3 ADHD Calming Techniques for Adults, When You’re Overwhelmed

Your body feels restless. Your chest and shoulders feel tight and you find yourself spinning as your mind races in “what ifs,” worst-case scenarios, and unmade decisions. This is overwhelm. We know this emotion well, so we want to look for ADHD calming techniques that can help us get through this unwanted feeling.

woman with ADHD feeling  overwhelmed at desk

So what can we do when this familiar feeling comes up? How can we move through it and find clarity on the other side?

That is exactly what we’re talking about in episode 177 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, more specifically 3 ADHD calming techniques you can use when overwelm arises.

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for everything outlined in the blog post below. 

In Episode #177, 3 ADHD Calming Techniques for Adults When You’re Overwhelmed You Will Discover:

  • What overwhelm is
  • Why many of us ADHD brains navigate overwhelm
  • 3 ADHD calming techniques for adults, to move through overwhelm to clarity

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Episode #177: 3 ADHD Calming Techniques For Adults (Transcript) 

Overwhelm…it’s no secret that this is not a super fun emotion to experience. But why are we, as ADHD brains, so familiar with this experience of overwhelm? Let’s start by talking about what overwhelm is. 

At its most basic, overwhelm is an emotional state. It is a set of vibrations in our body that for many of us feels very uncomfortable. 

Here are a couple of definitions of overwhelm from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Overwhelm- (transitive verb) 

  1. to upset or overthrow. Ex: the tornado overwhelmed many mobile homes. 
  2. to cover over completely, or to submerge.
  3. to overpower in thought or feeling. Ex: overwhelmed with grief, overwhelmed by terror, a sense of inadequacy overwhelmed me 

When I think about these, in the context of emotions, I believe they are quite apt for our experience because we feel like the emotion has overthrown us, or it manages to cover or submerge us completely. When we’re feeling this overwhelm, it feels like all of these emotions are just covering us. 

I love Brene Brown’s definition of overwhelm. It comes from her latest book Atlas of the Heart, which I highly recommend. She writes:

“Overwhelm means an extreme level of stress and emotional and or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.”

We all know this experience, right? We have all experienced a time when things are so intense, our brain just doesn’t seem to function anymore. But why do we know this feeling of overwhelm so well?

Overwhelm & Reaching Our Limits

I think that overwhelm comes up as a signal from the brain that we’ve reached our capacity. 

When we are thrown into the depths of overwhelm, it’s like our brain and body saying, “This is it. We’re at capacity. We can no longer cope!”, and then it enters into shutdown mode.

The prefrontal cortex, the executive part of our brain, quite literally goes offline.

Then it’s the lower brain, I talk about it as the toddler brain, that takes over. Now we’re in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

These responses are the ways that our body will naturally respond to threats, especially when the prefrontal cortex has gone offline. 

I want to stress here that nothing has gone wrong. 

When you are feeling this sense of overwhelm, you haven’t done anything wrong. This means your body is trying to communicate information to your brain. It’s saying, “Hey, this is too much. I need a break. I need some support here.”

It’s putting up this flare and letting you know to pay attention because it needs a break.

Many of us are hard on ourselves, thinking:

  • I just always get so overwhelmed. 
  • I don’t understand what the problem is.
  • I shouldn’t feel overwhelmed. 

This isn’t a problem. This is your body trying to communicate to you saying: 

  • I need a break.
  • I need some attention. 
  • I need some support. 
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Overwhelm is your brain and body’s signal that you need a break.

woman overwhelmed with laundry

I am on a big ginger ale kick right now. I know I’m going to get comments about how I shouldn’t be drinking ginger ale, but I’m on a ginger ale kick. I like to drink it in a glass because otherwise, it’s too fizzy. If I just drink it out of the can, I get a stomach ache. If I can pour it into a glass, some of the fizz bubbles, then it’s the perfect texture for me. 

When I pour my ginger ale into a glass, it gets super bubbly, the bubbles go all the way up to the top of the glass. There’s too much fizz, so I have to wait and let those bubbles pop. I have to let them calm down and make more space in the glass so that I can pour the rest of the ginger ale in. 

We need to pause to create the space we need.

Otherwise, in this case, there’s too much ginger ale. I can’t take in anymore. I’m going to overflow.

This is very similar to how we can feel when it comes to overwhelm.

As ADHD brains, it makes sense that we sort of tend toward this overwhelm a little more often than a neurotypical brain. 

First of all, many of us deal with overstimulation. We’re hypersensitive to different things such as lots of noise or extremely bright lights. Sometimes it bothers us, and sometimes it doesn’t. 

Additionally, we deal with emotional dysregulation.

