ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Paralysis

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

In ADHD, the feeling that you have so much to do that you can’t make yourself do anything is often described as ADHD paralysis or ADHD freeze.

What looks like laziness or procrastination on the outside can feel like an extremely distressing episode of being trapped in your own head. Here’s what it feels like, why it happens, and strategies to break yourself out of a paralysis episode or prevent it from happening in the first place.

What Does ADHD Paralysis Look Like?

From the outside, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing. But that feeling like you can’t move (and sometimes, can’t speak) is incredibly stressful. Internally, you’re racing through a bunch of tasks, decisions, or information that you need to process, or maybe even just obsessing over that one task you have to do. But somehow, getting yourself to get up and do it (or anything else) feels like an impossible feat.

Paralysis can manifest as the following symptoms:

On days when you have more than one task on your to-do list (which is usually most days), you’re liable to spiral into a pit of inaction as you become incapable of giving your attention to one task without the nagging feeling that you’re neglecting another task.

In a brain that struggles to prioritize, it often feels like whatever you’re not doing at that moment is the thing you should actually be doing. That feeling can be so strong that you can’t focus on any task because you’re overwhelmed by the sense that you should be doing something else. So, you end up sitting motionless on the couch or in bed, wishing you would just get up and do something.

Why Does ADHD Paralysis Happen?

The experience of paralysis might be connected to the dopamine imbalances seen in brains with ADHD. Chronically low dopamine levels can make it difficult for someone with ADHD to experience strong enough motivation to actually act on their desire to do something. Dopamine can be thought of as the “go” signal in your brain. Levels of the neurotransmitter increase in response to activities and objects that you are interested in.

For people without ADHD, stable dopamine levels mean that even for uninteresting or unpleasant tasks, it’s possible to generate enough motivation to do them simply by focusing on the desire to be done with them. You don’t necessarily enjoy doing dishes, but you know that if you do them now, you’ll get them out of the way and won’t have to think about them anymore. The motivation comes not from the dishes but from pursuing the reward that comes after the dishes are done.

In ADHD brains, there’s not enough dopamine to translate that future reward into present motivation, a deficit known as delay aversion. That means activities that aren’t rewarding or interesting in and of themselves (like playing video games, hanging out with friends, or spending time on your favorite hobbies) are hard to will yourself to do.

So if you’re faced with a list of uninteresting tasks, getting your brain to say “go!” on any particular one is hard.  Without the go signal, you sit there in a state of indecision, incapable of making yourself get any of your to-do list done.

How to Deal With ADHD Paralysis

There’s no single solution to breaking out of ADHD paralysis because it depends on what specifically is overwhelming you and how your brain likes to work. But here are a few different approaches to help you spark enough motivation to override paralysis or organize your schedule to avoid that paralysis in the first place.

Use Serial Tasking or Multitasking When It Makes Sense

If your brain can’t decide where to start because it wants to do everything simultaneously, let it—at least when it’s realistic. In my experience, motivation skyrockets whenever I feel like I can knock out two boring tasks at the same time.

Doing dishes sucks, and waiting for water to boil to make lunch sucks. But getting a few dishes washed while I’m waiting for water to boil? It’s like I’ve unlocked a cheat code. These are two boring tasks I can check off the list and stop worrying about. Plus, it keeps me in the kitchen, so I don’t forget the pot of water exists. Other examples might include:

  • Answering emails while doing squats or pedaling a stationary bike to knock out emails and exercise in one fell swoop
  • Folding the laundry during your next virtual meeting
  • Calling your mom while you are grocery shopping

If you find yourself sitting motionless on the couch, use the time to figure out a way to combine some of the tasks on your to-do list. Once you do, the excitement of having figured out a way to multitask might be enough excitement to pull you out of paralysis.

Minimize the Need to Switch Gears

For bigger projects that can’t be combined with other tasks, it might be better to do the exact opposite of multitasking or serial tasking: clear your schedule and make that project your only task for the day.

People with ADHD sometimes experience something referred to as “hyperfocus,” where they become so absorbed by something that they can concentrate on it for hours at a time without a break. If you take medication for ADHD, you might also experience a milder form of this intense focus that can make it hard to pull away from a task even if you know it’s time to move on.

If either of those experiences sounds familiar, I’d recommend avoiding the advice to break up projects into smaller chunks over a period of days and instead try to structure your schedule so that you can devote all of your focus for the day to one project at a time.

With just one project on the agenda for today, your brain won’t have competing tasks vying for its attention. Plus, you can make that hyperfocus work in your favor instead of against you.

Let Yourself Work in a Way That Makes Sense for You

Sometimes, you’re going to have multiple tasks to juggle that can’t really be spread across several days or combined in any practical way. Part of the reason for the paralysis that happens on these days may come from the pressure to get things done in an orderly, logical way: do task A, then task B, then task C.

But if you’re already feeling overwhelmed by the need to decide where or how to start, you might not be able to sustain focus on each task long enough to finish it in one sitting. Instead, you might find yourself hopping from task to task kind of erratically as they each nag at you.

When I’m cleaning my apartment, for example, I’ll start sweeping the floor in one room, then decide I should really clean the kitchen counters first. Then, I’ll think I should get a load of laundry before any of that so that it’s going while I clean. And the thoughts keep going like that.

I used to try to fight it and would end up not doing anything and sitting defeated in a dirty apartment for weeks. Now, I just let myself switch. I start a dozen different chores and flit between them as impulse dictates until they’re each done. It might not be the most efficient way to get through them, but if it gets the job done, so what?

You don’t have to get stuff done in a way that makes sense to anyone else—or even to you. You just have to get it done. So write all the tasks down on a list so that you don’t forget them. If none stand out as a place to start, close your eyes and point. Start with that task and hyperfocus on it or jump around the list or do some combination that feels right, even if it looks completely irrational.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Kollins SH, et al. Evaluating dopamine reward pathway in adhd: clinical implications. JAMA. 2009;302(10):1084. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1308

  2. Mitchell MR, Potenza MN. Recent insights into the neurobiology of impulsivity. Curr Addict Rep. 2014;1(4):309-319. doi:10.1007/s40429-014-0037-4

  3. Van Dessel J, Sonuga-Barke E, Mies G, et al. Delay aversion in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is mediated by amygdala and prefrontal cortex hyper-activation. J Child Psychol Psychiatr. 2018;59(8):888-899. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12868

By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.