Now Presenting: ADHD

Recovering from Burnout

December 28, 2023 Jaye Lin Season 2 Episode 1
Now Presenting: ADHD
Recovering from Burnout
Show Notes Transcript

Is this something you resonate with? Feeling frustrated that your body and brain aren’t able to do what you want to? Feeling the looming of failure because those lofty plans that were made can’t possibly be followed through on? Losing your zest for life with each passing day? If you do resonate with this, you’re not alone.

Now Presenting, ADHD, and Recovering from Burnout.

If you have questions or would like to give suggestions for future episodes, send us an email at info@npadhd.com. To listen to all episodes, view show notes and transcripts, or learn more about host Jaye Lin, visit our website at www.npadhd.com. Follow us on Instagram @npadhdpodcast and @adhdjaye.

Hi. This is Now Presenting ADHD, where we look at common ways Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can present in individuals, explain what the root causes can be, and share some new perspectives on managing all of it with our ADHD. I’m your host, Jaye Lin. I’m an ADHD coach, speaker, instructor, and generally nice person.

This is the first episode of the second season of Now Presenting: ADHD. Back in August, I made the decision to take a vacation from the podcast for a few months, so I could get my affairs in order for my move out of Washington state, complete planning and deliver the second Starboard cruise for ADHD professionals and content creators, deliver my ADHD learning program for my regular cohort group, as well as my first corporate cohort of the learning program to train peer coaches within their organization, launch the Asians with ADHD virtual peer support group for ADDA at add.org, prepare for my talk and peer support session at the International Conference on ADHD, and finally finish the projects I’ve had on hold, like my ADHD coaching directory, and my cookbook for people with ADHD. If all of that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is, but I was adamant that I would be able to get all of it done with the extra bandwidth I got from taking a break from this podcast.

And for a month or so, I did get a lot done. I completed both cohorts of my learning program, we successfully launched Starboard 2, with rave reviews, and through a fairly tedious process, I was also able to launch the Asians with ADHD virtual peer support group for ADDA, the first new virtual peer support group at ADDA since before the pandemic. 

But then something happened to me around the second week of October. I just couldn’t get myself to complete everything I had to get done. I couldn’t get myself to work on much, actually. I didn’t have the energy to push myself forward like I had done for the past few years. And as each day went on, it got worse. It was harder for me to start on the projects I needed to work on. I started losing interest in, well, anything. Nothing in my life seemed to spark joy for me, and my brain seemed scattered the entire day, even with medication.

I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me. I mean, I had felt this way before, back before my ADHD diagnosis. I was severely burned out at my job as an Administrative Business Partner at Google, and had experienced this growing inability to get anything done, and this swiftly dwindling life satisfaction. Everything I was feeling in October seemed to mirror how I felt back in 2019. But I kept thinking that it shouldn’t feel that way. After all, back then, I was in a constant cycle of being chaotically pulled by a demanding job, one almost entirely consisting of executive function tasks. The projects I’m working on now are important to me and my values, and it didn’t make sense to me that doing work that excites me would make me feel this way. I thought it had to be something bigger.

Turns out, it was something bigger. It was a hormonal downturn that affected me cognitively and emotionally. Sorry if this is TMI, but my hormonal IUD was reaching the end of its efficacy, and my body was responding in ways I’m no longer used to, because that hormonal IUD had kept me pretty level for the past five years. What I was experiencing was something I forgot happened to me prior to my IUD insertion, but used to happen to me every month.

I would feel extremely fatigued, like I couldn’t get myself to do anything. I didn’t feel like doing anything other than napping and zoning out. I couldn’t follow storylines when watching TV or movies. Things that regularly excite me no longer got a reaction from me, even my favorite foods or music. The only thing I felt was low.

Prior to my IUD insertion, this happened for a day or two every month, but considering how long it had been since I’d felt that way, this ended up stretching to two weeks. Two very critical weeks. And what a terrible time to be feeling this way. This was go time! I had all of these ambitious things I wanted to get done, and none of the energy to do it.

Even after the hormonal downturn wore off, I was so behind that this pushed me into a classic burnout. I started each day with dread that I wouldn’t be able to do what I set out to, and it stole what energy was returning to me.

