If you have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), you probably find that this time of year is an increased struggle for you. Holidays, as joyous and exciting as they are, can bring a level of stress and pressure that would overwhelm even the most organized person. When you are struggling with ADHD, holidays can turn your “regular” anxiety, depression, and disorganization into extra-challenging “holiday disorganization.”
The struggle to regulate attention that comes with ADHD is tough at any time of year, and the holidays can exacerbate those struggles even more. Whether you are so overwhelmed by plans that you can’t focus on anything or hyperfocus on the one thing that does manage to hold your attention, these year-round obstacles can become more acute with the stress of the holiday season.
We have a better understanding these days that ADHD doesn’t always mean hyperactivity; it is more of an issue with regulating your attention and dealing with lower levels of dopamine. Without the boost of adequate dopamine, a person with ADHD may seek it any way they can and suffer more when they can’t seem to make that happen. The holiday season is rife with opportunities to seek dopamine in ways that aren’t beneficial. It is also bursting with distractions to draw focus or projects to monopolize all focus.
The Stress of Holidays on Your ADHD
The holiday season brings with its scheduling and logistical gymnastics. The year is wrapping up, so pressures at work may be compounding. People may be taking vacations, leaving others with more to do. There are events you want to attend and those you feel obligated to attend. There can be loneliness and grief as well. The holidays hit every ADHD stress point: remembering dates, remembering presents, showing up at soirees on time, deadlines, a lot of emotion, and the pressure to keep up with everyone else.
At this time of year, there is an extra opportunity to indulge (and/or over-indulge) in rich foods, sugar, and alcohol. This may be something you struggle with year-round but find more difficult during this season. The chemical disruption of these substances can exacerbate your ADHD; you may also find it easier to reach for these things to attempt to self-regulate with the stress of the season. This can result in brain fog, low energy, and even depression, but it still makes it hard to turn down an offer for a drink or stop eating when you feel satisfied.
If you’ve been working on achieving your highest function for a while now, you may have found a routine that provides the most support for you. This routine is the safety net that helps you to be productive, organized, and fulfilled. During the holidays, your usual weekday structure tends to fall apart. There is simply more stuff to fit in, and there are more things to remember (that aren’t part of your routine most of the months of the year). Without your familiar structure, you may feel as though you are scrambling through each day in a mental free-fall. This can leave you flying by the seat of your pants or completely paralyzed when it comes to making decisions, achieving self-care, etc.
3 Ways to Manage Your ADHD So You Can Enjoy the Holidays
1) Re-structure your daily routine:
Your daily routine may work for you for ten or eleven months of the year but completely fall apart for the last six weeks. As the holidays approach, plan ahead. It is important to accept and be prepared for events that are unique to this time of the year. You may have more social gatherings to attend than usual. Or you may have a decrease in workload due to the “slow season,” which can trigger boredom. Once you accept that these are changes that will take place annually at this time of the year, you can learn to be prepared for it, as well as learn to work around it. You may want to recruit the person you spend the most time with to help you configure a schedule that works well for both of you; having a supportive partner on the same page as you can be incredibly helpful.
Figure out where your schedule is staying the same, and build from there. Where you are able, make the best use of your time. This may include working shorter days or fewer days per week (if you have that flexibility) to keep you feeling busier with fewer hours to achieve your tasks. You might still frame your time around your work day, but switch up where you go to the gym, where you take time away from your phone, where you do groceries and chores, etc. If you know that most gatherings and events are going to be on Friday and Saturday nights, then you might want to structure the rest of the week around the idea that you won’t be home during that time period.
If the holiday season completely upends your regular schedule and you have the option to build the ideal routine for yourself temporarily, do so. If you know you feel best when you get up and work out first thing in the morning, then start there. If you know that you naturally like to sleep a little later than you usually get to, start from there. Pick the lynchpin of your day and figure out how to make the most of it. Know where your priorities are for yourself, and make sure you aren’t letting them slide.
No matter what it is looking like for your schedule, make sure you are always considering the priorities that give you the best chance at feeling regulated: is there room for grocery shopping and meal prep so that you have food on- hand when you realize you’re hungry? Is there space for however you move your body to relieve stress and promote endorphins? Have you made room for quiet time in which to decompress, such as reading, writing, listening to a podcast, watching a familiar show, etc.?
2) Prioritize based on values, not fears:
We have talked about creating a schedule that you can rely on. As you do this work to re-organize your schedule, remember to make decisions based on your values and not your fears. This is a tool we often share with our clients here at our practice in Woodland Hills, as we believe it to be one of the most important tools in our toolbox. Making decisions based on your values means that once you decide to take action, you want to identify which one of your values is it supporting or aligning with.
