Overwhelm, Burnout and Fear: Signs of the Second Barrier of ADHD

Episode 191

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In this podcast episode, Ash and Cam discuss the concept of being stuck at the second barrier in ADHD-action, focusing on the three barriers: awareness, action, and new learning. They continue to explore how these barriers overlap with coaching stages. The main discussion centers around three common states of being stuck: overwhelm, fear, and burnout. The hosts share insights into how to navigate each state, emphasizing the importance of self-care, breaking tasks into manageable steps, and addressing fear through developing accurate feedback loops and separating emotions from activities. The overall message is that being stuck is not a personal failing but a part of ADHD, and finding alternative ways to take action is possible . The hosts encourage curiosity and support to open doors to new approaches.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I’m Ash.

[00:00:08] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:08] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD. So, Cam, do you want to tell our listeners what it is we’re going to be discussing today? 

[00:00:14] Cam: This week we’re looking at that action, one in the sense of how do you know you might be stuck here at this second barrier. So again, the three barriers are the barriers to awareness. The second one is the barrier to action and the third is the barrier to new learning.

As listeners, you’ve heard Ash and I say that the barriers of ADHD overlap with the stages of coaching, right? There’s a discovery awareness phase into developing field work and practices, and action activity. You come back and you share your experience to mine the learning. With ADHD, it’s really hard to move through those, but if you can sort of, first of all, identify where you are, then that is half the battle. And likely, you’re probably stuck, if you are stuck, at all three to some degree, right? One may be more than the other. But identifying where you are is the first step to then navigating these barriers.

So, I thought it was so interesting. Just listeners and sort of the inside baseball piece here, and I are talking and we’re like, just like last week, there’s 7 different ways we can slice this thing. Kind of how to look at how you might be stuck. And so we chose one that’s indicative of the ARC cycle.

And so, actually, I think that was a great idea, is if you think about the ARC cycle, there’s that delay where you are delaying. And then there’s the intense activity. When push comes to shove, you’re nudged into action. You’re tapping into adrenaline. Dopamine is released. Norepinephrine is released. And you have that intense, beautiful, at times, scary, at other times, activity. It’s like a fire hose. And last week we talked about those dopamine bros who are like, you know, just give me the, you know, give me the way to control that fire hose, right?

So delay into intense activity into crash. And then recovery before the cycle starts again. And so Ash was perceptive to see how people show up stuck at this second barrier. None of his like places around this ARC cycle. And so we identified them as three in particular. So there are others, but we’re just picking these three because they probably cover about 90 percent of what we see as people coming to coaching.

[00:02:56] Ash: Before you name the three, Cam, I just want to say one more thing about the ARC, and that’s that I tend to refer to this in shorthand as being in reactive mode. One way or another, you’re reacting to input, and you don’t feel like you can otherwise get a handle on getting ahead of what’s going on in your life. It’s just a pure reaction to this. It’s firefighting is what it is. Even if you’re in a place where there is little activity and you’re, that’s typically indicative of being on that crash portion of an ARC cycle because of all of the reacting to firefighting that you’ve been doing.

[00:03:41] Cam: That’s great. And if this is ubiquitous with the ADHD experience it’s because we don’t have access to our prefrontal cortex and these executive function areas around activation for tasks for sustaining effort for motivation for energy expenditure and modulation for emotional regulation, attention, all these different areas. Because it’s difficult for us to access that area of the brain, we do what we have to do to be successful.

So we develop a coping mechanism to get things done. So how we do that is we develop a way to address the latest and loudest. As you said, we are pretty good at firefighting. We’re pretty good at responding to a real crisis, or we’re pretty good at fabricating a crisis around something to activate that whole ARC system.

So needless to say people come to coaching when things are no longer working. So often it’s this system is breaking down and you find yourself kind of stuck at one of the stages of the ARC cycle. Those three are overwhelm, fear, and burnout.

