistent with life as a whole. Depression also tends to bring about feelings of hopelessness and a pessimistic view of the situation ever getting better. Alternatively, ADHD paralysis typically feels like a lack of motivation that is limited to certain tasks.

While it is possible to distinguish what is at the root of your lack of motivation, it is also possible a combination of ADHD paralysis and depression is to blame.

How can someone overcome ADHD paralysis in the moment?

It is important to note that advice and support for those with ADHD should be bespoke and individualised, so what works for one person may not work for another. It is best to speak to a health professional who can listen to your unique experience and symptoms, and recommend the best ways for you to overcome things like ADHD paralysis when they arise.

That said, there are a few general procrastination-busting tools that may help in the moment:

  • Make a list: When you feel you have too much in your brain, it may be useful to write out a list of all the tasks on your mind so they are all in one place. You may find it easier to focus on one at a time then move to the next task on the list, plus ticking them off when finished can be a small boost in motivation.
  • Set a timer: Though simple, this can be a game-changer if you need a little external pressure by adding a false deadline. You can use your phone (or a pre-set online timer if your phone tends to be distracting), and decide how long you would like to work for before taking a break.
  • Celebrate small wins: Every time you tick off something from your list, it can help to treat yourself to a small reward to celebrate your productivity. This will act as its own motivation boost as you move to the next task.  
ADHD paralysis tips

Is it something you just have to live with?

If ADHD paralysis is causing you a lot of stress and guilt for not completing tasks, there are things you can do to help alleviate those feelings going forward, and slowly get better at taking action on tasks. You may live with the feeling of having too much to do and not wanting to start any of it, but you can overcome those feelings in order to finally take action.

It is also worth mentioning that ADHD paralysis is not a physical condition that someone lives with. There is a lot of misinformation online about ADHD; one study looking at ADHD misinformation on the social media platform TikTok cited an information video on the topic of ADHD paralysis describing it as their brain “physically won’t let [them] do anything”. While it may feel this way to the person, physiologically this is untrue. It’s important to understand you are not physically paralysed, but experiencing the feeling of an inability to take action.

Again, the long-term support required for those with ADHD is individual to each person, so it’s always best to speak to a professional or therapist who can help you with the best ways to avoid ADHD paralysis. A few ways you can set yourself up for success in future include:

  • Set achievable goals: By avoiding lofty, hard-to-achieve goals and focusing on more manageable ones, you may feel more motivated to continue. Big tasks may seem harder to start, while small tasks can be achieved in less time and elicit less anxiety.
  • Work at your best time: Whatever task you are struggling to start, it can be helpful to identify the time of day that works best for you. If you are studying for an exam, for example, you may decide to do this first thing in the morning if this is when you feel most alert and energised throughout the day.
  • Remove any barriers: With ADHD paralysis, it is often the first hurdle that causes issues. By removing barriers before you begin, you could make it easier to flow through the task without interruptions. This might mean finding a quiet work environment, putting your phone in a drawer for the day, activating website blockers, or making sure you have all the tools you need for the task before you start.

What support can someone get for ADHD paralysis?

If you experience ADHD paralysis, you can try to work through it on your own, or reach out to a professional to help — you don’t need to tackle it alone if you don’t want to. Speaking to family and friends about your feelings can help, but we always recommend finding a qualified therapist with experience in the exact area of mental health you require, such as an ADHD specialist.

Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private ADHD assessment or review, to broader mental health care: join us today.

Our free 15 minute consultation will take into account your history with ADHD and individual symptoms. They will then guide you to the most relevant specialist to answer any questions on ADHD paralysis and help you work through it with personalised support.

Not sure where to start?

We offer a free 15 minute consultation so that we can guide you to the most relevant professionals