Is this something you resonate with? Feeling frustrated that your body and brain aren’t able to do what you want to? Feeling the looming of failure because those lofty plans that were made can’t possibly be followed through on? Losing your zest for life with each passing day? If you do resonate with this, you’re not alone.

Now Presenting, ADHD, and Recovering from Burnout.

<brief theme music>

There are so many things that can lead to burnout for those of us with ADHD. It can be a slow process, like I experienced at Google, where the demands of life weigh on us day by day, until all of a sudden, we recognize that we are behind and unable to make any progress to do anything about it. The stress compounds, causing a decrease in executive function over time.

Burnout can also be spurred by a trigger. I see it all the time with my colleagues and clients. Getting COVID or another illness is a big one. Also, grief, legal trouble, bodily injuries, and much more. And for many women, the hormonal changes that come with menstrual cycles can be regular triggers, not to mention things like puberty, menopause, and perimenopause. It’s sometimes unpredictable when these burnout triggers will come up to throw a wrench in our carefully laid plans, but one thing is certain. These things will inevitably happen. We just might not know when.

When these things happen, it can affect us in ways disproportionate to how it affects our neurotypical peers, for many reasons. One executive function is cognitive flexibility, and those of us with ADHD tend to have higher negative reactions when things don’t go according to plan. COVID and hormonal imbalances can also disproportionately affect how our ADHD is experienced, like making it so our medication is no longer effective, and we’re basically functioning like we are unmedicated. And when this creates a domino effect of stumbling when it comes to our routines and achievements, our emotional dysregulation makes it harder for us to bounce back.

Basically, burnout and burnout triggers heighten our ADHD symptoms, and also our negative reactions to our ADHD symptoms, including frustration, shame, avoidance, and RSD, or rejection sensitivity dysphoria. The burnout and its triggers can lead to more negative experiences, which feeds the burnout, which feeds the negative experiences. It can become a perfect storm of our worst ADHD qualities all at once, and feel like a quick spiral all the way down to hell.

Wow, that got bleak super fast. So what can we do about burnout?

I talk about overcorrection a lot, and the negative effects this can have on us going forward. This topic is no exception. Overcorrecting on downturns can present in a few ways. We can overcorrect for our lower energy levels by trying to work harder and longer. This can accelerate the burnout process, and I see this happen a lot. Working harder and longer takes our time and energy away from recovery. We can cut out the things that restore us, like social time, and doing things we enjoy, because we are fixated on achievement. This is detrimental, because without recovery, as each day passes, we have lower cognitive and emotional bandwidth, until a breaking point happens, and we are faced with a long, arduous recovery process that puts almost everything in our lives on hold.

But another overcorrection is also common. We pad up our day too much, and make it so that we are only doing one productive thing all day. This sounds like a great idea for someone in burnout, and sometimes it is, but with some caveats. Will we actually feel good about getting that one thing done? Will we actually do it?

I say “will we actually do it?”, because our energy, norepinephrine levels, and dopamine are closely tied together. When I talk to ADHD folk who are used to getting a ton of things done, it usually follows a pattern. Because of our ADHD, we are the most effective when we have just enough time in the day to get everything done and “win the day”. If I’m in meetings all day and have just one hour in the day to record an Instagram reel, you can bet that it’s going to get recorded and posted. If I don’t have anything to do in the day except get that reel posted? It might get posted in the last hour I have, and also, it might not.

That’s because when we’re full of adrenaline and we’re up for the challenge, our norepinephrine and dopamine levels spike, giving us a clear head and we’re ultra productive, sometimes at levels greater than if we were neurotypical. And when we achieve what we need to during that burst of adrenaline? We get a big dopamine payoff at the end that feels like euphoric victory. This can drive us forward with other things we are doing.

So when we give ourselves just one thing to do all day, and we don’t feel good about just doing that one thing? We lose out on the neurotransmitter cocktail of productivity, and it’s even possible to spiral downward after not completing that one thing, or not feeling like completing that one thing is enough.

