What Is The ADHD Burnout Cycle? (And 6 Ways to Prevent It)

Woman in ADHD burnout sitting at desk is stressed and has sticky notes all over desk and one on head

Last year I was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) while I was on stress leave from my career. To say I was shocked when I received the diagnosis would be an understatement. At the time I possessed that worrisome old-school mentality that ADHD was something that only hyper little boys who couldn’t sit still or pay attention in the classroom had.

I didn’t realize that most women with ADHD don’t get an accurate diagnosis until their late thirties and early forties.

Looking back, the number one symptom I was personally struggling with was chronic overwhelm, or burnout. In ADHD this can also be called the burnout cycle. 

In this post, we will go over exactly what the ADHD burnout cycle is, why the ADHD burnout cycle happens, and 8 tips for how to prevent it.  

What is ADHD burnout? 

Most people can say they have experienced a state of burnout or near burnout at some point in their lifetime. 

Everyone has felt like they are trying to do one million things at a time before. Trying to juggle school, work, family and all of your other obligations can lead to you feeling so overwhelmed that you can no longer find the motivation to do anything, let alone tackle that to-do list. When that happens many people often start to withdraw and neglect their responsibilities. 

This is how neurotypical people experience burnout, however, if you have ADHD there are many other parts to this at play. Neurodivergent people tend to people please, and struggle with boundaries, which leads to us overcommitting and overextending ourselves. Eventually, we may begin to feel better or seek help, and things feel better again for a while. So then we begin people pleasing and overcommitting all over again and those same feelings of burnout or overwhelm come creeping back.

That is the ADHD burnout cycle. 

What are some symptoms of ADHD burnout? 

Some symptoms of ADHD burnout are:

  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Decreased motivation 
  • Guilt 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Irritability 
  • Difficulty regulating emotions 
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Challenges at work or school 

I know what you might be thinking, “those sound like very broad symptoms that could be any other mental health disorder as well”. And that is true. The overlap of these symptoms as well as comorbid conditions like anxiety, depression and autism can make it hard for those of us with ADHD to identify exactly when we are actually struggling with ADHD burnout. They also make it more difficult to manage the burnout itself. However, people with ADHD tend to over-commit or overextend themselves more than a neurotypical person, and then be too exhausted to do all or any of the things. 

In simple terms, we frequently bite off more than we can chew, and when you start to notice this, the chances are you are on your way to burnout.  

What are the steps of ADHD burnout cycle?

A graphic of the steps of the ADHD burnout cycle

1) Commitment or hyperfixation  

We are excited to work and it feels great because everything is going well

2) People pleasing and struggling to say no 

We start taking on more and more tasks onto our plates

3) Overcommitment or overextension of ourselves and difficulty with time management 

We start missing things. Tasks become boring or stressful.

4) Retreat and guilt

We possibly start self-medicating. Start neglecting other aspects of life to meet deadlines. Start feeling guilty and like a failure, but too afraid to ask for help.

5) Overwhelm shutdown  

We are overworked and isolated from friends and family. Can’t do anything productive. Have trouble with daily self-care tasks.

6) Quitting 

Abandons our goals or tasks. Starts to feel better because the weight is off our shoulders but still feels guilty and “useless”

Then we start the cycle all over again.

Why does the ADHD burnout cycle happen? 

1) We struggle to create boundaries. 

Like I said above, people with ADHD are often people, pleasers. We often feel bad or guilty for telling people no, for fear of being rejected or disappointing people so we say yes. Even if we are overextending ourselves. 

2) We are overcompensating 

Whether you were diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, or not until later in life, most of us can relate to trying to “make up” for our ADHD. We were often told we weren’t trying hard enough or were too hyper, or not paying attention, or talking too much, or not enough etc.

So many of us internalize the false thoughts that we are hyper, or lazy, or stupid, and we try to prove the world wrong by doing other things really well, or doing too much. It also makes it difficult for us to accept help or admit we are struggling because we don’t want to let anyone else down.  

3) We are masking 

Masking is a term used when someone with ADHD is attempting to appear neurotypical. Most of the time we don’t even realize we are doing it, and therefore why so many people, especially women, go undiagnosed until later in life. It can be exhausting fighting against the way your brain wants to work, which contributes to overwhelm. 

4) Guilt 

When people already think we are lazy, the thought of resting can bring on a sense of immense guilt. Sometimes it can feel easier to always be moving and doing something, rather than be judged by others. Some of us also worry that if we stop to rest that we won’t be able to find the motivation to get started again. 

5) We don’t recognize our own limits 

It can be difficult for those of us who have ADHD to organize, prioritize or initiate our tasks which can lead to us struggling with time management. Without creating boundaries we continue to take on more and more tasks, not realizing there is already too much on our plate until we are already overwhelmed.   

6) ADHD hyperfocus 

People with ADHD also experience hyperfocus, which is something that happens when we become “obsessed” or fully focused on something—so focused that we neglect everything else including ourselves. This period can last for hours, days, or sometimes even weeks, which contributes to the ADHD burnout cycle. 

8 Ways to prevent the ADHD burnout cycle 

1) Plan to take extra time for everything 

If you know that you have a problem with time management, giving yourself extra time to get things done will help reduce stress. It is better to overestimate and have some extra time on your hands. You could spend that time focusing on your self-care. 

2) Make self-care a priority 

By taking care of yourself and your needs first anything else, you help prevent burnout and actually become more productive in the long run, because you no longer have to deal with the downtime that comes with burnout.  

3) Know when to say no—and then don’t feel bad about it 

You need to practice recognizing when you are not able to take on anything else at the moment. Learning your limits, and then enforcing them when needed will prevent you from burning out.  

4) Ask for help where needed 

It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to ask other people for help. It could be your partner, a co-worker, a classmate, a friend or family member. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember that not everyone can tell when you may be struggling or overwhelmed. Asking for others to help take some of the load off of you can make an immediate difference. 

5) Prioritize your tasks 

Trying to tackle all of your tasks at once can add a lot of unneeded pressure to an already stressful situation. By picking the most important things and handling them first, it can help so your list doesn’t feel so daunting.  

6) Reduce your stress 

This one is much easier said than done, but if there is any way you can eliminate anything that may be contributing to your stress, now would be the time to do so. By reducing some of those factors that may be adding to your stress, it’s like taking a few steps away from overwhelm instead of towards them. 

7) Create better work-life balance 

One of the ways you can reduce your stress is by maintaining a work-life balance. So many of us are guilty of taking our jobs home with us at the end of the day, but if we can develop the ability to disconnect and truly enjoy our time away from our jobs, we will be much less stressed.  

8) Reach out to a mental health professional 

If you feel like burnout is on the horizon, it is a good idea to reach out to a professional for help. A change in medication or some new strategies can make all the difference in the world.  

Struggling with the ADHD burnout cycle might seem like a lot, but by learning more about it and what we can do to prevent it, it makes it much more manageable.

Scroll to Top