“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”E.E. Cummings
When I wrote My Mental Health: ADHD, I intended to give a well-rounded view of how ADHD affects the people who have it. The post ended up being as long as a 7-page term paper, but I still felt like it only scratched the surface. I just wasn’t happy with it. I’ve decided to write a sequel post so we can discuss more aspects of the disorder. Today I will write about several different types of paralysis of will that can affect a person with ADHD, ADHD shutdown, brain fog, hypoactivity, and more.
ADHDers tend to live life on one scale of excess or the other. We swing wildly between intense periods of workaholism and periods of intense sluggishness. We are either all work or all play, hyperactive or hypoactive, over-stimulated or under-stimulated. For the ADHD brain, it is hard to find a happy medium. We are hyperfocused on one thing or we can’t focus on anything. We often bounce between these extremes daily, even hourly. It is exhausting, to be honest.
The public at large seems to be aware of a lot of the outward symptoms of ADHD; the kid who can’t sit still, the woman who talks a mile a minute, the person who can’t stop bouncing their leg up and down during the workday. Today, I want to talk about some of the things that you can’t see; the things that are happening on the inside. The things I’m about to talk about often look like “laziness” and, in some cases, “rudeness.” But they are all very real parts of the ADHD brain and what we go through every day of our lives. Let’s take a look.
Paralysis of Will
Many of us with ADHD have certain words that we hate because we have heard them on repeat throughout our lives. For me, the words “lazy” and “procrastination,” and the phrase “stop making excuses.” I’ll freely admit it, I get triggered by them. They make me angry because they have been lobbed at me like weapons since I was just a little girl. When I started learning about ADHD, I would sometimes cry when I would read other people’s stories because I felt so relieved. So many things about myself I didn’t understand and I had always been told that they were just failures on my part. This was never more true than when I read about the different kinds of paralysis of will.
Let me be clear, paralysis of will has nothing to do with choice any more than it is the choice of a person who is physically paralyzed to get up and walk. It is exactly what the name insinuates. You no longer have control over your resolve. No matter how much you want to do “the thing,” no matter how much you need to do the thing. It doesn’t matter. It causes severe anxiety, stress, and shame in anyone who deals with it chronically. So let’s talk about why this can happen.
Analysis, Decision, and ADHD Paralysis
Analysis paralysis is over-analyzing or overthinking a decision or task until you become overwhelmed. The overwhelm becomes so severe that it can cause any forward motion or decision-making to freeze. Similarly, decision paralysis is being unable to choose between one or more choices, to the point of total inaction. Both types of paralysis can affect decisions and tasks both big and small; anything from being able to keep your house clean to staying in an unhealthy relationship or at a toxic workplace. I recently read somewhere about a woman who was in a bad marriage, miserable and unhappy, for 10 years after she knew it was over and she attributed every second of it to decision paralysis exacerbated by ADHD.
Another type of paralysis that I would be remiss without mentioning is ADHD paralysis. This is not an official term, but it makes it no less real. When I was researching ADHD, this next phenomenon was one of the things that struck me to my core. ADHD paralysis is when you have the need and the desire to complete a task, but you are completely unable to move forward with any action. I cannot stress to you how distressing this can be, especially to someone who is undiagnosed. I remember sitting in my therapist’s office, just months before my official diagnosis, and saying, “I don’t understand why I do this! It’s everything from cleaning the house to losing weight to going after my dreams. Why am I like this?!” I knew what to do. In most cases, I knew how to do it. Most importantly, I *wanted* to do them. I knew how important they were and the amount of anxiety I was having because I wasn’t doing them, was off the charts. It would only be later that I would realize…it was the ADHD.
Regardless of what kind of paralysis of will we may grapple with in our journeys, one thing is clear, dealing with them makes moving forward often feel impossible (and sometimes even physically uncomfortable), which often leaves us with unfinished tasks and decisions left unmade. The guilt and shame that we carry for not being able to complete these important tasks are often only trumped by the guilt and shame that is steeped on us by our loved ones. I can’t tell you how many times in my life someone that I loved or respected has called me lazy. I knew it wasn’t true, but it appeared to be, so I accepted the label. It’s hurtful. Be nicer to the people that you love because words matter. I digress.
Knowing and understanding paralysis of will hasn’t yet helped me to control it, but it does make it easier to identify what is happening and I am currently trying to find ways to negotiate with my stubborn brain when it does happen. Also, knowing it and understanding it has made it easier to forgive myself and to stand up for myself when people say hurtful things. For people with ADHD especially, we must be kinder and more forgiving of ourselves and our past mistakes.