But there lies the difficulty. We want to get back on our feet, but trying to work harder or more doesn’t help us recover, and trying to work less doesn’t help us recover either. So how? How do we get back to our baseline? This is the question that almost everyone I know with ADHD burnout asks. It’s the reason why the people I know in ADHD burnout tend not to recover much, even after taking a leave from work, or taking a long vacation. And when that leave or vacation is over and they still feel burned out? Guess what happens. Yeah, they’re still burned out, and many of them have to quit their jobs.

So if trying to do too much and trying to do too little are both detrimental to burnout recovery, what is the answer? Yeah, I phrased the question that way on purpose. Doing just enough. And having a good mix of things that will lead to recovery.

What is just enough? Well, making sure we are doing the things that we need to in order to not suffer dire consequences. This is sometimes hard to parse, because our ADHD tends to influence us into thinking everything we are doing is important and a high priority. Be analytical about what actually needs to get done.

For my burnout situation, I made a list of all of the things I had to do, then wrote out what consequences would happen if I didn’t do them. Then, for the consequences, I kept asking myself “so what?”. And then I determined the minimum acceptable results I could have to avoid consequences.

For example, if I didn’t complete my recording for my virtual talk at the conference, they might have cut me from the programming, and I might get a reputation for not following through as a speaker. That’s a consequence that affects the rest of my career, so getting the recording done was a priority. But there were no consequences for turning in a presentation that was chopped up and edited instead of being shot all in one take. So that’s what I did.

For some things, it seemed like a priority until I worked all the way up the chain. For example, taking a trip to the bay area the fourth week of October to look for an apartment was critical for my move the second week of November. So were cleaning my house, giving away all the things I didn’t feel like moving, and doing the logistical work of hiring a moving company or reserving a moving truck. Finding a new therapist, primary care doctor to prescribe my meds, transferring my business license out of state, a new vet for my dog, etc, all critical for the move. But were they actually critical? No, because moving to the bay area was actually not critical.

So, I cut the move from my list of to dos and signed another year on my lease, which removed the majority of the stress from my list. Actually, it was a good thing to do that, because on this last holiday trip back to the bay area, I decided it wasn’t a great idea to move back there anyway. More about that in a later episode.

Ok, so once you get clarity on what actual critical things need to get done and the minimum on them you would have to do, analyze whether or not YOU have to do them, or if it’s possible to lean on someone during this period of downturn. Many of us feel guilt about taking up space, and don’t want to ask others for help, but doing so actually makes it easier for others to ask us for help when they need it. It always comes back around, and asking for help from others when we need it creates a beautiful community of helpfulness.

After you cut your list down to only things that are critical and schedule those in, fill up your day. What? Yeah, you heard me. Fill up your day with things that will rejuvenate you. And I don’t mean more tasks, although those can be a part of it if it’ll help you recover. I mean, what will allow you to feel cared for, and like you are doing something to recover from your burnout? For me, that was taking long hot baths, having mindful snuggle hours with my dog, having video chats with my best friends, and taking naps. If you’re at a loss for what to do to recover, a good guide is given in Burnout, a book written by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Deep belly laughs, crying, long hugs and kisses from loved ones, doing something creative, deep breathing, and physical activity. To be honest, crying is a great way to complete the stress cycle, and when I’m feeling worn down, I have a short list of movies I watch to cry it all out. Encanto, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, Spirited. I cry every time, without fail, and I instantly feel a little better.

If you can’t get yourself to do the recovery things on your list, it might be a signal that you’ve made them too hard to do in your current state. The further we go into burnout, the harder it is to do active recovery, like exercise, social interaction, and creative ventures. While those are self care activities that prevent us from burnout, and allow us to rapidly recover from burnout, they do require quite a bit of cognitive and emotional energy to even attempt. If you are deeper in the burnout hole, focus on things that you can do. Watch a movie that you love that makes you cry. Take a nap if you can. Give yourself a face massage. Forcing yourself to white knuckle through something that is supposed to rejuvenate you will not have the effect you want it to. Taking a small step forward with recovery is still a step toward recovery. Try not to rush the process. When you feel up to doing those active recovery things down the line is the best time for you to do them.