So I think we’ll start with overwhelm. And I know this one quite well, back to the sort of so many choices that it becomes overwhelming. It’s so hard for us to develop a sense of time depthness. Everything presents equally, and so when it presents equally, it’s hard to choose something before something else. You become overwhelmed with all these different choices, and then as you start to imagine going down one path, there’s another path that kind of lights up, and maybe you should be going over here.

So, overwhelm is the first one. It’s back to the rocks and the pond. Your metaphor, Ash. Of that, again, about journey thinking and stepping on to the next rock. Well, for some of us, there are so many rocks to choose from, and it becomes this exercise in frustration, decision making, will I make the right one?

And you can see how, again, well, wait a second, that sounds a little bit like a fear of, you know, picking the wrong one. So these, there’s some is bleeding over into these other categories of that overwhelm is infused by fear. And oh, by the way, what drives the ARC system is fear. Right? It’s that negative neural network that activates the amygdala to create urgency around something. So that’s the first one, overwhelm.

What we tend to do with overwhelm, as if someone comes into a state of overwhelm, is where we want to start to look at these choices. And start to place them on a depth chart, right? It’s sort of like that art class you had in perspective, you sort of see that there’s something up in the foreground and like, can we play something and start to put it in the background? What is an actual priority? Back to these questions around what truly matters.

Now, coaches, be careful about asking that question for someone in a state of overwhelm, because that can kind of do a brain kablooey. That kind of blows my mind, coach. So asking that, but also thinking about those useful tethers. What is the strength? What is the value? Asher, what is the need? All right, starting to do that values and needs exercise. To get a sense and a grounding that person can sort of feel some stability and safety before we proceed moving forward.

[00:07:32] Ash: Interestingly enough, when overwhelm is on the table, clients just want more action. How do I get more out of my days? Oftentimes I find, more often than not, far more often than not, I find that a big part of what becomes the path forward for that client is about introducing some self care, introducing some time and some space.

When we’re overwhelmed, there’s this perpetual feeling that there’s not enough time for anything. And so we throw self-care out the window. The other thing we throw out the window is planning. I don’t have time to sit down and plan. I don’t have time to sift through these things. I just need to act. I just need to keep acting, brute force it however I can.

An example of this is a client of mine who is a tenured college professor. So she’s got a variety of important things to attend to at any given time, her teaching and her students, her research work, and grants that might need to be applied for. And as you said, it all can end up on this even playing field where only the firefighting is happening. One of the things that has been beneficial for that client is carving out some time just for herself a couple of times a week. The time that she can be at choice.

Sometimes that time is to move those bigger picture, important but not urgent, projects forward. But other times, it’s about rest. Because a big part of what was getting in the way of my client was just being chronically fatigued and getting sick frequently. With two small children, she was running on empty all of the time. So building in this intentional place to check in with herself and ask the question of what do I need during this time? And giving herself permission for that need to rest and recognizing that rest is going to pay future dividends, which is something that we’re so bad at seeing as people with ADHD. Again I just need more activity. So the idea of less activity, the idea of more rest can be off-putting, Cam.

[00:10:03] Cam: And it sounds like that client might be a combination of overwhelm and burnout. I think that it’s indicative of our clients coming with this, I need to be doing more. All right. They’re coming with I need to be getting more done is indicative of them being stuck at this barrier, but it’s also indicative that they might be stuck at the other two barriers, too, or is it, again, this focus on, I’m not being productive.

And yes, so clients or excuse me, listeners, you might have a performance improvement plan. You might be up against a very real wall, right? A predicament where it’s like, you’ve got to get something done. And as Ash said, it’s like, you’re thinking I got to be more productive. I got to get into action. And in coaching, we’re looking for that, but it’s tethering that action to the other two areas of coaching, the awareness piece and the learning piece. To kind of think about outcomes, resources, because the other thing is I need to be more productive. And I alone have to be more productive.

If we’re urgent and we’re kind of camping out and trying to siphon off some ARC, the creativity goes out the window, right? This is the resourcefulness goes out the window. To think about, like, what creative way can I approach this? Who can I pull in that I might be able to resource, delegate, or collaborate with to take the first step? What is the next step to define a successful outcome? The other thing we’ll do is sort of wholesale it and think about the entire project and be completely overwhelmed by this whole thing versus the small key nuggets and steps that we need to take and can take to move the ball forward. 

