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16 min read

What is ADHD paralysis? How do I treat it?

Written by Klarity Editorial Team

Published: Apr 25, 2022

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Zoe Russell

Table of contents

ADHD paralysis goes by many names — analysis paralysis, couch lock, or task freeze — but the symptoms are always the same. ADHD paralysis is when someone with ADHD becomes overwhelmed by too much information or too many tasks. Often, a person experiencing ADHD paralysis finds it challenging to begin a task, assignment, or project because doing so feels apprehensive and overwhelming.

Though anyone can experience analysis paralysis at times, for people with an ADHD diagnosis, ADHD paralysis is an everyday occurrence. A person experiencing ADHD paralysis will find starting a large, complex project extremely daunting. 

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If they manage to start their project, they might have trouble maintaining their focus and attention, getting bogged down by minor details, or becoming distracted altogether.

Analysis paralysis is especially troublesome for people with ADHD. When you are overwhelmed by ADHD symptoms, making executive decisions—like finding ADHD treatment— becomes extremely difficult. 

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We’ve removed all the hassle, stress, and anxiety from finding effective ADHD treatment online. Klarity will connect you with a board-certified ADHD-trained medical provider who can diagnose ADHD and prescribe ADHD treatment online.   

ADHD paralysis symptoms in adults

Though ADHD paralysis can manifest itself differently in different people, generally, a person experiencing paralysis resulting from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder will:

  • Feel uncertain about how to begin a project, task, or assignment.
  • Not know which step to take first when starting a project, task, or assignment.
  • Overthink or overanalyze many different solutions to a problem.
  • Suddenly draw a blank when it comes time to start a new task or project.
  • Be unable to focus if they manage to start and get easily distracted.
  • Have poor time management skills, including time blindness
  • Have brain fog that prevents them from thinking clearly and being proactive 
  • Experience sudden mood swings and emotional changes, like getting easily frustrated
  • Be unable to make important decisions
  • Move from one task to another without accomplishing anything 

Why does ADHD paralysis happen?

ADHD paralysis, also known as analysis paralysis or task freeze, occurs when individuals with ADHD feel overwhelmed by information or tasks. It makes initiating tasks challenging due to apprehension and feeling overwhelmed. While anyone can experience analysis paralysis, it occurs more often in those with ADHD. Starting complex projects becomes daunting, and maintaining focus and attention becomes difficult. 

ADHD paralysis is caused by impaired executive function—typically called executive dysfunction. Executive function regulates attention, information processing, and decision-making, so executive dysfunction in ADHD looks like challenges with working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. 

Working memory challenges hinder task processing, cognitive flexibility limits adaptation to new information, and inhibitory control leads to increased susceptibility to distractions. 

Together, these factors result in mental, choice, or task paralysis. Mental paralysis occurs when sensory or emotional overload causes the brain to shut down. Choice paralysis arises from rumination and indecision due to numerous options. Task paralysis, similar to procrastination, occurs when less appealing tasks trigger dread or panic. Each kind of paralysis makes it difficult or impossible to complete tasks, which may cause those with ADHD to appear “lazy”—even though they’re not.

It’s also important to differentiate ADHD paralysis from depression and procrastination. ADHD paralysis inhibits task initiation or completion, while depression affects overall engagement and enjoyment. Procrastination is not exclusive to ADHD and can affect those with anxiety or who simply feel unmotivated to complete certain tasks. With ADHD paralysis, the person often wants to complete tasks but feels unable to do so due to executive dysfunction.

What is executive dysfunction in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?

Executive dysfunction is a term used to describe problems with a person’s executive function. A person’s ability to make and change plans, monitor and regulate their behaviors, manage their time effectively, and organize their thoughts are all considered executive functions. Therefore, any issues in performing these executive functions are considered part of impaired executive function).

The 3 areas of dxecutive function

ADHD brains often have trouble with three main areas of executive functioning: their working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. A person experiencing ADHD paralysis is having a problem in one or more of these three areas:

Working memory

Working memory is an essential part of our brain’s information-processing system. It evolved to help us hold, process, and reproduce essential bits of information in a limited capacity. Remembering a phone number, for example, involves working memory.

Working memory is important for critical thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making. When people have impairments to their working memory, it is difficult to process, order, and execute different tasks. 

Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to change thoughts and behaviors to account for new and developing information. Someone who is cognitively inflexible cannot adapt well to changes in their environment or when things do not go according to plan—and things often change or do not go according to plan.

When people experience ADHD paralysis, they might be unable to process new and developing information. They may lack the cognitive flexibility to account for changes to their initial plan or the circumstances affecting them.

Inhibitory control

Inhibitory control is a self-regulating mechanism that prevents people from carrying out inappropriate impulses and behaviors. People with trouble with inhibitory control may be more impulsive or more likely to act out their aggressions and impulses.

People with ADHD who lack inhibitory control may be unable to shake off the effects of ADHD paralysis when it happens. They may be less resistant to distractions and procrastination because they have trouble regulating their responses to these distractions.

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What are the 3 types of ADHD paralysis?

There are 3 major types of ADHD paralysis that many people with ADHD can experience. They are mental paralysis, task paralysis, and choice paralysis.

