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I'm not paralyzed but I seem to... have ADHD

Wouldn't you know it? Just like that, I broke my blog post streak. An occupational hazard as a therapy blogger with an ADHD brain. What happened was... well, so many things! I had so many blogs I wanted to write on realtionships, being a supportive friend, maintaining friendships when life is overwhelming, self-advocacy and the exhaustion that accompanies it... and to be honest, I got buried beneath the choices. Actually, I got a case of "choice paralysis". In other words, I was so busy trying to figure out which would be best for my audience (you folx), and trying to decide where to start, that my ideas got jumbled and my brain just said no.

If you are neurotypical (that is, someone with a brain that does what it is told) you may not fully understand this phenomenon. You may get a bit stuck on a problem, need to step away, and then return with a renewed outlook and be able to make a decision. I wish.

Actually, ADHD comes with a few variations on this paralysis: Choice Paralysis, Task Paralysis, and Mental Paralysis. Each of these has a slightly different stimulus, but the reaction is the same. Because ADHD impacts the executive function part of the brain (the part that helps with organization, planning, focus, memory, motivation), tasks that require too much of these things (like organizing thoughts and ideas so that you can focus on one thing at a time and plan what to do first) lead to a stress response (typically freeze, or shut down).

For those who don't 'get it', let me try to illustrate what this kind of paralysis is like:

  • Have you ever seen those videos of people giving their dogs an entire bucket of balls and the dog kind of stands there just vibrating, trying to catch all of them but actually catching none of them?

  • How about when the street light is flashing red, so it should be a four way stop, but everyone gets stuck in this dance of 'who goes first?' so instead of going anywhere all the vehicles sit there lurching forward one inch at a time?

  • Maybe when both you and another person are calling a toddler or a cat or a dog over, and both have something they want so they just stop and stare, trying to figure out how to somehow stretch long enough to get both?

If none of those resonate with you, I suggest you look up videos on youtube, and after you finish chuckling- imagine your feet stuck in quick dry cement. That is what it is like. Everything in you wants to make a choice, but the second you think you have it, another reason to pick something else pops into your head and shifts the scales, and then you just. can't. choose.

This is where shame, guilt, frustration, futility, and plain old shut down start to kick in. It feels awful to know there is something you have to do, a deadline to meet, a project to finish, and not being able to do it. Especially because when this happens, people who don't understand tend to call us lazy or unmotivated and bombard us with well-meaning advice like "just take the first step" or "write a list and just do the things on the list" or "what I do when I can't decide is try doing both and see which one is better". Not that I blame you for wanting to be helpful, but a) I can't take any steps right now, b) I have ten to-do lists and I can't find any of them, and c) when you can't decide and when my brain goes on strike are different situations.

But this blog is about what you CAN do around mental health stuff, so I am going to give you my helpful advice- really just a few things that could be helpful, from someone who has experienced ADHD paralysis. If none of it is helpful to you, I am sorry, but hopefully something in here is.

  1. Write it down. Now, I said above that to-do lists don't always help, and they don't. What I'm talking about here is brain dumping. Too many things rolling around in your brain? Too many choices? Fears? Feelings? Sit down with a paper and pen and write. it. all. down. It doesn't have to make sense, or be in order. Just write. The act of writing, with pen to paper (not digitally) helps our brain sort things into appropriate files and lowers the chaotic noise up there. You may not have a clear answer at the end of it, but you will likely feel a bit less overwhelmed. You will also have ideas that you can later turn into steps, which then can turn into a to-do list... see what I did there? Took the "too big" step and made it smaller.

  2. Stick to your routine. It is easy when faced with ADHD paralysis to shut down completely, and then not only are you not doing the thing you want to be able to do, you aren't doing anything. If you don't have a daily routine yet, make one. I know it is hard to stick to routines, so start small, but make one. It becomes habit and you can do it on autopilot, and then at least you can feel good about doing SOMETHING, even if it isn't the thing you want to do. Shower. Eat. Drink your water. Feed your fish.

  3. Get a sounding board. Find a friend or family member and tell them all your thoughts. Sure, it might seem like a hot mess in your head, but often when we just start talking about it, our ADHD brains start to figure it out. Actually, it is usually easier to make sense of something when you are trying to explain it to someone else, and saying it out loud. Verbalizing also takes less executive function then organizing and writing it in some linear sensical fashion. And if you don't see it clearly, your friend might shed some light on it. Bonus points if you ask for help getting started.

  4. Move your body. Forget the stupid thing you are trying to do, and move. ADHD brains do better when we have movement in our lives. It can be dancing, weight lifting, going for a walk, even just standing up for a stretch. Just move. And then, resist the urge to sit back down, and see if you can keep moving. Grab a cloth and wipe the counter, make yourself some food, pick up the laundry off the bathroom floor. Often, when you start moving, you will move your way through a few tasks without realizing it. No, you might not have found your answer on the original cause of the paralysis, but small wins help us find motivation, and motivation kick starts our executive did you follow where I was going? Eventually, your brain will unravel the issue, settle the feelings, or organize the task into steps and you will be able to figure it out.

5. Finally, be nice to yourself. ADHD paralysis comes with the brain. It is not an excuse to do nothing, but it is a valid and very real issue and it is HARD. Guilt and shame won't make it better, and neither will trying to force your brain to be different. Accept that what you are trying to do it hard for you right now, and remind yourself of your worth anyway. Reward yourself for attempts, and really reward yourself for achievment, but don't punish yourself for something you can't change.

And as a side note, if you don't have ADHD and you have someone in your life who does- RESIST THE URGE to tell them to stop being lazy or avoiding things. We know we *should* be able to do this, but we can't. Judgment weighs us down more and keeps us stuck longer.

For this blog I stuck to my routine, moved, and was kind to myself. I eventually got here (and this was not any of the blog options on the table) and it might not be what I wanted to write originally, but it is what I could write, and something I hope is helpful anyway.

What helps you get unstuck with choice paralysis?

-Alana the Lunar Light Therapist

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