When preteens, teens, and young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) become so overstimulated with information that they can’t start or complete a task, they’re experiencing ADHD paralysis. This task paralysis can affect multiple areas of their lives and be seen as laziness by those who don’t know what they’re going through.
To understand what ADHD paralysis really is, its signs and symptoms, the impact it has on young people, and how to help them overcome it, we spoke with Lauren Disner, licensed marriage and family therapist and a clinical director at New Haven, an Embark Behavioral Health residential treatment center.
Table of contents
- What Is ADHD Paralysis?
- Signs and Symptoms of ADHD Paralysis in Young People
- Types of ADHD Paralysis
- What Causes ADHD Paralysis?
- How Does ADHD Paralysis Affect Young People?
- How To Help Young People Overcome ADHD Paralysis
- 1. Show them how to prioritize and break up tasks
- 2. Teach them to write thoughts and/or tasks down
- 3. Create time for healthy interests and rewards
- 4. Help them schedule their day
- 5. Teach them to be imperfectionists
- 6. Encourage exercise
- 7. Help them eat nutritious foods
- 8. Explore therapists and treatment options
- ADHD Paralysis: Moving Forward
What Is ADHD Paralysis?
As mentioned above, ADHD paralysis — also known as ADHD freeze or ADHD shutdown — occurs when people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder become overwhelmed by their environment or the information they receive. This triggers feelings of anxiety and apprehension, making it difficult to start a task, maintain focus, or prioritize key steps. Instead, these individuals freeze or distract themselves with other activities that make them feel better.
“The internal process is, ‘I can’t figure out where to start because there’s a bunch of different pieces to this process, and which one am I supposed to pick first?’” Disner said. “They may think, ‘My gosh, this is so overwhelming. I’m going to screw this up no matter what. Maybe I won’t start.’”
How executive dysfunction relates to paralysis
It’s important to note the tie between ADHD freeze and executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to our ability to focus, prioritize tasks, and make decisions. These skills begin developing in childhood with learning processes such as cleaning a bedroom or getting ready for the day. They develop over years, enabling us to handle complex tasks as we get older.
When a condition like ADHD slows or affects the development of executive functioning skills, we experience executive dysfunction and have trouble staying organized or remembering instructions. This is not a reflection on intelligence, but it does make it hard to know which steps to take when performing a task. When an individual feels they’ve taken the wrong steps, they can feel overwhelmed, leading to ADHD paralysis.
Signs and Symptoms of ADHD Paralysis in Young People
If you think your preteen, teen, or young adult has ADHD freeze, you can watch for multiple signs and symptoms, ranging from procrastination to distractibility.
Youths and young adults may procrastinate or put off tasks because the feelings of anxiety related to the task are uncomfortable. However, this can lead to increased feelings of guilt or failure, as well as missed deadlines.
Young people may avoid tasks that trigger overwhelming negative feelings entirely. As part of this behavior, known as avoidance, they may skip social events, school assignments, or personal responsibilities at home.
Poor time management
Some youths and young adults don’t manage their time properly. In fact, many with ADHD struggle to accurately perceive and plan for the passage of time, also known as time blindness. When those with poor time management focus too much on minor details, it can keep them from completing or making progress on a task.
Trouble with details, organizing, or finishing tasks
Young people with ADHD who struggle with executive functioning can find it hard to stay organized or keep track of tasks and commitments. This can be reflected in a cluttered workspace or living area.
Trouble with listening
Those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder who are feeling the anxiety and apprehension associated with ADHD paralysis may find it difficult to focus and listen to others.
Being overwhelmed by information may cause youths and young adults with ADHD to second-guess themselves. This fear of making the wrong choice can keep them from making decisions and lead to increased anxiety.
Young people experiencing ADHD paralysis can be easily distracted. According to Disner, they may neglect responsibilities in favor of activities that make them feel good and help them self-soothe, like playing video games. They may have the best of intentions to complete the nonpreferred task but just never get around to it.
Types of ADHD Paralysis
Mental paralysis affects a person’s ability to concentrate and process information. Your child may struggle with complex problems that require flexible thinking and sustained attention. They also may have trouble sharing what they’re thinking. This type of ADHD paralysis may feel like “brain fog” or an overload of thoughts and emotions.
Task paralysis involves problems with starting or finishing tasks. Your preteen, teen, or young adult may feel overwhelmed by the demands of an activity, making it difficult for them to even start it. If they do begin, lack of focus may lead to them abandoning the task.
Decision paralysis creates a sense of overwhelm when an individual is required to make a choice. Faced with a variety of options, each with its own consequences, your child may fear making the wrong decision. This could lead to several ADHD shutdown symptoms, including procrastination, avoidance, and indecisiveness.
Scrolling paralysis involves individuals getting caught up in scrolling through pages of online content, including social media. Even if your preteen, teen, or young adult is not interested in the material, they can feel trapped and unable to look away from their laptop or mobile device. This can lead to a sense of being stuck doing nothing.
What Causes ADHD Paralysis?
According to Disner, ADHD paralysis is caused by prioritization issues coupled with a fear of failure. Youths and young adults can feel a sense of overwhelm when faced with a complex task, while the fear that they’ll “screw up” can keep them from getting started. This same fear may also cause them to abandon tasks before completion.
