Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by several symptoms—most notably, attention dysregulation, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Despite the established diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there have been reports that people with ADHD share other common symptoms, one of which is mental paralysis. With that said, this article provides an overview of what mental paralysis means, specifically within the context of having ADHD.
What Is Mental Paralysis?
If you have ever felt overwhelmed by both your racing thoughts and emotions and have been diagnosed with ADHD, then you may have experienced mental paralysis. Mental paralysis is just one of three types of ADHD paralysis, the other two being task paralysis and choice paralysis. This type of ADHD paralysis is so termed because many people with ADHD tend to have a freeze response when faced with several converging thoughts and emotions. This freeze response may look like withdrawing from the external world or giving up, and when this happens, you may feel as though you are so consumed by your thoughts and feelings that you are left unable to move or articulate yourself in that moment [*].
To paint a clearer picture of what mental paralysis feels like, you can think of it as a form of brain fog or brain crash, as if your mind can’t seem to follow a particular train of thought or as if your brain is shutting down [*]. Having ADHD can thus momentarily deactivate your ability to temper your thoughts and feelings, leading to mental paralysis.
Why Is Mental Paralysis Common in Individuals With ADHD?
Although mental paralysis in ADHD is not part of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for this disorder, this is nonetheless a common experience shared by those living with ADHD and sometimes even by individuals with other psychiatric disorders. The connection between ADHD and mental paralysis can be partially explained by the tendency of people with ADHD to ruminate; that is, these individuals may be inclined to dwell on their negative thoughts in a repetitive and even obsessive manner. Thus, in cases of stress or pressure, a person with ADHD can be trapped in a vicious cycle where they think about anything (or everything) that has gone wrong or that could possibly go wrong. This then leads to mental paralysis, a state of being overwhelmed with those obsessive thoughts and the emotions that arise from this rumination.
Typical Signs of Mental Paralysis in Individuals With ADHD
How can you discern whether an individual with ADHD is experiencing mental paralysis in a given situation? If you observe the following characteristics in a person with ADHD, then you can determine that they are suffering from mental paralysis [*]:
- Distractibility: In a state of mental paralysis, an individual with ADHD may be so preoccupied with their thoughts and emotions that they may look like they are not paying attention to a conversation or a task at hand. Common manifestations of distractibility include staring blankly into space or being unable to focus when the situation demands it.
- Time blindness: Time blindness refers to the inability to track time as it passes by—for instance, thinking that 4 hours have gone by when only a few minutes have passed. The rumination associated with mental paralysis can thus make you feel as though you have been busy thinking about something specific for some time now.
- Inability to demonstrate active listening: Mental paralysis in ADHD can lead to difficulty in paying attention to conversations. This may look like an inability to maintain eye contact, restlessness in the form of fidgeting, or the verbalization of thoughts that are seemingly unrelated to the topic being discussed.
- Losing one’s train of thought: People with ADHD may also find it challenging to explain themselves midway through their train of thought. If you have ever caught a person with ADHD interrupting themselves by saying, “Hold on, I’ve lost my train of thought,” then they may be suffering from mental paralysis in that moment.
- Fatigue: Although fatigue is not specific to mental paralysis and ADHD, it can be considered a common experience as well. This can take the form of mental exhaustion, where one is too tired to bring themselves to do anything else. This is due to experiencing a multitude of thoughts and emotions.
- Social isolation: Because ADHD and mental paralysis cause the feeling of being overwhelmed, people experiencing these conditions may socially withdraw from the external world on account of their inability to take in any more stimuli. This can be partially explained by the phenomenon of sensory overload commonly associated with ADHD.
Common Triggers That Can Lead to Mental Paralysis in Individuals With ADHD
Though not an exhaustive list, the following are some triggers that partially explain the phenomenon of mental paralysis in ADHD [*]:
- Executive dysfunction: Executive dysfunction is one of the biological causes of ADHD, which leaves an individual unable to plan well and deal with frustrations. In addition, because of poor planning abilities, individuals with ADHD tend to struggle with staying on task and executing activities associated with the completion of a task, thereby contributing to their mental paralysis.
- Emotion dysregulation: Dealing with negative social interactions and life events that are exacerbated by one’s condition can bring about many emotions. Furthermore, stress can arise from the inability to focus on and complete a task. Thus, people with ADHD tend to experience rapid emotionality and extreme stress, thereby leading to mental paralysis.
- Overstimulation: Also known as sensory overload, overstimulation means that you have exceeded your threshold for sensory input. This can aggravate the executive dysfunction that is linked to having ADHD, worsening the impairment already present in this vulnerable population.
