September 1, 2023
Category: 

Coping with AuDHD burnout

Last updated on September 1, 2023

In my previous article, I shared AuDHD-friendly strategies for preventing burnout. However, preventing burnout is not always possible. Despite our best efforts, we may find ourselves in burnout due to the common demands of living in a neurotypical-paced world.

Here, I share my own top two strategies for dealing with burnout.


When we find ourselves in burnout, we typically experience persistent/long-term changes in the way we usually function. For example, if we often find it manageable to speak and participate in a conversation, in burnout, we may become non-speaking. These changes relate to all sorts of behaviours. Our memory may be worse than usual, we may have trouble taking care of ourselves (cooking, eating, showering, etc.), and we may experience unwanted changes in our mood (exhaustion, depression, anxiety, suicidality). Note: Keep in mind that these changes are relative to our own baseline. 

Therefore, the antidote to burnout is to prioritize (as much as possible) taking care of ourselves and ensuring that our needs are met. I’m going to break this down into two commonly used phrases: “back to basics” and “go with the flow.”


Back to basics

In short, this means prioritizing what we need to survive. Because we can be so depleted in a state of burnout, we want to ensure that what little energy we have available to us is being preserved and/or being used to help us generate more energy. This is particularly important for those of us who often people please or commit to tasks for the sake of other people.

I’m not the biggest fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because I don’t think it necessarily works for all neurodivergent individuals, however, I do like his idea that we each have fundamental needs that must be met in order for us to have the capacity to engage with other “secondary” needs.

Take the time to reflect on what your fundamental AuDHD needs are. If you’re not currently in burnout, now is a great time to preemptively identify these needs so that if you do find yourself in burnout, you already have a list of needs to prioritize.

If you’re already in burnout, here are some ideas of AuDHD needs that may be fundamental to you:

  • Stimming and sensory stimulation/deprivation
  • Food, water, medications
  • Physical safety (e.g., a home, your bedroom, a place to stay that is away from harm)
  • Social support (e.g., can someone help you with chores? managing your schedule? explaining neurotypical norms going on around you? doing tasks that require engaging with others like making phone calls?)
  • Time for special interests
  • Time for sleep, recovery, and rest

Go with the flow

I realize that this phrase is often not helpful for AuDHDers when used by neurotypicals! However, in this context, I’m using this phrase to refer to the recognition that our needs change from moment to moment. Therefore, going with the flow encourages us to validate and honour these fluctuations in needs. Here are two things to keep in mind when practicing this form of “going with the flow”:

It’s okay to diverge from your routine/plans

This means making adaptations based on what you need in the here and now.

Yes, routine is ideal for AuDHDers. But if we are burnt out, forcing us to abide by a routine can be more harmful. For instance, if we typically do work in the afternoons, instead we may need time to generate more energy by focusing on one of our fundamental needs, like rest. Or, if we usually cook, we may want to save energy by ordering take-out.

This logic also applies to plans that you’ve made to help support your burnout. Perhaps you thought yesterday that meeting up with your friend would be helpful. However, when you wake up, you realize that you do not have the capacity to take public transit by yourself all the way to their house. You’re allowed to cancel!

It’s okay if you need support for something you could do yesterday

Recovering from burnout takes a long time. We may be able to recover from a meltdown in a few minutes or hours, but it may take weeks, months, or even years to recover from AuDHD burnout. During this time, we may experience brief periods where we have more energy, but that energy may be short-lived. This does not mean that we “failed” at recovering from burnout! Remember that our needs fluctuate. If we have a limited amount of energy and we used it to do work yesterday, then today we may have to spend it resting and engaging in our special interests instead. Or, perhaps last week we were able to run errands and make phone calls on our own, but this week we need our friend to do these tasks for us. In particular, we may find that we need to attend to our needs more deliberately after being in a high-risk burnout situation.

I really like using the Spoon Theory metaphor to understand this concept. It was developed as a way for chronically ill individuals to explain the limited amount of mental and physical energy (or spoons) that is available to them each day. It also explains how some activities use up spoons while others replenish spoons. Therefore, spoons need to be rationed each day in order to have enough for the following day. Since its inception, the metaphor has been adopted by disabled and neurodivergent communities. We can use it to explain our energy levels on a daily basis, even in the absence of burnout. We can use the Spoon Theory to understand how to use our spoons/energy to prioritize our needs and also explain how using up spoons/energy relates to why our needs fluctuate each day.


What if I think I have been in burnout this whole time?

The reality is that many AuDHDers find themselves in a constant state of burnout without even realizing it. So many of us are accustomed to not having our needs met and living in inaccessible environments. Because this is so normalized, the common signs of burnout are often overlooked. You may already feel super exhausted and depressed all the time, and you may not even know what your baseline is.

If you’re reading this article (or any of our burnout articles) and think that you’ve been in AuDHD burnout for most of your life, you are not alone! These tips may be helpful for getting you out of your perpetual state of burnout.


In sum, when coping with AuDHD burnout, we need to prioritize taking care of ourselves and ensuring that our needs are met by getting “back to basics” (identifying and honouring our fundamental needs) and “going with the flow” (respecting when our needs fluctuate).

Importantly, society already puts enough pressure on us. We don’t need to add to that stress/pressure! Focusing on what we can realistically do given our current energy levels and capacity is the only way for us to get through a period of burnout. No amount of masking or avoiding our needs is going to work in the long run!

References

This article
was written by:
debra-bercovici
Dr. Debra Bercovici PhD has a B.Sc. in Psychology from McGill University, and a Ph.D. in Behavioural Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia. She was formally diagnosed with autism at 28.

Disclaimer

Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.

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Land acknowledgement

Embrace Autism recognizes and acknowledges the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples across Ontario. From the lands of the Anishinaabe to the Attawandaron and Haudenosaunee, these lands surrounding the Great Lakes are steeped in First Nations history. We are in solidarity with Indigenous brothers and sisters to honour and respect Mother Earth. We acknowledge and give gratitude for the wisdom of the Grandfathers and the four winds that carry the spirits of our ancestors that walked this land before us. Embrace Autism is located on the Treaty Lands and Territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. We acknowledge and thank the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation—the Treaty holders—for being stewards of this traditional territory.

A First Nations symbol, consisting of a Sun surrounded by four Eagle feathers.

Land acknowledgement

Embrace Autism recognizes and acknowledges the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples across Ontario. From the lands of the Anishinaabe to the Attawandaron and Haudenosaunee, these lands surrounding the Great Lakes are steeped in First Nations history. We are in solidarity with Indigenous brothers and sisters to honour and respect Mother Earth. We acknowledge and give gratitude for the wisdom of the Grandfathers and the four winds that carry the spirits of our ancestors that walked this land before us. Embrace Autism is located on the Treaty Lands and Territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. We acknowledge and thank the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation—the Treaty holders—for being stewards of this traditional territory.

A First Nations symbol, consisting of a Sun surrounded by four Eagle feathers.
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