Don’t look at these recovery actions, including naps, as reasons to feel guilty about our lack of productivity, because doing these things is productive. They’re things we can do to feel empowered to recover from burnout. They are probably the most productive things we can do in those moments. Feeling guilt about doing them can completely negate the benefits, so try your best to feel good about doing them.

And try not to attach a desired result to this recovery time. We tend to do a lot of that. Like say if I take a nap, I will have to wake up and finish my presentation, or the nap will be a waste. Doing active recovery things is productive, even if there isn’t an immediate result. This is a process, not a quick fix.

Also, keep in mind that burnout is temporary. I know it doesn’t feel that way when we’re in it. It can feel like this is the new normal. It’s not. Burnout is not the time to make sweeping changes in our lives, because it doesn’t accurately reflect how we feel about things when we are at our normal state. When I was burned out in 2019, I thought about quitting my job everyday, and someone asked me what I wanted to do instead. What was my dream job? I said that I wanted to be a housecat. I wanted to lay out on the couch in the sun. I wanted to lounge around all day and just be cute. Yeah, that’s actually what I thought I wanted when I was burned out, and I can’t imagine thinking that way now, when I am so fulfilled with purpose and creating an impact. Burnout is a temporary state, and our wants and needs during burnout are also temporary. Don’t create permanent fixes to temporary needs.

And find as much solace in your current state as possible. After working on my recorded talk for the conference on how to cook when we just can’t, I didn’t have any energy left to think about food or even leave the house, so I made myself a bowl of instant mashed potatoes. The irony of eating a bowl of instant mashed potatoes after working on the subject of my talk did not escape me, but it did show me that I’m living my values, as my advice for the talk was to meet ourselves where we are, and eating those mashed potatoes did exactly that. And not having a strong desire to eat anything specific and defaulting to instant mashed potatoes? What an easy thing to satisfy my needs for the day. I reframed it into a win, and it definitely helped.

So after I drastically cut down the things I had to do, delivered on the most critical things, and filled my days with loving and pampering myself, I’m happy to report that I came out of burnout, and just in time, too! I was able to be back to my normal self in time to pack for my 3 week trip back to the bay area for the Thanksgiving holiday, then the International Conference on ADHD immediately after. Had I not done the recovery work in those critical few weeks, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain such an emotional and cognitively taxing 3 weeks of the trip. And after coming back home and repeating the recovery process again? I’m back to my normal self, and recording this podcast.

I can’t say that your burnout recovery process will be as quick as what I experienced, because letting go of guilt and frustration is hard to do, and not everyone has the privilege of being able to cut as much from their lives as I was able to in those moments, but I hope that when you are burned out, you are able to be kind to yourself and put these actions forward, because you deserve the time and space to get back to your normal self.

You’ve made it to the end of the episode on Recovering from Burnout. To recap, burnout can exasperate our ADHD symptoms, in a cycle that makes everything harder and harder over time without intervention. It can happen slowly, or be started by a trigger, like grief, hormonal changes, or an illness. Our ADHD can accelerate the burnout process, creating more stress and frustration, then greater ADHD symptoms, and spiraling down with both as it goes on.

Overcorrecting by working harder or longer tends to make burnout worse, and overcorrecting by doing nothing and feeling guilt about it also makes burnout worse. But we can do just enough if we analyze what is actually critical for us to do, and cut out the rest while we are in recovery. And we can fill up our days with things that will make burnout recovery more productive, even if that means napping and crying. Feeling good about doing burnout recovery things makes it more effective, even if we don’t see immediate results. And we need to keep in mind that burnout states are temporary, and it’s usually not wise to make sweeping changes in our lives based on how we feel when we are in burnout. During this temporary state, be kind to yourself and feel good about the process of recovery, because you deserve that time and space to get back to your normal self.

If you found this episode to be enjoyable or informative, please tell your friends and family members with ADHD, and/or give us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Seriously, those reviews are so important, and allow others to find us. If you want to read transcripts or show notes, find out more about me, Jaye Lin, or give suggestions on future episodes, please go to our website, npadhd.com. That’s the acronym for Now Presenting: ADHD, npadhd.com. Or you can follow us on Instagram,  @NPADHDpodcast, or my instagram, @adhdjaye. That’s A-D-H-D-J-A-Y-E. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you again soon!