ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Burnout

Shot of a young woman looking stressed on the sofa at home

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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.

Everybody who takes on too many responsibilities or overexerts themselves for too long without taking time to rest can experience the extreme fatigue known as burnout. With ADHD, however, the risk of reaching that breaking point of exhaustion is higher. While the prevalence of clinically significant fatigue is around 18% in the general population, it’s as high as 54% among adults with ADHD.

Symptoms of Burnout in ADHD

When you get overwhelmed with work or other responsibilities, you might hit a breaking point at which you “burn out.” A wall goes up, and you become mentally incapable of completing the tasks you need to complete.

For people with ADHD, depression, shame, and guilt are also extremely common during burnout episodes.

The pressure to live up to others’ expectations—and the often unrealistic standards that you’ve internalized after years of feeling like you’re not doing enough—means that the exhaustion feels like another example of your failure.

That sense of shame and guilt can slow your recovery since you might feel like you don’t deserve the rest that your body is telling you it needs with those burnout symptoms.

Why Are People With ADHD Prone to Burnout?

There are a few reasons why people with ADHD experience burnout more often than those without it. Here are some of the most common ones.

Managing Symptoms Makes Regular Tasks More Demanding

One of the core features of ADHD is a disruption in the brain’s ability to regulate attention and motivation. It struggles to filter out irrelevant stimuli so that it can focus on the task at hand and manufacture its own motivation in the face of a task that isn’t emotionally charged or inherently interesting.

That means that you have to consciously and actively ignore distractions, keep yourself focused, resist impulsive urges, and, for the hyperactive types, control your restlessness. All of that is happening in addition to the actual task at hand.

In other words, with ADHD, you’re not just folding the laundry. You’re folding laundry and actively not stopping midway to look up who invented the washing machine or to go fix the crooked stack of books that caught your eye. You’re folding laundry and resisting the overwhelming need to somehow also be washing the dishes at the same time.

As a result, each task is even more mentally draining than it really needs to be, putting you at risk of burnout even when you feel like you aren’t doing anything more than what neurotypical people do.

The Pressure to Overcompensate Creates Unrealistic Workloads

When you’ve dealt with the internal and external criticism about being lazy and lacking work ethic for so long, it’s easy to take on too much. Refusing a task or cutting back on your workload feels like “admitting” that you are, in fact, too lazy or unmotivated. So you keep saying yes and taking on more to prove that critical voice in your head wrong.

Soon enough, you’re doing far more than a normal workload, and still feeling just as guilty or ashamed about your “laziness” as ever because you feel like you’re struggling with it more than you should be.

It’s a vicious cycle where the standard you set for yourself keeps getting more and more unrealistic. When you inevitably careen into the brick wall of a burnout episode, instead of acknowledging that this is probably a sign you’re doing too much, you take it as a sign that that critical voice was right all along.

The Hyperfocus “Hangover”

While hyperfocus feels like one of your superpowers, the tradeoff is that during that intense, obsessive state of productivity, you often neglect your need to sleep, eat, or even take a bathroom break.

By the time you come out of it or finally force yourself to take a break, all those neglected needs crash down on you at once and you might fall immediately into a burnout episode where you’re unable to get back to the project.

The threat of that looming burnout can even become further motivation to avoid the rest your body needs, as you worry that if you don’t power through to finish it now, you might never get back into this hyperfocus zone again.

What to Do During Burnout

When you’re in the middle of a burnout episode, you’re probably looking for ways to push through and keep working because they usually come crashing down in the middle of work, when you still have a ton of stuff left to do.

Unfortunately, there aren’t really any healthy ways to force yourself to work during burnout. It’s your body’s way of forcing to you rest. So all you can really do right now is listen to what your body is telling you.

This is easy advice to give but difficult to follow. Respecting my body’s need for rest—especially on days when I don’t feel like I’ve done enough to “earn” that rest—is one of the biggest things I struggle with.

But I try to remember that rest is not a reward you unlock after completing the correct amount of work. It’s a physical need like food or water. You don’t earn the reward of feeding yourself. You need to feed yourself in order to stay healthy and nourished enough to live your life.

Like a growling stomach and headache tell you that you need food, burnout tells you that you need rest.

You might still have dozens of things left on your list, but not allowing yourself to rest will only prolong the burnout. So, rest now and put out the fires the burnout episode caused later. Then, going forward, you can try to incorporate rest into your schedule in a way that prevents burnout episodes in the future.

How to Prevent Another Burnout Episode

While resting is really the only way to recover from a burnout episode, there are lots of ways to prevent another episode from happening.

Get Better at Saying No

It’s okay not to take that extra shift your boss is asking you to cover. It’s okay to decline an invitation to hang out. It’s okay to say no to things if you don’t feel like you have the time or energy to do them.

You might feel guilty in the moment, but by saying no now, you’re ensuring that you do have enough time and energy to complete the important things, making you a more reliable and consistent person in the long run.

Make Time for Doing Nothing

The urge to overcompensate can make you feel like any gap in your schedule needs to be filled with more responsibilities or work. But just because you were planning to veg out on the couch with ice cream tonight doesn’t mean that time is “free” to get a few more hours of work in on that project instead.

The time spent “doing nothing” is the time when your body has a chance to wind down and recuperate.

If your schedule for the day doesn’t include any time for doing nothing, take a moment to reevaluate everything on it and decide what can be dropped to make time for rest. If you don’t make time for rest each day, the cumulative exhaustion will eventually build up into a full-blown burnout episode. 

Resist Perfectionism

If you feel like you’re on the verge of burnout, you might need to dial down your own expectations for what a finished version of the current task looks like. Accept that turning in a C paper might not get you the A you were going for but it’ll be easier to recover your GPA from there than from the F you risk getting if you burn out before finishing.

The same applies to work and personal responsibilities. It’s okay to allow yourself to be mediocre for a bit if it’ll save you from completely crashing altogether.

Ask for the Accommodations You Need

As much as you might need to work on your ability to manage your workload and prioritize rest, you usually aren’t the only person at fault for how much is on your plate. ADHD is a recognized disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act which means you do have a right to reasonable accommodations.

Asking for those accommodations can help reduce the strain of getting work done because they make it easier to manage your symptoms. And, fortunately, many of the most helpful accommodations are simple and low-cost for employers or schools to offer.

Some research-backed accommodations you could ask for include:

  • Structured agendas and task reminders to compensate for your time management and short-term memory issues.
  • Written supplements to verbal information to make it easier to keep track of your responsibilities (e.g. asking a boss to email you the details about that meeting or task they asked you to take on).
  • Provide a low-distraction workspace by allowing you to wear noise-canceling headphones or offering the flexibility to work from home or to come into work at quieter times of the day.
  • Allow for productive movement or movement breaks to compensate for hyperactivity or impulsiveness (e.g. allowing you to pace or fidget during a meeting).

With these accommodations, you can spend less effort fighting or compensating for your ADHD symptoms and more effort on the actual work you were hired to do.

Adjust Your Routine

An important part of preventing and managing burnout (in addition to workplace adjustments) is making adjustments at home. Try habit stacking, or "stacking" a new behavior on top of one you're already practicing to streamline your routine. For example, you could strategically place a glass of water and your medication next to your bedside table where you'd normally reach for your glasses or cell phone in the morning so you don't forget to take them.

Practice acceptance of the traits and adjust your lifestyle to work with your traits not against them. Our current society is based around neurotypical needs, so adjusting your everyday life to your neurotype is invaluable in reducing/preventing burnout.

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