"When we do a simple task, we’re not just dealing with the task, we are also dealing with the Wall of Awful in front of it.” -Brendan Mahan, MEd., MS, ADHD Essentials
Mahan’s words might sound like a typical metaphor to describe any obstacle. But for someone with ADHD, the Wall of Awful represents an experience that is all too familiar– that paralyzing feeling when confronted with doing something that might objectively look easy to complete, yet you just can’t quite get yourself to do it. You get stuck.
The Wall of Awful is forged with all the negative self-descriptions, overwhelm, disappointment and perceived failures you’ve experienced when you’ve tried to complete tasks in the past. The Wall of Awful is especially prevalent for an individual with an Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder diagnosis because of these two common symptoms: executive dysfunction and emotional dysregulation.
Executive function is a collection of cognitive processes that work together so we can plan, prioritize and muster up efforts to complete goals. Emotional regulation is the ability to control or manage your emotional state. These two cognitions work together to help you complete tasks even when they are boring or stressful. But for the ADHD brain, maintaining consistent high levels of executive function and emotional regulation can feel strenuous or even impossible, thus exasperating the struggle to work through anxiety, stress, lacking motivation or a limited attention span in order to reach those goals.
When faced with the Wall, individuals with ADHD typically engage stress responses of fight, flight or freeze. Fighting the Wall with anger by using aggression and frustration as a motivator may help short term, but it can damage your relationship with yourself and others. Flying away from the Wall, otherwise ignoring the original task, will prolong and further solidify the negative thoughts that built the Wall in the first place. While freezing in front of the wall is what we know as ADHD Paralysis.
ADHD paralysis is the physical manifestation of combined executive dysfunction and emotional dysregulation. Racing thoughts, quicken heart rate, feelings of panic or dread, dazing out or pacing might all be signs of ADHD paralysis.
Let’s put this idea into context:
It’s Saturday morning, you look around your home and say, “I need to clean.”
Suddenly, an influx of small tasks that all mount up to cleaning your home floods your mind. Dishes…vacuuming…laundry…organizing the pantry…sorting the pile of mail… the list gets longer with overwhelming tasks. You’re having a difficult time sifting through which task is most important, or how to map out your time to complete them. ADHD’s executive dysfunction is at play, and you’re stuck in the planning phase.
Then the Wall of Awful appears, looming and ominous. If the bricks in the Wall of Awful were labeled, they might say ‘I’m lazy’, ‘I’m disorganized’, ‘I can’t put this off anymore’, ‘What if I don’t do it right?’, ‘What if it takes me all day?’, ‘I don’t know how’, ‘I’m not good at this”. The Wall of Awful is seemingly impenetrable and you’re struggling to emotionally regulate the anxiety and dread with all those negative thoughts in your head. Now, you’re overstimulated, discouraged and you find yourself in the throes of ADHD Paralysis.
While the stress responses like fight, flight or freeze might automatically take hold, they are not the only ways to address the Wall of Awful.
You can climb it.
Take a moment to recognize the thoughts and emotions that make up with Wall and challenge them. By addressing those labels and perceptions and thinking critically about their value and importance, the bricks get weaker and they will crumble with time. Being able to recognize how ADHD interacts with executive function and emotional regulation is just one step to developing the ability to separate the negative stigmas surrounding ADHD from your reality and self-image. Restructure the narrative! Remind yourself of the skills that have gotten you thus far, no doubt there are many more strengths than bricks in the Wall of Awful. Give yourself some time to gear up, face the Wall, process and transition into action.
You can modify it.
Add a ladder to help get over the Wall of Awful by engaging in emotional regulation. By taking control of your emotional state you can override the debilitating negative thoughts and emotions that push you further into ADHD paralysis. Grounding yourself can help you regulate your nervous system and calm the anxiety. Or you can jump start your system and spark motivation with dopamine. When natural dopamine is released in the brain it brings about feelings of excitement and pleasure. Utilizing external stimuli like an upbeat song or your favorite podcast can lift your mood and craft a path through the Wall to the other side.
When your To-Do list is overwhelming, negative self-talk is punishing and anxiety is debilitating, you’re in need of an ADHD Paralysis remedy.
Try this exercise to take on the Wall of Awful:
The Intentional Countdown
Step 1: Take 5 deep breaths
Increased oxygen intake regulates the nervous system and lowers the heart rate, counteracting the physical symptoms of anxiety. It will help clear your mind of the racing negative thoughts and long to-do list and bring you back to the present.
Step 2: Set your intention
Pick one small task. Envision yourself starting and completing that task. It could be anything from standing up to putting your shoes on or getting out the vacuum. Let it be the first step towards your goal.
Step 3: Countdown Aloud 5…4…3…2…1… GO!
Speaking out loud will further ground you in the present. Hearing your own voice will place you securely in your own body and remind you that you exist outside of the negative thoughts. Even if you feel silly, laughing feels great and releases dopamine, which motivates you even more.
Make it your own!
You can further customize The Intentional Countdown by adding in some positive affirmations to remind yourself that you are bigger than the Wall of Awful and fully capable of completing the task at hand. Additionally, make the first task a dopamine-inducing action, like putting on a fun playlist and dancing to a song or two.
In practice, The Intentional Countdown will help create a routine that builds skills to manage ADHD Paralysis. This exercise will help increase self-awareness, self-regulations, self-affirmation and prioritization. All of which are bulldozers headed straight for the Wall of Awful.
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