ADHD and Pressure

Oct. 15th, 2018

It seems like there are few things someone with ADHD reacts to the exact same as other people. Most things are under the category of “everyone experiences this, but it’s worse for ADHD”. One of the things ADHD has a very unique relationship with is pressure.

One powerful contributor to procrastination and the ADHD brain is the task in question lacks enough urgency - pressure - to activate us. It’s so hum-drum that our boredom convinces us to do almost anything except that boring thing. This isn’t uncommon, but other people can often muscle through anyway. Not so with ADHD.

The other side of that coin, and the one that I think is more challenging for someone who has never experienced it to understand, is when something is urgent, and the pressure is so intense than we also can’t take action on it. I’ve seen any number of social media posts about this phenomenon. Some describe it as a kind of panic-induced paralysis. The thing needing to be done is well understood, but we just cannot get ourselves to engage with it. Again, we are willing to do almost anything else. Although in some cases the paralysis is so bad, we can’t get ourselves to do anything, so self-care, relaxing activities, or other productive tasks are also out of reach.

I’ve had some clients who were under the mistaken impression that because a lack of pressure failed to achieve lift-off, so to speak, this meant their parents, teachers, bosses, or even significant others were right and in order to get anywhere they needed to apply more and more pressure until results were achieved. And sometimes this can work. So many of us are familiar with the last-minute rush of getting something done because it’s due the next day. The more times you use this method, however, the more risk there is of not actually getting it done on time or inducing that panic paralysis. We are also pumping our brains and bodies full of cortisol and adrenaline and though they can get the job done sometimes, producing too much of these chemicals too often can lead to or exacerbate existing health problems, both physical and mental.

So the idea, which is always easier said than done, is to achieve the correct balance of pressure. It always seems to me, both when I’m working with clients and working with my own brain, that the right amount is usually a specific narrow sliver on a wide sliding scale. Like what Eddie Izzard says about showers (strong language!). The right temperature is a tiny adjustment, and the rest of the control knob is frigid or scalding.

So how do we know what the right nano-millimeter is? We don’t. But! We can find out. As long as, in my opinion, we throw out the idea that if you haven’t found the right amount, that the solution is to just pile on more and more. That way leads to overwhelm, possible shut-down, and adrenal fatigue.

I’ve always viewed coaching as an experiment. I tell everyone that whatever the result, success or “failure”, it will always tell us something. And sometimes the negative results are way more useful than the successes. Because with ADHD, what worked this week might not work next week. So it’s great when we find something that achieved the end result we were going for, but things that didn’t often have more information for us. What was it that happened? How did we feel, at that moment? What was our brain saying to us?

Here are a few things that seem to be around the middle of the pressure spectrum.


Having somebody else know what you are attempting to get done is almost another sliding scale on its own. I find that the less familiar I am with someone, the more pressure it is to have accountability with them. So for example, I almost never use my husband for accountability. I love him, I respect him, and I value his good opinion of me, but that’s almost the problem. I know that he will love me even if I mess up. So that’s not a lot of pressure. On the other hand, if there’s someone I’ve only met once and for some reason I’ve committed to doing something and they know about it, then the pressure can begin to edge toward that overwhelming degree.

The best people for me to ask for accountability are friends I don’t know all that well, but who still understand mental health. So the "who cares” factor is lessened, but I still have a chance of actually asking them instead of talking myself out of it because I don’t want to bother them or for fear they won’t understand what or why I’m asking.

My clients are also amazing accountability because of the professional relationship. I would consider it unprofessional to ask a client to ask me about a task I was going to do, but I’ve been inspired by them a few times. It makes me very happy to add in passing that I started or finished a specific project as a result of hearing about them doing it.

Secret project

This idea is tricky and requires fine-tuning, in my experience. I’ve often read advice saying never, ever to tell anyone about your goals. This is that concept. For me, there is a great deal of excitement about working on something in secret and imagining and being motivated by the time when I’ll get to tell people about it. I often cave and spill the beans prematurely, but when I don’t, boy do I get excited. This one can often be especially motivating for those last 10-20% of the project where our already inconstant motivation really begins to flag. Knowing I’m so close to being able to show someone this cool thing often makes my efforts speed up.

Body doubling

A very similar concept to accountability, except completely different. Having someone empathetic and non-judgmental just sit with you while you’re doing something difficult. I’ve never had this be too much pressure for me. Although I’ve occasionally had it be not quite enough. I’ve found also that the more resistance I have to a task, the more fine-tuned the pressure has to be. If I’m more ok with doing the task, the pressure needed can vary quite a lot more. If I’m lucky enough to have someone body doubling me and I find it isn’t right for the thing I had planned to work on, switching to something a bit easier can often be a good use of that time.


This suggestion is more hypothetical for me personally. I’m not hugely motivated by competition, but I definitely know people with ADHD who are. This requires either the cooperation of another person or a record of one’s own activities. Although in general, I find almost anything is more motivating with another person involved. Sit down with someone, decide what each of you is doing, then do it. You both need to agree it’s a fair combination of tasks, obviously. It wouldn’t feel very motivating if I’m proof-reading a single blog post and the other person is proof-reading 15 chapters of a book. Obviously one of us is way more likely to finish before the other. So once it’s been decided what’s a fair comparison, first one to finish wins.

This can also be particularly helpful with breaking through writer’s block. I’ve done a couple sessions of what I saw described somewhere as a “word war”. Sit down, set a timer, and the person to write the higher number of words at the end wins. I lost spectacularly, but it was super fun. Anyone who is considering doing NaNoWriMo next month might like this one.

Pressure can be weird, but with perseverance and patience with ourselves, we can divine that correctly useful amount to get our stuff done.

What amount of pressure do you find activates without causing overwhelm?