For a lot of ADHD’ers, burnout is a frequent unwelcome companion. This is because being ADHD makes us more susceptible to burnout, it changes what burnout feels like, and what it takes to heal from it. Let's talk about it!...
What is burnout?
Burnout is more than just stress or frequent overwhelm. People experiencing burnout don't generally feel like it goes away with short-term rest. Burnout is a state of near constant exhaustion often coupled with a sense of ineffectiveness and negative perceptions of other people. During burnout, our accomplishments can feel hollow and meaningless, and we can experience cynical or even antagonistic thoughts towards clients, peers, or others.
Because we live in a capitalist hellscape, burnout is almost always considered a work-related problem that impacts our ability to ‘be productive.’ But for ADHD'ers, burnout can and does arise from other areas of our lives and wreaks utter havoc on these areas.
Importantly, there's more than one type of burnout. In fact, for ADHD (and autistic people) in particular, there are at least three types that probably feel a little too relevant for comfort:
Understimulation burnout, and
Value disconnect burnout.
When people think about burnout, overload burnout is often the first thing they think about. This type of burnout arises from taking on too much for too long. This can be too many responsibilities, commitments, and/or tasks with not enough time to recover in between. Put another way, overload burnout comes from chronically spending more energy than we have. To make up for the shortfall on a day-to-day basis, we borrow energy from other systems or from our future self, often at high interest rates. Burnout is that energy debt coming due.
People with ADHD are more susceptible to overload burnout for a bunch of reasons. For example, because many ADHD’ers struggle to instinctively know how long tasks are going to take us, we can greatly underestimate the time needed, leading us to overcommit again and again. As another example, the need for stimulation that a lot of ADHD'ers have can lead to a go-go-go mentality where we act first and plan and prioritise later. This can lead us to take on too much and drive us into overload and burnout in the longer term.
While ADHD symptoms certainly contribute to ADHD’ers susceptibility to burnout, so too can the perceptions of others and our responses to those perceptions. A lifetime of experience with the narrative that our ADHD makes us lazy, flaky, or unmotivated can lead us to feel like we constantly need to prove ourselves or to give up on our own needs to satisfy the needs of others. Combined with the very real need for external sources of accountability that many of us experience, ADHD’ers are much more likely to burn themselves out trying not to upset other people.
Recovering from chronic overload
In order to recover from overload burnout, the primary solution is to do less, and then do less than that. Because overload burnout is the result of chronically spending more energy than we have, the only way to start healing from burnout is to reduce how much energy we’re spending. However, because we’ve been borrowing energy over and over again to make up the shortfall, healing from burnout means we have to pay that energy back, with interest. This is why burnout recovery can take so much time.
This means that to heal from burnout, we often need to reduce our responsibilities and expectations below a sustainable level. During recovery, our expectations of ourselves can’t be to just break even energy wise; instead, we need to make sure we have extra to pay down that debt. Put another way, if we barely have the energy to meet our responsibilities, it’s probably still too hard. Rather, our responsibilities should probably feel downright easy, if not too easy, to ensure we’re actually recovering.
Autistic burnout is important to talk about in relation to ADHD and burnout precisely because ADHD’ers are so much more likely to also be autistic. Much like overload burnout, autistic burnout is primarily caused by spending more energy than we have over a prolonged period of time. What makes autistic burnout unique, however, is that this prolonged overload is primarily a result of being autistic in a neurotypical world. Specifically, navigating, self-regulating, and masking in a world that doesn't take autistic needs into consideration can, by themselves, take more energy than we have. Over the long term, this energy debt can lead to burnout.
Unlike burning out in other ways, however, we can't just stop coping with the world around us. We still need to feed ourselves, care for ourselves, and do all the basic functions of life. More than that, we simply can’t escape the need to process and regulate sensory input. Together, all of this means there’s a large amount of built in energy expenditures in the autistic experience. This hopefully makes it obvious why autistic people are more prone to burnout, why autistic burnout is so incredibly impactful to our lives, and why recovering from autistic burnout is so incredibly difficult.
Recovering from autistic burnout
Similar to overload burnout, the only way to recover from autistic burnout is to reduce our energy expenditures enough that we can pay back the energy we borrowed, with interest. The problem, of course, is that when that energy expenditure is the basics of life, reducing these demands isn't easy and it's not even always possible. This means getting support, using accommodations, and simply not functioning is often essential to recovering from autistic burnout.