We feel our emotions more intensely. So our bodies need that pause. If we don’t have that pause, that moment of awareness to calm ourselves, then we feel it strongly. We just can’t take any more.

In addition to all of that, overstimulation and emotional dysregulation, there are things in our lives that require a lot of executive functioning. Planning things out, traveling or making travel plans, meal prepping, managing our inbox, and tracking our time all require us to function at a high level. 

Plus, many of these administrative tasks require a lot of different steps, breaking things down, and sequencing. All of this can cause information overload. We reach our capacity that much quicker. 

3 ADHD Calming Techniques To Support Ourselves

3 ADHD calming techniques for adults

How can we support ourselves through this experience of overwhelm? 

How do we move through it and continue moving forward?

As I was thinking about this question, I broke it down into a 3-step process (ADHD calming techniques) that I find to be especially impactful for myself and my clients. 

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Calming Technique #1: Practice the Pause

The first calming technique can be quite challenging because it involves us slowing down and stopping what we’re doing.

The brain is going to want to keep moving. It’s already gotten into fight or flight mode. It wants to move and get out of this as quickly as possible. 

What we want to do here, knowing that it might feel a little bit challenging, is to pause.

To Try This ADHD Calming Technique you’ll want to:

  • Step away from the situation and self-soothe
  • Notice the overwhelm when it starts creeping in
  • Build up your awareness by understanding how overwhelm feels in your body

For myself, sometimes my mind goes completely blank. Other times, it feels like it’s this kind of thick fog like everything’s moving slowly. So that’s what is happening in my brain, but in my body, I have this super tight chest. Everything just gets clenched tight. Then, I feel this need to move. Depending on the situation, I might be in fight or flee. 

I have to keep working, or I might want to just run away and avoid the problems. Maybe I go into procrastination or into doing lots of other things. I’m kind of fleeing and just keeping myself busy, rather than navigating what’s going on in the overwhelm. 

I encourage you to create some familiarity around how overwhelm feels in your body. Sometimes it can be impactful to do this when you’re out of overwhelm first.

When you’re feeling good, you could check in and take notes: 

  • How does it usually feel when I am overwhelmed? 
  • What did that feel like? 
  • Where did I feel in my body? 
  • What was happening in my mind? 

You want to notice how it feels for you to build up awareness of that. Once you notice that creeping in, we want to step away from it. If I’m overwhelmed in the kitchen, I might need to step away from the kitchen and take a couple of breaths, and notice where I’m feeling that overwhelm. 

Calming Technique #2: Show Yourself Love and Compassion

Then, in step two, we want to check in with a whole lot of love and compassion. As always, there’s no judgment allowed here.

We’re checking in with love by asking:

  • What do you need right now? 
  • What can I get for you? 
  • How can I support you here?

We’re taking slow breaths to help calm our minds. Sometimes putting your hand on that area you notice the overwhelm. I’ll put my hand on my heart or on my chest where I feel that clenching or I might be just walking slowly around in my house.

I’m asking what you need. How can I support you? And we listen for that answer.

When you listen, the responses could be like this:

  • I need a walk or I need some fresh air. 
  • I need a drink of water or some hot tea. 
  • I need to call my friend or snuggle up with a pet. 
  • I have to get out all the things so I grab my notebook and do a thought download. 
  • I want to listen to music or do breathwork.
  • I want to do a meditation. 

For myself, I usually go for a stroll or listen to music and dance. I’m terrible at it, but you better believe it helps get me out of overwhelm. Sometimes I will do my breathwork practice. For me, it’s a lot of change in my physical state. It’s moving my body to let that overwhelm process through. 

Do not skip this step!

It’s really important. We want to make sure that you check in and notice what’s going on.

  • Notice how it’s feeling.
  • Step away from the current situation.
  • Ask yourself what you need.
  • Then give yourself what you need.

You can’t rush through this. We need to allow the prefrontal cortex time to come back online. 

Once the prefrontal cortex comes back online, we’re no longer making decisions from the toddler brain. We’re no longer in that fight or flight response.

We want to check in with ourselves again, with love. We’re going to ask ourselves:

  • What’s up right now? 
  • What seems especially hard? 
  • What’s the challenge? 

Record your responses

This is where I love to grab a notebook and write down all of the thoughts and responses that come up.

My answer could be that there’s just so much to do, and I don’t have enough time to get it all done. It could also be that there’s so much that I don’t know what to do so everyone is going to think I’m incapable, stupid, disorganized, or a mess.

Whatever those reasons are, write them down. 

The reason why we want to do this is to uncover the stories that are contributing to your overwhelm. All of these different thoughts and reasons are contributing to how you’re feeling. Notice how your body feels when you read them. 

