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Overwhelm: A Noun That Defines ADHD

Define me!

I’ve looked. I’ve looked through all my dictionaries (I tend to collect them) and through all the online dictionaries as well. Overwhelm is a verb. A transitive one in fact, one that has no meaning without an object. Some one thing must overwhelm some other thing.

And yet …

I have to say that on the rare occasions that I’ve seen “overwhelm” being used as a noun I was uncomfortable with it, but it does make sense. To feel overwhelm in one’s life is exactly the sensation that many of us experience just before we shut down, break down, blow up or blow off our responsibilities.

And …

Overwhelm is part of the ADHD experience. It’s the part that causes the negative impact on our lives. That negative impact, among other things, is required for a valid ADHD diagnosis.

Overwhelm personified!

And on Friday last, I observed the experience of overwhelm in another person. Not only that, but I recognized it, felt its presence as a real and palpable thing, empathized with the person experiencing it to the point where I felt the very overwhelm she felt.

I was meeting with two people for lunch. Two of us are ADHDers and the third is not. This third person is one of those people who sees situations for what they are. While we tend to accomplish things by feel, she recognizes the next step as if she had the instruction sheet memorized.

As if that weren’t enough …

On top of this clarity of mind, our friend also has the ability to make you comfortable in confessing your foibles and fears. The other ADHDer at our meeting, the one who isn’t me, was describing a situation in her life that needed some attention, a situation I knew about. But while I sat there, she was suddenly telling things I had not heard before.

I wasn’t hurt by this, but I was confused. I’d tried to be helpful before, but I could have been more help if I’d known the whole story. I asked why my ADHD friend had kept parts of the situation secret. She looked at me and confessed that she had been embarrassed.

She was so flummoxed by the whole situation she was describing that she had just frozen. She was unable to fix it. The things that needed attention immediately were the things she didn’t tell me about. They were the things she was having trouble doing. They were her overwhelm.

Mirror mirror, on the wall!

I suddenly understood. I could feel the same sensation. I remembered being in countless situations of roughly the same emotional turmoil. I could actually feel the rough wall that her mind had come up against, I had come up against that wall all too many times.

And then like cool water to a parched throat, our friend (yes, she was still sitting there listening to us) pointed out the next single, simple step that needed to be accomplished.

The overwhelm did not disappear. But it was moved a little farther away. It wouldn’t have to be dealt with until the identified step had been taken.

I thought, not for the first time, that a personal assistant would be an amazing thing for an ADHDer.

Time to go to school

And I thought about the lesson. If the overwhelm can be pushed back by identifying the next step, then once that is completed, we only need to identify the following step to push it back again.

It wouldn’t be overwhelm then, it would just be the job at hand. I’m going to try to remember this.

Overwhelm: A Noun That Defines ADHD

Kelly Babcock

I was born in the city of Toronto in 1959, but moved when I was in my fourth year of life. I was raised and educated in a rural setting, growing up in a manner I like to refer to as free range. I live on the traditional lands of the Chippewas of Nawash in an area where my family history stretches back 6 or 7 generations and my First Nations friend's families go back hundreds of generations. I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 50 and have been both struggling with the new reality and using my discoveries to make my life better. I am a freelance writer and I write two blogs here at Psych Central, one about living with ADHD and one that is a daily positive affirmation that acts as an example of finding the good in as much of my life as I possibly can.

Find out more about me on my website: writeofway.

email me at ADHD Man

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APA Reference
Babcock, K. (2012). Overwhelm: A Noun That Defines ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2012
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