- Perfectionism: Although perfectionism manifests in several ways, they all boil down to one thing: a fear of failure brought about by setting unrealistic expectations of oneself. If you have such high standards for yourself without taking into account your human limitations, then you are more likely to become frustrated with yourself when you cannot meet those set expectations.Thus, this can hinder a person from proceeding with what needs to be done and thereby lead to mental paralysis.
Mental Paralysis vs. Procrastination
If you are wondering how mental paralysis differs from procrastination, the following infographic explains the differences between the two phenomena [*]:
- An involuntary state where the freeze response cannot be controlled
- Typically happens to people with ADHD or other populations with a psychological disorder
- Caused by executive dysfunction
- A voluntary choice to put off a task for as long as you can
- Can happen to anyone
- Not caused by any mental deficits but can cause some distress regardless
The Impact of Mental Paralysis in Individuals With ADHD
Mental paralysis in ADHD can be debilitating for individuals. Although it doesn’t produce the same negative outcomes for everyone who has ADHD, it does, in fact, impact this population in the following ways [*]:
- Working memory becomes inhibited. Working memory refers to the brain’s capacity to process and store pertinent information. In addition, it is involved in high-order intellectual processes such as problem solving, decision making, and logical and critical thinking. Thus, when a person with ADHD is experiencing mental paralysis, their working memory becomes negatively impacted in that it becomes difficult for them to prioritize and complete tasks.
- Inhibitory control becomes impaired. Inhibitory control plays a role in restraining impulsive behavior. Because individuals with ADHD suffer from overwhelming thoughts and emotions, they often find themselves expending energy trying to suppress their impulses, refraining from getting distracted, and avoiding the tendency to put off a task. Mental paralysis in ADHD thus often leads to their inability to regulate their emotions when faced with situations or tasks.
- The threshold for cognitive flexibility is lowered. Cognitive flexibility pertains to an individual’s ability to adapt one’s thoughts and actions according to new information presented to them in an ever-changing environment. Because mental paralysis is considered a freeze response, in that state, persons with ADHD are unable to adjust their thoughts or behaviors even though, and especially when, the situation demands it.
Managing Mental Paralysis in ADHD
Fortunately, there are many ways to abate the debilitating effects of mental paralysis in ADHD. The next sections outline some tips on how you can manage the symptoms of this experience.
Engaging in a daily exercise of brain dumping—that is, pouring all your thoughts and emotions into paper, no matter how insignificant or unrelated they may seem—before you start any task or deal with any situation can mitigate the effects of mental paralysis.
Using a Whiteboard to Plan
If you’re the kind of person who prefers to lay out all of your ideas in one go, then perhaps a whiteboard would be your best medium for doing so. Alternatively, you can also use a mind map to let out all of your thoughts associated with a task, using shapes and arrows to distinguish ideas and form connections between them.
Breaking Down Tasks
Looking at a task from a big-picture perspective can be overwhelming in and of itself. With that said, it may take some weight off your shoulders if you break down this task into bite-sized subtasks that are more manageable and easy to accomplish.
Avoiding Perfectionistic Thinking
Everyone knows that perfection is unattainable, so it wouldn’t make sense to work toward it as the end goal in mind. Rather, it would make more sense to strive for completion. When faced with a task or a situation, recognize that committing errors is part of the process and that what is more important is that you submit that assignment or complete those work deliverables.
Using ADHD Worksheets
For some people, it may be more helpful to get to the root of their mental paralysis—that is, they may need to understand the condition that they are living with to be able to resolve this incapacitation. In addition, learning how to cope with ADHD can also mitigate the experience of mental paralysis. However, understanding the what, the how, and the why behind ADHD can be an arduous process; that being said, using our ADHD worksheets can help quicken this learning process by highlighting pertinent information on ADHD in digestible forms and interactive ways.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you experience many of the signs of mental paralysis, then it is possible that you may have ADHD. It is therefore ideal to seek professional help once you suspect that you have the disorder or once you recognize that your behaviors no longer appear to be procrastination. Alternatively, you can also ask your friends or family if they have observed any symptoms of ADHD and mental paralysis from you. If they have, then that is another sign for you to seek professional help.
The Bottom Line
Feeling mentally and emotionally overwhelmed to the point of psychological incapacitation is the hallmark definition of mental paralysis in ADHD. Although this experience can be highly distressing for an individual, there are several coping strategies and resources outlined in this article that they can use at their disposal. In addition, our collection of coping skills worksheets can supplement your journey toward managing ADHD. However, if all else fails, note that seeking help from a mental health professional is your most optimal choice for dealing with this condition in the long run.
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