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The Physicality of Overwhelm

December 23, 2011

OverwhelmIn recent weeks I have had occasion to try and explain what ADHD “overwhelm” means.  I have no trouble providing the text book definition –  overwhelm occurs when the stimulation in the environment becomes too much for the ADHD brain which shuts it down, causes brain fog and makes decision making almost impossible.  However, I always feel that I am falling short of  providing an understanding of  how being in that state impacts simple everyday events.

The Universe generously offered me the perfect explanatory example on a recent trip with my mother.  She asked me to take her grocery shopping at a store I do not frequent.  Because I rarely shop anywhere but my regular store, I tend to forget that this exact scenario sets up the perfect storm to send me into overwhelm.   I agreed and off we went to buy groceries.

It didn’t take long for me to remember why I always go to the same store.  Within 10 minutes, I was feeling off balance and  lopsided.  I couldn’t find anything on my list.

I searched in vain for the Canadian Bacon.  It was not with the bacon, not with the sausage, and not with the pork. Confused, I assumed I must have missed it and went through the process again.  Bacon – no, sausage – no, pork – no.  Frustrated, I roamed from aisle to aisle unsure where else to look and finally abandoned the search  to look for the next item on my list.

Blueberry Muffin Mix.  Baking Aisle – Go!  I went up and down the aisle four times, checking, rechecking, trying to figure out how I was missing it.  I became increasingly agitated, stalking into the next aisle while wondering out loud who puts the pre-made muffin mix in a different aisle than the pre-made cake mix. I went up and down every non-refrigerated aisle trying to find it, to no avail.  (It was above a refrigerated case containing cheese).  Almost in tears, I moved to the next item on the list, only to experience a similar result.

With each new frustration, the way the store was organized seemed more and more ridiculous to me.  My frazzled brain fought against the incomprehensible product organization and instead focused on all the changes I would make to the store’s layout if I could.  This did not help me find the Canadian bacon or the muffin mix but it did divert my attention away from the task at hand causing me to forget what I was looking for more than once.

Finally, on the verge of melting down, I hit the mental pause button to try and pull myself back under control.  I took a deep breath and grabbed onto my rapidly rising temper.  I took stock of where I was – noting my heart rate was elevated, my head hurt, and I felt foggy, disoriented and exhausted.  I was anxious, annoyed, frustrated and just wanted to get out of the store.  I struggled to figure out what was wrong with me since I had been fine before arriving at the store.  And then I had my AHA! moment for the week.

I was knee deep in a state of overwhelm and too overwhelmed to see it.  Overwhelm doesn’t announce it’s presence with a knock and a handshake.  Like a sneaky snake, it slides around you when you aren’t looking, becoming all encompassing before you know its there.  Only when it clamps down tight and cuts off your air do you realize you are in trouble.

I took a breath.   I kept an iron grip on my need to scream, abandoned my list and focused on getting my mother out of the store.  As soon as I got in my car, the physical symptoms began to disappear and within 20 minutes, I was back to normal.  With some contemplation, I came to understand that my attempts to describe overwhelm were unsuccessful because I was focusing on what overwhelm was and leaving out how overwhelm felt.

For me, overwhelm causes an almost immediate physical reaction.  My heart rate increases.  My breath shallows.  My brain begins to feel like it is full of cotton candy.  My body feels like a live wire, with a million volts of electricity buzzing through it.  I am both too exhausted to move and pulsing with  kinetic energy at the same time.  My brain cannot settle, the cotton candy is covering everything and it cannot find a chair to sit down in.  My brain shuts down and simple things like  asking someone who works at the store where the Canadian bacon is kept, never even occur to me.  I feel like a teapot, like I might scream at someone just to let some steam escape. I feel like I might have a panic attack if I don’t get out of the situation, but am too exhausted to see the way out.

That is the physicality of overwhelm.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 25, 2011 5:22 pm

    A great description. Though I have ADD I haven’t ever experienced this, however I wonder if this is akin to what my daughter feels in a room full of people having multiple conversations. Holiday gatherings are one challenge for her. Friday night at my in-laws she felt so overwhelmed that she thought she was going to have an anxiety attack. She often reports that situations like this make her feel claustrophobic. I can’t relate because my ADD thrives on stimulus. As you know, there are many different ways to experience ADD. Not only do others who don’t suffer not understand it, but sometimes those of us that do have ADD don’t understand each other’s symptoms.

    • December 25, 2011 10:17 pm

      This is a great point Debbie! There is such a range of experience and what is an asset to one person might be the downfall of another. I can sympathize with your daughter. My overwhelm is most often triggered by trying to function amidst disorganization/other people’s organization (like described here) but it can also happen if there is too many or too much – people, noise, choices, stress, clutter. It is one of the challenges I have to manage most often – since I live in a house with three other ADDers for whom organization is a foreign concept.

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