How to Manage and Reduce Overwhelming Feelings from ADHD

Managing and Reducing Overwhelming Feelings in ADHDBy Carey Heller, PsyD
When people think about attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), they typically envision a person who experiences difficulty focusing and sitting still. Other related issues, however, can be even more concerning for those with ADHD. One such issue is the ease with which some people with ADHD can feel overwhelmed.

There are many explanations as to why this may occur. Some individuals with ADHD have co-occurring anxiety, which can contribute to feelings of overwhelm. However, one of the most overlooked reasons many individuals with ADHD experience overwhelm is that it is difficult for them to plan ahead.

If one has five different tasks to complete, not only may the five tasks themselves be overwhelming, but thinking about all the steps involved to complete each one may add to feelings of overwhelm. Difficulties staying focused may make it even harder to get tasks completed or to remember to do them.
What can be done? Physical and mental planning are essential to reducing feelings of overwhelm. The following are some suggestions.

Physical Planning

Use a calendar to keep visual track of appointments.
Use a task list to keep track of tasks that need to be completed. Some people find it helpful to organize tasks into general categories (chores, school work, bill paying, etc.). Using task-list apps can be helpful for this.
Schedule time in your calendar to complete groupings of tasks or specific tasks.
For larger tasks with many parts, break them down into smaller parts and list each part in your to-do list.
Set deadlines for yourself or plan out days when you will complete specific items.
Estimate how long items will take to complete, and factor in travel time as needed.
If you need help from a parent, partner, etc., discuss your needs and find a mutually agreeable system that keeps you in control, progressing toward less need for assistance.

Mental Planning

Review tasks that need to be completed over the course of the day and make sure you run through your mind when you plan to complete them (these should also be written down in your to-do list as well).
If needed, put visual reminders around your living quarters, office, etc.
Keep calm by reminding yourself that you’ve planned out how to complete everything and will be OK as long as you follow your plan. In the moment you can focus on the short term, because the long-term items are planned out.
Think about possible distractions or pitfalls that would impede you from following your plan (playing video games, surfing the web, hanging out with friends, etc.). Write down ways you can minimize these.

Just Relax

Learning coping strategies to help you relax can also be helpful. Such strategies may include:

  • Engage in physical activity daily. Go for a run, work out, or go for a walk.
  • If feeling overwhelmed, engage in physical activity as a break to calm down.
  • Listen to music, soothing sounds, or use guided visual imagery.
  • Have fun plans scheduled for after you complete tasks (if you have to run errands, for example, set up plans for coffee with a friend afterward).

If you frequently feel overwhelmed, you don’t have to experience those feelings to the extent you currently do. Making a few simple changes in how you stay organized, plan, and carry out tasks can make a big difference. If you feel that you need professional assistance with implementing tools, learning coping strategies, etc., there are many different types of professionals who can assist you. To find one, search for a therapist in your area.

© Copyright 2015 by Carey A. Heller, PsyD, therapist in Bethesda, MD. All Rights Reserved.

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Related CE Courses on ADHD

This introductory course, from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), gives a brief update on the various facets of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It details the core symptoms, including behavioral manifestations of each, notes what is known about its causes, and lists the components of a comprehensive diagnostic protocol. It also describes a multifaceted treatment approach that includes combined medication, psychotherapy, and behavioral therapy. The course includes sections on comorbid disorders, dealing with ADHD at school, and treating it in teens and adults.


Section I of this course involves a detailed discussion of the many ways that a lifetime of ADHD can affect a person’s life. This is important information for all clinicians working with adults who have ADHD, partly for their own understanding, but also to help clients understand their own ADHD. It will include descriptions of situations that can obscure ADHD and will highlight the executive, academic, occupational, psychological, and social aspects of adult functioning that are impacted by ADHD. The second section involves educating clients about the many ways that ADHD has affected their life trajectories. This goes beyond the obvious academic difficulties and includes current functioning as well, offering less pejorative explanations for their weaknesses. Included are techniques for involving family members, creating an ADHD-friendly lifestyle, and finding a better fit in the classroom and the workplace. This education is a crucial first step in the treatment of ADHD in adults and builds the foundation for medication, coaching, and therapy.


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