[00:12:01] Ash: Cam, I agree with you that there’s burnout there for that client. And fear, too. I think that the three of these interplay for all of our clients to some degree. They’re not unique barriers to action. They’re just different stages of this same cycle or different elements of what might be a cause because she also has fear.

There’s the fear of, am I doing enough? Am I putting out enough? Am I, in terms of my research and my publishing? Am I keeping up the way I’m supposed to be? Keeping up, and I love what you just said about kind of breaking things apart. And actually I can give an example from the same client who is now at the end of the fall semester, which for my academic clients is just the worst time of year, because you have all the holiday stuff, all the end of year stuff that we all are managing, and the end of the semester, all piled on at one time.

And in the last session, I met with that client. One of the things we did, we broke apart some tasks. And this is such a, it sounds like such a silly thing, but it can be so effective, especially for a task like this. It was grading papers in the context of all the other end-of-year stuff. How do I get grading papers done? And it’s just this task that lives on my task list that I don’t get to cross off. And then she said, well, I guess I could cross it off if I broke it down instead of grade all the papers. How about grade 10 or grade 5? And so that’s what she did. She broke it down into smaller completions.

I’m not going to grade all 60 papers in one sitting. That’s never going to happen. I’m going to grade 5 to 10. So, she broke down the task by what she is going to be able to accomplish in a sitting and gets to check it off her list and that does make a difference. That marks a completion point that we would not have recognized before because if it’s just grading the papers.

And it’s not done until every paper is graded, but if it’s grade 5 or 10 at a time, then each time she sits down, that’s a completion. And that makes a difference. Because there’s a sense of accomplishment there that we don’t get if we’re just sitting down without a goal in mind and without knowing what completion today and this period looks like, or without recognizing the work that we’ve done. Okay. Yeah. I put in some work on that big project, but I don’t have a sense of where I’m at overall. It’s not done, so it doesn’t count

[00:14:32] Cam: I think there’s also coming into play there are sort of expectations. Right. Is that it’s, it can be so difficult for us to, again, when we’re in this reactive mode when we are limping along an ARC, I’m just going to go with that instead of like, overwhelmed fear and burnout are all these sorts of stations or places on the ARC cycle.

So you’ve faltered, you’re stuck and you’re not taking action because your ARC system has broken down. It’s there’s no more, there’s no more nectar there to harvest. 

[00:15:06] Ash: Or the completion in question will never be urgent.

[00:15:11] Cam: Well, and that’s the interesting thing that happens in coaching is we discover that there are things that will never, they will work in an ARC system because they’re not urgent, right? And these are these things that matter only to you, listeners, right?

This is why we go back to starting to identify what matters. Where can you get traction with ARC? And then starting to think about these other areas that we’ve got to develop a different way to engage with them. And then we in doing so also start to identify these things that we’re not necessarily paying attention to when we’re focused on getting into action, like expectations.

What are your expectations? We tend to send expectations up the flagpole. This sort of, as you said, it’s like, I’m going to grade these papers, and I’m going to write beautiful prose and narrative to every single person, right? Sort of that idea, that ideal response versus I got to get this stuff done because I got other things to do. So if I’m going to do these 10, I’m also going to not give each one 1 hour and all of my imagination, creativity, and response. Versus, okay let’s move through and developing a process and becoming a student of, you know, the whole completion process, which again is difficult for us to see is that kind of an incremental approach to getting things done.

It’d be lovely, Ash, if we could just do something like a project to completion. Put it down. Do another thing to completion. Our lives are not like that. In this modern society we live in, we’ve got multiple things that are going on that we’ve got to be able to attend to, move forward, put down, leave, do something else, and come back. And that context-switching can be very difficult for those of us with ADHD.

[00:17:15] Ash: Right? Alongside that, it can be difficult for us to define what’s good enough, which is what you were just speaking to. Right? We can envision the best outcome. But we often can’t envision what’s good enough in this place.