One example of this might be when you set your alarm for in the morning. You might value getting more sleep but fear running late. When you are deciding what time to wake up in the morning (and yes, a consistent time is among a number of tools for good sleep hygiene), you might choose to set your alarm half an hour earlier than you need to get up because you are afraid you’ll hit ‘snooze’ too many times. Do you want to be in and out of consciousness for thirty minutes, or would you rather give yourself that extra time to rest and wake up refreshed and not needing to hit snooze? Which is stronger for you, the desire to sleep or the fear of not being able to hit snooze?
This tactic definitely comes into play when looking at what you agree to do this season. You might be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings by saying “no,” but you know deep down that their event doesn’t fit into your ideal schedule. As you value your health and well-being, you know that you have created your schedule for this season in an attempt to work with your ADHD. What will do you more good, to attend that function so that the other person isn’t disappointed, or to do what needs to be done for you to feel organized and prepared? This is a valid fear and a tricky one. I’m not saying you should stop caring about anyone else’s feelings. But when you think of someone else’s feelings before your own needs, you are making a fear-based choice that ultimately sabotages you.
If you are having trouble honoring your values, try to visit (and revisit) some affirmations for the season. Come up with affirmations that suit your highest priorities. When trying to make a decision, you might tell yourself, “I will not disrupt my overall wellness for a temporary issue,” or, “I have chosen what is most important to me, and it is my right to do so.” Remember that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves during this season, but it is only a season. It is not the entirety of the year. Enjoying the events and gatherings that only happen at this time is wonderful – as long as it’s not causing you distress in another area of your life.
3) Maintain a consistent level of sleep, physical movement, and nutrition:
Be consistent in your self-care routine and sleep schedule, as it can significantly impact your mood, attention, and concentration. When we become overloaded with things to do, or have a lot on our minds, some of the first things to go are often the most basic human needs, like sleep and nutrition. We toss and turn with racing thoughts at night or wake often because we are feeling generally anxious. Or we get so wrapped up in planning, organizing, and scrambling to keep up that we don’t make time to eat. These sorts of issues can be especially tricky for anyone who has ADHD because these are already stress points of ADHD.
Dysregulation of focus means missed meals, staying up late because you’ve lost track of time, overbooking your schedule so you don’t have time to go to that workout class, oversleeping, and having to skip breakfast because you’re tired, but you have to get to work, and on and on. Throughout the year, you may find it easier to remind yourself why these things are important but feel that the stakes are higher during the holidays, and you “should be flexible in order to accommodate these once-a-year activities.”
Consider meeting your basic needs to be your most important task of the season because it is, in fact, your most important task of the season. This is not purely a self-serving mindset. If you sacrifice these basics in order to participate in other events, you will not be able to enjoy those events as much, if at all. If you are burnt out, stressed, hungry, and disconnected from your body, you are far more likely to be unable to focus on anything or to attend the family function but spend the whole time hidden off to the side playing a game on your phone, or scrolling social media. Nobody benefits from people showing up under-rested, overstimulated, distracted, depressed, or any of the other ways that people can show up to events when their self-care has slipped. Without providing yourself with the proper foundation for wellness, you’ll only be half-there at anything you do. And you’ll probably feel unhappy to be participating as well. For your greatest enjoyment and that of those around you, prioritizing care and then making room for whatever is left over is the best way to go.
There has been a boom of information surrounding ADHD in recent years, particularly in how it presents in people who were assigned female at birth. For many AFAB people, symptoms went completely unnoticed for their entire childhoods and adolescence because they “weren’t the norm.” If you are newly diagnosed, this may also be the first season you’re spending with your family and friends while having this insight into yourself. Hopefully, everyone around you can respect any changes to your scheduling and lifestyle that have resulted from your quest to support yourself in the best way. If you are a millennial or Gen Z person, you might meet some resistance in accepting your diagnosis from the people who were tasked with raising you or participating in how you were brought up; they might feel that they would have “seen the signs” if that were true. Their perception of your experience is not more valid than what you know and remember. You have every right to participate in the holiday season as best works for you without apologizing for who you are and how you care for yourself. Make sure to be gentle with yourself about how you feel before, during, and after events. Turn to someone you trust for moral support, and seek out others who have ADHD for tips, tricks, and guidance. You may want to speak to a therapist about how you will set yourself up for success and cope with any obstacles or disappointments you encounter. ADHD presents a challenge, but it is one you can and have every right to meet.
Individual Therapy Services at Embracing You Therapy
Therapy for ADHD in Woodland Hills, CA, is a safe space that allows some personal time for you to work on having a better relationship with yourself, your feelings, and your ideal life. We offer individual, couple’s, or group therapy for adults at Embracing You Therapy Group.