ADHD and Stressors: Quantity vs. Intensity

Written by Harold Robert Meyer, MBA, BCC, SCAC and Susan Karyn Lasky, M.S., BCC, SCAC

We’d all like to improve the quality of our lives, and one way we can do this is by reducing the amount of stress we experience. (Some stress is “good for the soul,” in that it challenges our complacency and motivates us to move forward.)  But too much stress is debilitating. It can cloud our thinking, freeze our progress and destroy our joy of life.

When we think about stress in our lives we usually focus on the big things: our children, parents and partners (or lack thereof), money, employment, etc.  However, on an everyday basis, it’s often the minor things that add up —sometimes to the point where we feel overwhelmed and incapacitated. The number of stressors in our lives can often play more havoc than the severity of individual stressors.

Minor things (the phone call you didn’t make, the gift you haven’t sent or papers you haven’t filed) can create feelings of guilt that are worse than those you have about more important matters. After all, improving your financial situation or love life isn’t easy.  You may not like things the way they are, but you don’t expect them to change overnight.  So in contrast, the minor tasks seem easy.  After all, it’s no big deal to make a phone call, send a gift or file a stack of papers.  So why can’t you manage to just do it?

When these relatively minor tasks hang around for too long, you’re not only burdened with the undone chore—you also feel guilt (or even disgust) that you can’t manage to accomplish even such seemingly simple tasks. And when too many tasks add up, stress multiplies.  Where to begin?

Not necessarily at the beginning. Resolving the major stressors in your life is critical, but working on these shouldn’t always top your “To-Do” list. But with some effort you can resolve some of the minor stressors.   You can experience a feeling of satisfaction, completion and relief (it’s done!).

Make it easy on yourself. Choose just one or two shoulds.  Pick one that’s really quick and simple (replace the burnt out lightbulb in the hall closet) and another that’s really pressing (a euphemism for “long overdue”), like pulling together the deductible receipts you need to file income tax. (Notice we limited work on the taxes to “pulling together receipts,” which is just one part of the overall tax filing process. Anything more at the same time and it can become overwhelming, and so less likely to get accomplished.)

Determine when you’ll work on each task, and make appointments with yourself to get them done—write down the assigned time in your daybook.

Attack the tasks with a positive attitude… (I’m doing it!) and try to follow through to completion. Consider these two relatively simple tasks as your major priorities that day.  Tackle just one or two stressors each day and you’ll feel freer, and a lot less stressed.

If you find you can’t manage to accomplish a minor task, take another look at it… odds are it isn’t so minor.  Either there’s a heavy emotional tag on it, or it’s something you don’t think you can do successfully, so you avoid it.  Perhaps you’re correct. Some tasks require skills we may not have, but think we should (“If I can create a successful global marketing campaign, I should certainly be able to balance my checkbook!”).

Don’t drag down your self-esteem by clinging to erroneous expectations of would-be perfection. Some things that seem simple trigger an emotional hot-button that makes them difficult to deal with (“I should clear out the old baby clothes and give them to charity, but if I do, it’s admitting I’m not going to have any more children, and that’s so final!”). Delegate, ask for help, reformat the project or forget about it (if feasible).

People with AD/HD also tend to have too many projects going.  They have a lot of interests, and assign themselves “to-do’s” based on faulty reasoning: there’s a strong sense of, “This is something I should be able to do,” combined with a mistaken belief that “I can get it done quickly.”

Also, ADDers tend to feel guilty about all the things they haven’t done, so they attempt to make up to their family or employer by taking on tasks they shouldn’t.  The unfortunate result is a continually accumulating pile of unfinished tasks—and a growing stress burden.

Parents should discourage children from making promises that may be difficult to meet, or taking on too much.  (This doesn’t mean a child—or adult—shouldn’t set goals and try to attain them.  It does mean that frequent reality checks are advisable.)

Begin to eliminate unnecessary stress in your life by focusing on wiping out your minor stressors, so you can experience success. But it’s not a good idea to totally ignore the “big things.”  Major stressors (like any big project) won’t be resolved unless you break them down into components (“baby steps” or job chunks) that are do-able in one sitting (or appointment with yourself). Use the 12-Step approach, and take it:  “One task, or baby step, at a time.”


Harold Meyer and Susan Lasky are both Board Certified and Senior Certified ADHD Coaches.

To contact the authors: haroldmeyer@addrc.org


Fine Print

ADD and ADHD are used interchangeably for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Any information or suggestions in this article are solely the opinion of the author(s) and should not replace the advice of appropriate medical, legal, therapeutic, financial or other professionals. We do not test or endorse any product, link, author, individual or service listed within.


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