As we burnout, even tasks we used to complete (seemingly) effortlessly can become energy intensive. Feeling incompetent as we lose skills and lose pieces of our independence can make us ashamed to reach out for help, but asking for support, such as getting support around energy expensive care tasks, is incredibly valuable. When this support isn’t available, providing ourselves with accommodations that reduce the energy expenditure of the task can also be of major benefit. This could mean, for example, relying more on noise-cancelling headphones, changing what ‘complete’ means for specific tasks, or reducing the frequency of tasks. The final option for a lot of people is simply not functioning (hopefully at times where it is safe to do so). This might mean consciously deciding not to process information even if this leaves us to be confused or awkward, or reducing the amount we mask, for example.
Understimulation is painful experience for many people with ADHD. Oddly, being understimulated can be just as overwhelming for ADHD’ers as being overstimulated can. Speaking personally, understimulation can destroy my mood and make me feel stuck in a never ending loop of desperately wanting to do ANYTHING, but also distinctly not wanting to do any of the options available to me.
Over the long term, understimulation can lead to its own form of burnout where we lack the stimulation and novelty our brain needs, leading us to feel that we're not being challenged enough or that we aren't growing or advancing. Because novelty and challenge are two of the best fuels for task initiation for people with ADHD, lacking these elements in a long-term way can make getting started on tasks impossibly hard. This struggle can destroy our sense of effectiveness and lead to frequent distraction as our thoughts drift to existential questions about what it all means (or is that just me?).
One major reason why this type of burnout is such a problem for ADHD'ers is because we can fall into understimulation a lot faster and a lot deeper than our non-ADHD peers. This means we can be burning out from boredom before non-ADHD'ers even feel bored in the first place. This type of burnout is notorious for leading to project- or job-hopping for some ADHD'ers, where we change projects, hobbies, or jobs more quickly than is helpful for our skill or career development.
Recovering from chronic understimulation
Healing from this type of burnout can look like almost the exact opposite of healing from overload burnout. Taking on more tasks, responsibilities, or commitments can help add challenge, but may not be the best long-term fix. After all, it is possible to burnout in both of these ways at the same time by having too much to do, but all of it being too boring.
A more sustainable way to heal from this burnout is to include more naturally occurring sources of novelty into the area of life that’s understimulating. These can be new consulting projects, new hobbies, or new social groups that regularly change over time. Making this novelty something that happens naturally, in a way that doesn’t require constantly spending energy to seek it out, can really protect us from this type of burnout. For me, working with new clients is this source of novelty and goes a long way to helping prevent this type of burnout.
The final type of burnout I’m going to talk about here is value disconnect burnout, which happens when our core values and our tasks, responsibilities, and commitments aren't aligned. This often happens when core values or tasks slowly shift over time, such as in the case of a job that slowly becomes less aligned with our values. This type of burnout is more common for folks who experience outsized pressure to take on tasks that aren’t aligned with their values, such as needing to work a job primarily to make ends meet.
ADHD'ers can be more susceptible to this type of burnout for a few main reasons. First, ADHD’ers often prioritize interest and novelty over long-term goals or values in a way that non-ADHD’ers don’t. This can lead us to making commitments that don’t align with our values in the long-term, or leads us to struggle to identify our core values in the first place. Adding this to ADHD related struggles with impulsivity and time perception, it is far easier for ADHD’ers to find themselves committed to responsibilities that aren’t a good fit for their core values.
Second, both some ADHD and autistic people can be much more sensitive to challenges to our values, especially around a personal sense of fairness or justice. This sensitivity can make even small misalignments feel like much more of a disconnect for some people, and in some cases this can make these misalignments feel physically painful.
Reconnecting with our values
The main way to heal from this type of burnout is to realign our values and our responsibilities and actions. Understanding what our core values are, accepting that these may change over time (especially for ADHD'ers), and regularly assessing if we're actually doing things related to our values is the first step in recognizing and addressing this type of burnout.
The next step in this process is to make changes that increase how often we’re acting in accordance with our values. This can be through one large change all at once or a series of smaller ones over a period of time. Whatever the approach, this can't be a one-and-done kind of thing. As our responsibilities and interests continue to change, we can drift out of alignment again. Scheduling some time on occasion to re-assess this alignment (and make changes as necessary) is the only way to protect ourselves from this type of burnout.
Of course, this process is made much harder when there is outside pressure that makes acting in accordance to our values more difficult. When working in a job that isn’t aligned with our values to meet our basic needs, for example, having strong boundaries is important to healing. The specific boundaries will differ from person to person, but making time to engage in more value-aligned responsibilities (especially as meaning-making or leisure activities) is particularly important.
Most people with ADHD have or will experience burnout. Regardless of the type of burnout, having ADHD increases our susceptibility to this burnout. Being aware of our energy expenditures, stimulation levels, and our values can help us identify burnout before it becomes life-altering-ly bad and offers us an opportunity to start the recovery process. Whether it’s at work or in other parts of our lives, burnout is a frequent unwelcome companion, but it doesn’t have to be.