Why Your ADHD Is Worse Right Now, Even if You Don’t Have ADHD

Teenager holding a fidget spinner.
Photo: Carol Yepes/Getty Images

This week, a viral TikTok dispelled the common misperception of ADHD as just a childlike distractibility (“I’m going to write this email. Oh look, a squirrel!”). The video amassed over 1.4 million views on Twitter in just over a day.

ADHD is having a moment. And it’s no surprise to me: 2020 has wreaked havoc on my own ADHD-addled attention span. Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, you may have noticed similar effects: switching fruitlessly between tasks; trouble prioritizing; forgetfulness.

During the agonizing waiting game of the presidential election, it seemed that the only thing people could talk about, besides the election itself, was the sudden depletion of their attention spans. Now, with the election mostly behind us, Covid cases rising precipitously, and the holidays ahead, we have new uncertainties to freak out over. Do we cancel family get-togethers? Layer up to socialize outside, with chattering teeth? Should we avoid leaving the house at all? And amid all of this, life goes on — rudely demanding that we complete our daily functions, attention span or no. It’s an ADHD experience for all of us. Here’s why, and how to address it.

Overloaded brains are inefficient brains

One term for this is “analysis paralysis.” When we feel overloaded, whether by tasks to get done or information to process, we may experience a pang of indecision. Our brains see all the myriad items competing for our attention and get stuck on which item to attack first. So much choice! Which choice to choose? (President Barack Obama famously wore only gray or blue suits for this reason: to pare down his decision fatigue, and devote his thinking muscles to running the country, and Mark Zuckerberg’s gray-tee-and-hoodie uniform freed up the mental space for him to do… whatever he does.)

The rest of us often find ourselves oscillating between items on our to-do list, squandering focus — and time — in the process. That, or we procrastinate. Or we do both at once.

It can be tempting to chastise ourselves for these behaviors, seeing them as disorganization or laziness. But they can also be the result of a hiccup in our brain’s executive function: the mental processes involved in focusing attention, planning, and following through on a sequence of tasks.

Despite all the evidence that multitasking is rarely effective, we persist in juggling many tasks at once.

Stress is triggering our survival responses

Think of how your computer gets sluggish when you have too many open browser tabs, or when you open up a news site with way too many pop-up ads. Your brain’s executive function works in much the same way. Too many inputs of information at once, and you’re liable to get bogged down in a vortex of cognitive noise.

ADHD is a diagnosis given to people whose brains manifest this kind of executive dysfunction as a result of “wiring,” to use the common metaphor. But most people are susceptible to some degree of executive dysfunction, including short-term and circumstantial. Doom scrolling, or thumbing aimlessly through your news feed with mounting dread, is arguably the byproduct of a burned-out executive function. Another is “coronabrain,” the sudden debilitation of memory and focus that many of us noticed early in the pandemic when everything about our “new normal” was scary and unknown.

Which brings us to the role of stress in this sticky situation. Stress and anxiety activate the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system — the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response. And when we’re in anxiety mode, the limbic system plays a greater role in our cognitive processes like decision-making.

That survival response comes in handy when you’re a cave-person facing down a barreling grizzly bear. But crisis mode doesn’t particularly serve most of us in our day-to-day function. We’re sending emails, not averting hungry predators. Shutting down or running away isn’t going to help.

We need our prefrontal cortices to snap back into action.

Managing your stress will improve your attention span

What we have on our hands are two mutually reinforcing obstacles: scattered focus on the one hand, and anxiety and stress on the other. An excellent bit of news: addressing one can help alleviate the other. To paraphrase the therapist and Forge writer, Kathleen Smith, strategizing a game plan for tackling your to-dos reengages your frontal lobe, which shifts you away from anxiety brain and toward a more purposeful way of thinking.

And choosing an ADHD-compatible strategy for getting things done may actually work better for your attention span than trying to grind your way through an itemized list of tasks.

The viral video on Twitter yielded wide-ranging discussion over ADHD misconceptions and personal, ADHD-tested hacks for getting things done. Scrolling through, I was reminded that those of us with ADHD have often gathered, by necessity, a wealth of organizational wisdom. More than one tweet made me think of the productivity expert Kara Cutruzzula’s suggestion, in Forge, to maintain a working list of everything you want to accomplish, urgent and not. Others recommended planning for your entire week in advance — a system championed by the computer science professor and productivity author Cal Newport.

From personal experience, I endorse a combination of both approaches. Looking ahead at all the things you need (and want) to do, in the days ahead, will help you figure out how to allocate your time. Mindful planning will help prevent action items from falling through the cracks of your day-to-day minutiae — which will keep you from worrying too much. Above all else, being more purposeful about your time will re-instill your sense of control.

There are few things more cosmically disempowering than feeling out of step with your own brain. But a little bit of strategizing goes a long, long way. And these days, that relief is vital.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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