I have a new client that I’m really excited to dig in with who said, I’m just not me if I’m not giving 110 percent everywhere. And the way my life is right now, I can’t give 110 percent everywhere. And I feel like that’s a dilemma.

We often grapple with ADHD people, right? We think about the end outcome and, yeah, we imagine it perfectly done, and we’re capable of getting it perfectly done. Everything else is equal, but everything else isn’t equal, and we do everything we do to perfection, right?

Puts you right back through the cycle and into burnout. And that perfectionism thing, that 100 percent comes from that fear place. If I don’t do it perfectly, what will they think? If I don’t understand how other people are doing it, then I have to figure out how to do it, and I better do it the best I possibly can.

That’s a huge source of support for a number of my clients in professions like that, where you have colleagues, kind of like coaching, right? We have colleagues, we have other people we can talk to, but we’re rarely, if ever in the room together doing coaching. So you can’t know how other people do it unless you seek out that information.

[00:18:47] Cam: And that’s the, I think that points to the significance of accurate feedback loops. Right? So, again, in coaching with this, awareness action is a learning model for bringing this in, right? But it’s that, developing that fieldwork that is specifically discernible and achievable. And then invite the client to bring it back to the coaching and look for what worked and what didn’t work.

That’s in the coaching in the sense that we’re developing effective feedback loops inside the coaching relationship. We also encourage our clients to start to develop those outside of the coaching relationship again, to check in with someone to develop some accountability around working on something.

No, what I do is set dates. I set dates. I set meetings. I meet with people that way. I know I’m meeting with Ash on Monday. I need to be ready for that. How do I need to be ready for that? And that way, the other thing is we have this agreement that is just like last week. If we don’t have it, we know that we can try again the next day, right?

So this being empathetic to your needs, some days you just don’t have it in the tank to make it happen. 

[00:20:15] Ash: So, Cam, what has your attention from here?

[00:20:18] Cam: So what has my attention, Ash? I’m just looking at these three areas of overwhelm, fear and burnout, and listeners are probably thinking a little bit like, okay, well, you know, I can identify fear. It’s going on of a little trepidation of taking the next step. It might be a mix of fear and overwhelm, might be some burnout. I’d be like, I got nothing in the tank.

So, listeners, you’re identifying a kind of mix of these three to kind of notice which one is most prevalent, which one is most prevalent. And I think that Ash and I can help you with this. And to think about each one. So for overwhelming burnout, it is, it was Ash said earlier, actually starting with self-care. Burnout means that you don’t have anything in the tank. And so you’re pressing on the accelerator and your fuel tank is on empty. So it’s doing something to put some fuel back in the tank, some kind of self-care. Yesterday excuse me, yeah, Sunday, I go out, I go for my mountain bike ride, one hour, in the woods, by myself, let my brain just wander while I’m doing my thing, staying on the trail, staying on the bike, and it just is a replenishing activity for me.

So it’s first of all, knowing what that is, and this is one of those things with ADHD. We know, but then the knowing fades, and we forget. So it’s like, listeners, thinking about what are those things that you can do to replenish, to refuel, so you can put a little bit more juice in the tank. 

[00:22:02] Ash: Cam, I love that you said self-care for both burnout and overwhelm. The number one and two solutions, and I don’t know which one’s 1 and which one’s 2. For my clients, when they’re overwhelmed, they are getting out in nature or getting some physical activity or some combination thereof.

And listeners. I don’t say that to say that’s what you should do. I say that to illustrate what this does for my clients. It’s a context change and an environment change, which is just like a soft reset for the day, instead of sitting overwhelmed and spinning their wheels, breaking the cycle. Doing something that puts a little something back in the tank, particularly nature and physical activity, has a known positive impact on executive function. And then they come back with some clarity, some ability to distinguish, some ability to pick a place to engage, or they don’t. And they come with the clarity of, hey, maybe I don’t have it. Is anything in the tank today? So what is possible now? Right. It creates this space and enough mental bandwidth to zoom out and be at choice a little bit about what happens next.