Additionally, spending time on preferred tasks, which are usually tasks they can do easily or well, creates changes in brain chemistry because dopamine increases when we feel good about what we’re doing. This can create a feedback loop in the central nervous system that keeps them stuck even though they know they should be doing something else.
How Does ADHD Paralysis Affect Young People?
“When the world is set up for neurotypical people, and you don’t feel like you belong because you’re neurodivergent, it’s common for young people to feel like they don’t belong or they’re not understood,” Disner said regarding how people with ADHD who are seen as different than others experience the world around them.
She noted individuals with ADHD can feel very lonely and isolated, leading to:
- School issues or refusal: Experiencing task paralysis can be uncomfortable for students with ADHD. To avoid this negative feeling, they may put off studying, avoid school assignments entirely, or struggle with school refusal, not even wanting to go to class.
- Anxiety: Experiencing ADHD freeze often comes with the feeling that you’ve forgotten something but can’t remember what that something is. This can create a regular sense of anxiety.
- Depression: Preteens, teens, and young adults who feel they’re always doing something wrong because they experience ADHD paralysis may believe there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. This can create feelings of depression. To self-soothe, some may turn to unhealthy habits like drinking alcohol or other forms of substance use.
How To Help Young People Overcome ADHD Paralysis
Knowing how to overcome ADHD freeze is essential to helping youths and young adults address the negative feelings and habits that come with task paralysis. Disner outlined multiple strategies and tools you can use to support your child. A great first step is to provide empathy by acknowledging how your preteen, teen, or young adult is feeling and letting them know you care. Next, you can follow the tips below.
1. Show them how to prioritize and break up tasks
By modeling how to prioritize complex tasks and break them up into individual steps, you show your child how they can counteract the overwhelming feelings that come with ADHD paralysis. For example, you could share how you broke a work project down into multiple steps so that you had small, realistic goals that kept you calm and on track until you finished it.
Additionally, Disner noted that mobile apps designed to break tasks down into steps can help youths and young adults struggling to stay organized. Those apps include Brili, Me+ Daily Routine Planner, and Habit Tracker.
2. Teach them to write thoughts and/or tasks down
Writing tasks down on paper and checking them off as they’re complete can make a project seem less overwhelming. Disner noted that as youths and young adults with ADHD check off each task, they experience a feel-good dopamine hit and sense of accomplishment. This helps their confidence grow as they realize they can accomplish their goals.
3. Create time for healthy interests and rewards
To illustrate the benefit of healthy interests and rewards, Disner pointed out that one reason young adults with ADHD can seemingly focus better when playing video games is that games are designed to reward them with feelings of accomplishment. So, by “biohacking” the brain in a positive way, a person with the disorder can experience the same sense of accomplishment and reward in daily tasks.
For instance, by scheduling time between responsibilities like chores and homework for nutritious snacks or fun activities, your preteen, teen, or young adult receives an incentive to complete tasks. In time, completion itself creates a sense of accomplishment and reward, motivating them to finish the activity.
4. Help them schedule their day
Disner said having an external tool like an app or schedule to guide someone through their day helps reduce the concern of failure. She recalled one woman on TikTok who realized she needed calendar invites to show up for events on time. She made sure to communicate that need to others.
5. Teach them to be imperfectionists
For many with ADHD paralysis, according to Disner, the feeling that they can’t do a task right prevents them from starting it. Rather than react to this hesitation negatively, you can encourage your preteen, teen, or young adult to “keep playing” and go after their goals.
“Let them know it’s OK to start the task and screw up,” Disner said. “Trying things and failing to do them perfectly is how we learn and improve. Also, they’re likely to feel a sense of accomplishment from just trying, even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly.”
6. Encourage exercise
Physical exercise can reduce stress, and research in the Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation journal indicates it can also help improve executive functioning. So, by encouraging participation in sports or other forms of physical activity, you can help your child better manage the stress from ADHD freeze and even prevent task paralysis, as improved executive functioning can help them prioritize activities.
7. Help them eat nutritious foods
According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), a well-balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and proteins benefits body and mind. The association also recommends avoiding sugary foods, unhealthy fats, caffeine, and simple carbohydrates, as they can be associated with ADHD symptoms and other health conditions.
By preparing meals that align with ADDA guidelines, you can help your preteen, teen, or young adult better manage ADHD paralysis.
8. Explore therapists and treatment options
If ADHD freeze is causing emotional difficulties for your child, finding a therapist who treats ADHD can be beneficial. The therapist can offer useful strategies for how to manage symptoms and overcome ADHD paralysis.
Disner said working with an executive functioning coach can also be helpful. This type of coach teaches clients how to organize, prioritize, and maintain focus on tasks. As executive functioning is a learned ability, receiving guidance in this area can help your child gain critical skills.
ADHD Paralysis: Moving Forward
Knowing why preteens, teens, and young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder struggle with managing tasks allows you to help your child overcome ADHD freeze. By understanding it’s not laziness but overstimulation that keeps them from completing activities, you can better provide practical assistance in addition to emotional support.
“I think when we’re able to understand that people with ADHD just have brains that work differently, we can talk openly about what works and what doesn’t,” said Disner, who encouraged parents to get to know other people who have the disorder and discover how they manage their ADHD paralysis. “There are so many different tools available to people trying to develop executive functioning skills or supplement executive functioning deficits.”
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!