Brain fog, also known as mental fog or clouding of consciousness, is a common symptom seen in people with ADHD. Brain fog can include reduced mental clarity and cognitive function, concentration issues, inability to multi-task, and short-term and long-term memory issues. Other symptoms can include slow thinking or confusion and severe fatigue. A person experiencing mental fog may seem spaced out, confused, or lost in thought.
I experience mental fog a lot, sometimes coupled with dissociation because my brain likes to spice things up a little. I describe it like I feel like I’m inside of a bubble. Everything, everyone, every sound seems far off. I get unnaturally tired and I start communicating in short, clipped responses. Sometimes, it honestly feels like I’m on drugs, even though I’m not. It’s just a “medicine-head” type of feeling. It can be distressing, especially when it suddenly happens in a social setting. This usually leads me to an ADHD shutdown.
Often, when we become overwhelmed with intense emotions, it triggers an ADHD shutdown. Again, not necessarily an official term, but very real nonetheless. When I think about ADHD shutdown, I imagine a computer overheating. The brain just takes in too much until it shuts itself down before it can overheat. During an ADHD shutdown, you may space out, find it hard to speak or move, or you may have trouble articulating what is happening to you or what you are feeling.
A few months before the pandemic started, I had this happen to me. I didn’t know about my ADHD or ADHD shutdown at all. I met a friend at the park for a play date and I immediately felt sluggish…my brain felt like mush. I was extremely over-stimulated and I couldn’t get my brain to focus on anything. I felt like my head was a balloon, flying way above my body. It was an awful first “friend date.” Luckily, she was cool about it, but I still to this day haven’t told her what happened on that first outing and why I acted so strange.
Speaking of sluggishness…
When people think of ADHD, the common misconception is to picture little boys who are bouncing off the walls and screaming in lieu of talking. They would never imagine that people with ADHD could feel sluggish, tired, and unable to process information quickly. People with Inattentive-type ADHD are often prone to hypoactivity, sometimes called “sluggish cognitive tempo.” Hypoactivity is defined as inhibition of behavioral or locomotor activity. In laymen’s terms, people with ADHD-I are often unable to muster the energy to do anything at all, much less communicate or take care of their basic needs.
Some of the symptoms of hypoactivity can include:
- frequent daydreaming
- staring into space
- mental fogginess
- poor memory retrieval
- sluggish/lethargic behavior
- slow to process information
- social reticence or withdrawal
It often makes a person feel so tired and “out of it” that they feel unable to take care of even their most basic needs. It is much more than laziness or being tired from mental or physical work; it is an uncontrollable force. If you experience hypoactivity, remember to take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep and exercise and make sure that you eat right. I know those things are so much easier said than done but, seriously, take care of yourselves.
The last thing I want to talk about in this second ADHD post is spatial awareness and the deficits that are sometimes caused by ADHD. Spatial awareness is the ability to be aware of the things in our environment and our position relative to them. Spatial awareness can help us determine the following things:
- Location – context to the location of an object
- Movement – how people and objects move through the environment
- Social – social functions like maintenance of personal space
- Reading and writing – important for understanding sentence structure and grammar
- Math – important for ordering and arranging numbers
I don’t understand the science behind why ADHD causes spatial issues. I do know that ADHD makes me much less aware of my surroundings. I often joke and say that I hope I’m never witness to a crime because I won’t remember any details about it. In all seriousness, spatial issues can cause a multitude of issues, including:
- being unable to pinpoint the location of something felt, seen, or heard
- issues navigating while walking or driving
- problems gauging distance from an object
- trouble reading a map
- confusion over left vs. right
- difficulty with reading, writing, or math
- poor recognition of personal space
- poor coordination; being clumsy
People with ADHD often jokingly complain about all the bruises they have from running into furniture or doorknobs. I am incredibly clumsy. When my husband and I first met, he was transfixed with how often I fell. I’m terrible with directions and I barely know the difference between 12 inches, 12 feet, and 12 miles. I often have to pause and think about which way is left and which way is right. These are all spatial awareness deficits that I never would have been aware of if not for this newfound information about myself.
I never would have connected all of these things before my diagnosis. All signs point back to ADHD, these days. As you can see from the list, so many of the items listed have overlapping symptoms. Confusion, sluggishness, inability to complete tasks, concentration issues…for people with ADHD, symptoms are often compounded from every direction, whether it be overlapping symptoms or co-occurring disorders. What you see is not always what you get with ADHD. Sometimes, what looks like laziness or procrastination is actually paralysis or shutdown and is probably very distressing for the person experiencing it. We always have to keep in mind that what we can see of a person, outwardly, is often not even a fraction of what is going on inside of them. Be kind.
Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight!💜💜
Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.