[00:23:29] Cam: Finally, with fear, I wonder if this might even be an episode unto itself again, how fear can get in the way of getting into action. So we can hit it at a top high level here today, but this is where I see how emotions and fear come into and inform procrastination.

So this, the thing there I think is starting to develop that keen observer and notice what is the fear? What is the emotion? How is it influencing? How is it coming into play and often feel it in your body? How’s it showing up in your body – speaking with a friend to get and create some narrative, either put it into a journal or share it with a friend – this way it is getting out of your head because what happens is the fear will activate that negative self-talk, which is a whole nother cycle unto itself.

And when we’re in negative self-talk, it is so hard to get into action because we are just ruminating and going on some kind of amusement park ride we do not want to be on, so identifying, getting the language out, sharing it with a friend, putting it in a journal. And start to think about what is scary about the thing you want to do. And separating the emotion from the activity to look at them objectively and how they might be informing each other.

[00:25:04] Ash: Cam, I love what you just said about fear. With our contextual brains, when we keep it inside, that fear can just mushroom. It starts with whatever the actual dilemma is and whatever the fear tied to that is, but we start dragging in all of these others. Negative context points, this past context, and that’s how, and I’m sure listeners that you know exactly what I’m talking about, we can go from fear around a specific thing to I’m just a failure at everything. I’m worthless. I’m no good.

And so getting it out allows you to kind of separate and name the fear. Separate from all of that other unrelated context that’s trying to ride along. And it also allows you to examine it, which we’ve talked about in recent episodes, to look at your words and hear them and/or see them. And think about and distinguish what’s true here and what’s not, because we can dream up all sorts of fantastical potential catastrophic outcomes. 

[00:26:13] Cam: And I just want to remind listeners that the overwhelm, the fear, the burnout and us utilizing and relying on the ARC system is because we don’t have a reliable system to proactively identify something, take action on it, and then move on to something else. That it’s not a personal failing. This is a part of your ADHD.

And when you start to turn your attention to developing alternative energy sources, and so just, I always, I often use renewables, right? It’s sort of like we’re, we’ve got the coal-burning plant and we’ve been relying on that for years. And starting to think about, like, what’s the wind option, what’s the solar option, these different ways of engaging to take action.

You’re at this barrier because you’ve tapped out this system, right? This source of energy is you’ve mined that, and now we have a slag heap and it’s like, we can’t keep trying to access that system. We need to find other ways to take action. We need to take creativity and move it from the procrastination area into the action area.

That’s another thing we do, is we’re very creative in our avoidance. And so thinking about what are the things I want to do. We can’t do it all. Limiting expectations, finding supporters that are going to support us and not judge us or be critical of us when we do it and if we’re successful. But having support on the front side of the activity and the backside so that as you go through, you can look at the learning and see how the ADHD specifically shows up.

This is the thing I do with my clients, Ash and I, we do this with our clients. It’s like, this is a prime opportunity to see your ADHD and how it shows up for you. And we infuse the whole arena with curiosity. Then we can open the door to other ways to address this. So when we stop trying to mine this resource that is not giving us any more, we walk away for a moment. It starts to replenish on its own. You’re tapping into, it’s like you’re, you’ve got a well and you’ve got groundwater and that the groundwater table has dropped too low. We’ve got to let that aquifer naturally fill. So it will, but we can’t just keep accessing this ARC. There are other ways to take action.

[00:28:55] Ash: Well said, Cam, and I’ll just chime in and say that’s playing out right now for the client of mine we’ve been talking about today. I talked about how she’s at the end of the semester, and it’s a bad time of year, but guess what? Even then, she’s having a different experience. She’s having a better experience. And there is real urgency. There will always be real urgency. We’re not trying to eliminate that response. We’re just trying to diversify and find other avenues to get to action. So that’s there when we need it.

[00:29:30] Cam: I think that’s a great place to finish up today, Ash.

[00:29:33] Ash: Agreed, Cam. So until next week, I’m Ash.

[00:29:36] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:29:36] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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