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Hitting The Wall With ADHD

By: Jon Thomas, EdD, and Pamela Barton

As a therapist who has ADHD, I felt an energetic call at the beginning of the pandemic. I remember telling colleagues something naïve like, “I was born for times like these!” As my full practice rose to and remained in overload, I threw myself into numerous writing, building, training, and other projects. I reached out to frontline workers volunteering my services to those in need. I worked tirelessly week after week, feeling the exhilaration of being some part of the solution to massive suffering, while devoting any remaining time to constructive pursuits. I was determined to overcome any feelings of helplessness and fear by responding to the pandemic chaos in an effective and productive way.

And after a few months, it all came to a grinding halt. 

I found myself increasingly weary and experiencing something between depression and burnout. As my mood state and energy level dropped lower and lower, I decided to take some self-reflective time off and figure out how I came to this point – and most importantly – how to get myself out of it.  

As we see the emerging light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are beginning to understand the unfolding psychological impact of the last several months. Investigators in the fields of medicine, psychology, and sociology as well as creatives, artists, musicians, and film makers will likely mine this experience long after the end of this unparalleled epoch.

Equally unparalleled is the varied effect this pandemic has had on differently people. As one popular meme states, “We aren’t all in the same boat; but we are all in the same storm.”  

For example, unemployed people fare differently than those fortunate enough to retain jobs. Poor people struggle more economically than those of greater financial means. Parents working at home with children face stresses apart from those with no children. Those living alone face a different social deprivation than families in large households.

And people with ADHD are uniquely affected as well.

The pandemic has only exacerbated ADHD characteristics of impulsivity, increased need for stimulation, and distractibility as evidenced by college students losing traction and failing near the end of the semester or coming home exhausted and depressed. Or secondary school students overwhelmed and shutting down from the stressful challenges of online classes. Or perhaps parents burning out as they struggle to balance their needs of working at home with the academic needs of children schooling online at home, especially when either parents or children – or both – have ADHD.

These examples might be just a few of the numerous ways ADHD uniquely manifests and challenges in this crisis. But in each of the many additional examples that could be presented, a similar pattern would likely emerge. I encountered this pattern during my own challenges in the earlier months of the Covid crisis.

During my self-reflective exploration I was fortunate to come across an article about something called “surge capacity depletion” (SCD).  While the SCD model helped me get back on track, it also helped me see how people with ADHD might more readily fall prey to this malady and experience even greater difficulty pulling out of it.

Ann Masten, a psychologist at The University of Minnesota famously described what she calls “surge capacity” as “… a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” These adaptive systems are the personal and very finite sources that sustain us in times of crisis and typically restore once the crisis has passed.

And this is part of the problem.

Most natural disasters have a relatively brief beginning middle and end. So, during this kind of event, surge capacity is tapped for a relatively short period of time and soon after the restoring process begins.

Until effective vaccines began to emerge near the end of 2020, we were stuck for months at the beginning of the crisis, wondering where the middle was.  We remained in the surge fight or flight mode for almost a year. For many of us, capacity understandably deteriorated until the fuel gauge hit “empty” and we were left depleted…physically and psychologically.

And when it came time for restoring, social distancing, quarantine, stay at home and other pandemic restrictions eliminated our typical “go to’s” for leisure, socialization, and restoration. We were depleted and had few familiar options to restore. 

This is surge capacity depletion (SRC).

SRC hits at some of the greatest vulnerabilities of people with ADHD. We are drawn mothlike to the novel flame of challenge. And we struggle mightily to discover alternate means of restoring in the social isolation of pandemic.

Our relief from this suffering may reside in consciously and intentionally monitoring and managing our resources and avoiding depletion, while proactively and assertively developing new and effective means of restoring these resources.

This includes developing daily habits like inventorying energy level and recognizing when reserves are getting tapped, as well as consciously choosing how to expend this energy.  And noting and addressing specific stressors, especially those that start small and grow silently beyond awareness to the point of overwhelming. Learn to check in with and express emotions so that they remain a healthy guide in your life and do not become an added stress.

We need to discover pandemic-proof ways of self-restoring and self-care. This may prove challenging for those of us with ADHD accustomed to seeking immediate and everchanging stimulus and a ready source of socialization opportunities.

For my part, I set limits on my work and established a waiting list or referred clients to colleagues. I began a disciplined practice of yoga, meditation, and breathwork, pushed myself to set up regular zoom meetings and other safe socialization with friends, and developed better sleep hygiene and nutritional habits. I spent time and effort dreaming up and engaging in new leisure opportunities.

Beyond all this, I sought and developed an appreciation for a (temporarily) more boring existence in the safe zone of maintaining my surge capacity.

 With a more energized vaccine rollout we are mere months away from a return to normalcy. This growing light at the end of the tunnel may tempt some of us to surge anew. But surging again over a period of months is like trying to sprint a marathon.  Focusing on managing and rebuilding personal resources is the best path to enjoying this returning normalcy.

We are a uniquely integrated program of College Readiness & Success Training, Academic Coaching, Mental Health and Career Counseling for high school and college Students with ADHD.