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  • Writer's picturePetra

Understanding and Managing Burnout in Neurodivergent Adults

Burnout is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It refers to a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress at work. It often results in feelings of reduced accomplishment, detachment from one's job, and cynicism. This can lead to reduced efficacy and performance, as well as negative impacts on well-being.


In recent years the idea of ADHD or autistic burnout has proliferated. It is not a specific diagnosable condition, and there is a paucity of research in the area. However, the concept of burnout appears to have some explanatory power for a phenomenon of emotional and physical exhaustion that many neurodivergent people experience.


It isn't too hard to imagine how the challenges posed by ADHD and autism, such as the increased energy required in organising tasks and sustaining attention, and the energy sucker that is hyperfocus, can exacerbate stress and hasten the onset of burnout.


Why are Neurodivergent Adults More Susceptible to Burnout?

While there is a paucity of research on ADHD and autistic burnout, some of the below features could be linked to a higher propensity to experience it.

  1. Chronic Stress: ADHD and autism can lead to a propensity to experience periods of high stress, and likely a higher general state of stress, increasing the risk of burnout. The effort required to keep up with daily responsibilities can become overwhelming.

  2. Executive Dysfunction: Executive functions like planning, time management, and emotional regulation are often impaired in neurodivergent people, making it more energy-intensive to navigate stressors effectively.

  3. Self-Regulatory Challenges: Many adults with ADHD struggle with impulsivity and emotional lability, which can intensify stress and frustration.

  4. High Expectations: Societal expectations around productivity can create additional pressure, making it hard to meet demands and leading to feelings of inadequacy.

  5. Comorbid Mental Health Difficulties: A higher rate of comorbid mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, are found in ADHD and autistic people. These co-occurring difficulties often require additional emotional resources to manage, heightening the risk of burnout.

Recognising the Signs

Signs of burnout may include:

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Diminished interest in work or hobbies, including a desire to impulsively quit

  • Irritability or emotional instability

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Increased physical illness and symptoms, as well as exacerbation of mental health problems

I have seen ADHD and autistic clients who have described a repeating pattern of accumulating stress that leads to physical and mental symptoms that also build until a change is forced. This could be taking sick leave, dropping responsibilities or activities, spending a week in bed, or quitting or being forced from their job. Some people appear to be on a recurring cycle of months or years of this pattern, while others can still be suffering from the effects of a burnout episode many months, or even years after a change was forced.


Strategies for Management

Self-Awareness

The first step in tackling burnout is recognising it. Pay attention to the changes in your mood, health, and enthusiasm for work or activities you once enjoyed.


Optimise Treatment for ADHD

One of the most effective strategies to combat burnout is to optimise ADHD treatment. This often includes medication to manage symptoms and working with a therapist who understands ADHD and neurodiversity. A well-rounded treatment plan addresses not just the core symptoms but also the associated challenges that contribute to burnout. Myself and a client of mine wrote an article describing his burnout experience that was published on the ADDitude website. The most impactful thing he did for his chronic burnout was to restart stimulant medication after a decade's hiatus.


Prioritise Self-Care

Self-care isn't just a buzzword; it's essential for mental well-being. Adequate sleep, balanced nutrition, and regular physical activity can contribute to improved stress management. I have a blog post on the topic here. Self-care can also include taking some time off work to allow acute stress to lessen and possibly lead to some recovery.


Set Boundaries

Learn to say no when necessary and protect your time. Overcommitting spreads you thinly and leads to subpar performance and increased stress. This can be a really hard thing to do at work if the work culture is to push hard and work long hours.


Seek Professional Help

If you find that you're unable to manage burnout symptoms on your own, consult a healthcare professional. Treatments may include medication, counselling, or a combination of both. Many larger businesses have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that might be a good start, but finding someone who understands neurodiversity issues would be the best bet.


Reevaluate Goals and Expectations

Sometimes burnout occurs because you're striving for unrealistic or poorly-defined goals. Take some time to reassess your expectations, both from yourself and from others. The way you do work, how many hours a week you work, or the type of work you do may need to be altered to avoid a repeated burnout cycle.


Conclusion

Burnout can have serious repercussions on a person's mental and physical health, as well as their professional life. Noticing symptoms early can allow for more effective intervention. Being mindful of the unique challenges that ADHD poses, you can implement strategies to better manage stress and reduce the risk of burnout.


Remember, it's never too late to seek help and make changes that enhance your quality of life. You're not alone in this journey; support is available, and it's okay to ask for it.




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