Another reason we write them down is so that we can see them and can question them. 

We want to be curious and question these stories for clarity.

If you write down what your brain says, which is, “There’s not enough time.” Then you can ask, “Is that true? Is there not enough time?” You might have more things to do than you have time.

This is when you ask yourself:

  • What do we think about this? 
  • What do we want to intentionally release from our list?
  • Who do we want to recruit for help? 
  • What do we want to focus on first? 

You might break it down and find there is enough time as long as you do it in the steps. But we want to question if that thought is true. Start noticing your answers because often the brain will say, “I guess it just won’t get done.” 

There might be other areas where your brain goes, “This has to get done no matter what.” That is automatically helping you prioritize. It is telling you to release the less important things. We want to poke holes in this belief and question these thoughts. 

Calming Technique #3: Move Forward With A Clear Direction

woman smiling outside

Now that we have diffused the situation, noticed we were overwhelmed, stepped away, took some breaths, figured out what we needed, soothed that toddler brain, and the prefrontal cortex came back online.

Then we wrote down all the reasons why we think we were feeling overwhelmed and started poking holes in those stories. What’s next? 

Now, it’s time to move forward with a clear direction. What do you want to do here? When we are spinning in overwhelm, we’re overstimulated. So what are the important non-negotiables? 

Examples of Moving Forward

Let’s say you’re feeling overwhelmed about all the things that you want to do with your family around the holidays. You just don’t have time to plan at all.

You know that one thing you want to do is decorate sugar cookies with the kids. That’s one non-negotiable thing. Maybe I don’t need to make the cookies. That could be a place where I make it easier on myself. That part is negotiable. I can go to the bakery or the grocery store and buy them and then decorate them.

If we’re thinking I want to have the whole house decluttered before next month, we know that perfection is fantasy. That’s not the actual priority. What is non-negotiable, and what is negotiable? 

The non-negotiable is I’m not going to declutter the whole house, but I am going to tidy the house. Everything is going to be put in its place. Or I’m going to declutter the kitchen. Those are my non-negotiables. Before next month, I don’t have to declutter everything.

We’re creating clarity around what you want to do and what can wait. 

Now, your brain is going to say, “It’s all non-negotiable. I have to do it all.” 

I promise you that prioritization is going to kick in whether you want it to or not. There are only so many hours in your time budget. Prioritization is going to happen one way or another. We might as well be intentional about what we want to ensure happens. 

Checking In

What is the next tiny step to move forward, and how can we make it easy as we do so?

What can I do to support my movement forward today?

Maybe it’s choosing the date that I’m going to frost the cookies with my kids or the day that I’m going to go get the cookies from the store. I’m going to put both of those dates on the calendar for this week. 

If you think about the kitchen and decided that you’re not going to declutter the whole house, then the next tiny step forward that you can do is open the silverware drawer and make sure that everything in that one drawer is where it belongs.

Or maybe you get a box and you set a timer for five minutes. You do a quick sweep and grab the things that you know you don’t need anymore. Then, you schedule when you’re going to do the next 5-10 minutes focusing on one drawer of the kitchen at a time. 

ADHD Calming Techniques for Adults: Recap

Let’s do a quick recap of the 3 ADHD calming techniques you can use when you feel overwhelmed.

1) Pause and notice when you’re feeling overwhelmed. We feel that in our bodies and defuse the situation. So we step away, take some breaths, and check-in.

What do you need? We provide that for the toddler brain and take care of them. Maybe you go for a stroll, dance, or meditate. Whatever it is, you take care of yourself and allow the prefrontal cortex to come back online. 

2) Show Yourself Love and Compassion: Why am I feeling so overwhelmed? What was going on? We grab our notebooks and write down all the reasons. We start checking in and questioning those sentences that we wrote down. Is this true? How might the opposite be true here? How could I think about this differently? 

3) Move Forward and Create Clarity. What are your non-negotiables? Then choose one tiny, easy step that’s going to help you move forward in that process. 

if you notice overwhelm coming up a lot, nothing’s gone wrong here. 

This is a perfectly human experience and even more so for the ADHD brain. I want to normalize that. Using these 3 ADHD calming techniques can help us take care of ourselves, move through it, and come out the other side even stronger. 

If you’re ready to take the concepts that you’ve learned here and apply them to your life, and ready to learn how to support your ADHD in a way that works best for you, within a small supportive community, then check out We’re Busy Being Awesome. It’s my small group coaching program for ADHD brains just like you. Learn how to release perfectionism, strengthen the links, and work with your brain in a way that’s supportive for you. You can learn more here and sign up!

Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

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Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.

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3 ADHD calming techniques for adults

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