  1. ADHD mental paralysis: mental paralysis occurs when a person is overwhelmed by thoughts, fears, emotions, or information. Their brain has difficulty processing the influx of sensory or emotional information and shuts down due to the overload. A person might experience ADHD mental paralysis and “freeze up” during a stressful or intense activity, conversation, or interaction.
  2. ADHD choice paralysis: When a person is faced with too many choices, they may get caught up ruminating about the possible solutions or outcomes and never get around to making a decision. This phenomenon is called choice paralysis. People might experience choice paralysis when they have to make a quick decision that will have consequences. The weight of responsibility and the potential unknown outcomes contribute to the paralysis.
  3. ADHD task paralysis: When a person with ADHD feels a sense of dread, fear, or panic that paralyzes them when they think of an important task they need to complete, it is considered task paralysis. Similar to procrastination, task paralysis is usually triggered by the thought of completing big projects or making vitally important life changes.  

ADHD paralysis vs depression

Some of the symptoms of depression overlap with symptoms of ADHD paralysis. People who are depressed may have difficulty engaging in activities they used to enjoy. They might put off work or starting a project because they experience overwhelming feelings of sadness and worthlessness, which prevent them from getting started. On a symptoms level, there are similarities between these two mental health disorders.

On the surface level, this seems similar to symptoms of ADHD paralysis. However, it’s important to distinguish between ADHD paralysis and depression. Though ADHD paralysis and depression may prevent a person from making important decisions or completing work, the difference between the two lies in the inability to start or finish a task.

Depressed people often find it difficult to do anything and everything. In contrast, people with ADHD can usually do things that interest them with little to no issues. It’s the activities they don’t enjoy so much that can cause them to become distracted and paralyzed. 

ADHD paralysis vs procrastination

It is also vital to distinguish between ADHD paralysis and procrastination. Even though procrastination is associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it is not a widely recognized sign or symptom unique to ADHD. Everyone is prone to procrastinate from time to time, regardless of their mental health. 

However, people with ADHD paralysis might experience more extreme cases of procrastination. ADHD paralysis, which involves overwhelming feelings of indecision and uncertainty that lead to an inability to start tasks, is quite different than putting off running an errand or completing a task just because it isn’t enjoyable. Procrastination is more severe in people who have problems with executive functioning.

4 ADHD paralysis treatment tips

Treating ADHD can help alleviate ADHD paralysis. The usual treatment for ADHD is a combination of ADHD medication and talk therapy designed to help patients identify and address the negative thoughts that may influence behavior.

In addition to the standard ADHD treatment methods, there are some behavioral changes people with ADHD can make to manage symptoms like ADHD paralysis better.

  1. Plan tasks on a calendar

To prevent feeling overwhelmed, people experiencing ADHD paralysis can keep a planner to help them manage where they must be and when. This method keeps them well aware of what they must do, where they must be, and who they must see. Making planning tasks a habit protects against ADHD paralysis because it keeps events and obligations from creeping up on them. 

  1. Avoid digital overstimulation

Sensory overload can feed ADHD paralysis. Spending too much time staring at screens can overwhelm their senses and cause them to shut down. When a person with ADHD has to get something done, they should go out of their way to control the environment they have to work in. Ideally, you should strive to minimize noise and visual distractions. This means spending time away from screens and other devices. 

  1. Trust your first instinct

Overthinking the solution to a problem can get a person stuck in the procedural details. While reviewing and assessing plans is important, overdoing them is counterproductive. That’s why one method to avoid ADHD paralysis is to go with the gut. While your first instinct may not prove to be the best long-term idea, it at least gets you moving on a task you may have been unable to start.

  1. Break big tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces

If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of a large project, task, or assignment, stop thinking about the task as one massive behemoth and try to see it for its constituent parts. Small, less intimidating tasks are much easier to take on individually than tackling the task as one big, complicated assignment. Simpler, smaller tasks help people with ADHD paralysis maintain focus and not feel overwhelmed.

  1. Reward yourself for a job well done

Celebrate any achievements and reward yourself when you can complete tasks successfully. You want to get into the habit of associating a job well done with the positive feelings of a reward. Doing so creates a behavioral incentive to follow these tips and prevent ADHD paralysis from derailing what you have to get done. Rewards don’t have to be complicated—an extra scoop of ice cream or a trip to your favorite restaurant can suffice.

  1. Speak with a licensed ADHD healthcare provider

If you have ADHD, a licensed ADHD healthcare provider can help you get the treatment you need to manage ADHD symptoms like ADHD paralysis. A medical professional who has experience with ADHD diagnosis and care will be able to provide a specialized treatment plan to help you manage your symptoms and live better. They may also be able to offer insights and coping mechanisms that go beyond “by the book” ADHD treatment.

How a provider on Klarity helps you overcome ADHD paralysis

Klarity is a convenient telemedicine service designed to fit perfectly into the busy schedules that seem to dominate our modern lives. We connect you with board-certified, ADHD-trained medical providers who can diagnose ADHD and other mental illnesses and prescribe ADHD treatments online and in-person.

No more waiting weeks to be seen by a medical provider when you need ADHD treatment now — when you book on Klarity, we’ll connect you with a medical provider in 24 hours or less. If you experience ADHD paralysis, take advantage of our fast, affordable, and convenient telemedicine service — we make finding online ADHD treatment hassle-free.

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