Burnout is real, and it’s worse when you have ADHD

If you’re in high school, it’s almost exam time. If Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, then June, just under half a year later, is the worst. 

When I was in high school (just two short years ago), the end of the year used to fill me with dread. I went to an non-semestered high school. That means that I took all eight courses the entire year, switching back and forth on odd and even days. It was a good system in some ways, but for me, it was misery. Eight courses the whole year meant eight exams in two weeks–not to mention eight end-of-term projects due at roughly the same time. The sun might finally be out, and the weather might finally be warm enough to put away all traces of winter clothing, but spring did nothing but give me anxiety. 

By April of every year, I had no motivation left. I was completely burnt out, barely able to drag myself to school every day, and a total grouch. I was so jealous of the students around me who came to school ready to work without fail, and didn’t find themselves falling asleep the second the teacher started talking. They worked and didn’t seem to get tired of it. 

I blamed my supposed lack of willpower. I was convinced that I was just like everyone else, and so I expected myself to be able to function identically, under identical circumstances. How did they do it? What was wrong with me?

Spoiler: I wasn’t just like them, and I couldn’t function the same way. I still can’t. And that’s okay.

Since I’ve graduated, I’ve been able to get a little perspective on high school and what it was to me. And I’ve realized that the reason I felt so tired, deflated, and utterly apathetic was because I had to work harder. When you have ADHD as I do, you have to work harder and longer in order to achieve what most neurotypical students can do in half the time. I would sit down with every intention to study, but five minutes in and I was already catching myself thinking about something else. It didn’t matter if I removed every distraction in a room. The biggest distraction were my own thoughts that I apparently had no control over. 

If studying for a test takes a neurotypical student three hours, it took me around six. I had no free time–I couldn’t have free time, because free time meant that I was underprepared. Looking back, it was obvious that I was destined to burn myself out, but at the time it just felt weakness. It helped a lot for me to learn what burnout really was. 

There are three steps to the burnout process. 

Step one: You enter into a period of heightened stress, responsibility, or activity. For me, this was the start of the school year. Cross country season was starting, which meant practices on the other side of the city three times a week, on top of homework, tests and assignments. 

Step two: You respond accordingly. I threw myself into my studies and extracurriculars. I would attempt to never miss a cross country practice. I would do every single homework question, even if it wouldn’t be checked by the teacher. I would read ahead. This was my year, I promised myself every September. This is the year that I would prove that I’m unaffected by ADHD. This is the year that I don’t burn out, and finish as strong as I start, no matter what it takes. 

Step three: Exhaustion, be it mental, physical, or both. When you’re working as hard as you possibly can for a period of time, eventually you run out of steam. You cannot maintain maximum energy output for any real length of time. You will hit a brick wall, as I did every year around March or April (and sometimes even earlier!). When you find yourself running out of energy, finding no motivation to do your best even though you really really want to, you’re probably burnt out. 

When September comes closer, I will post what I’ve learned to prevent burn out from happening. For now, however, you’ might already be there. You might already have been working harder than you can maintain all year, and your motivation might be gone just when you need it most. 

I hear you. And I’m here to help. 

Five Ways to Study if You’re Burnt Out

1. Stop comparing yourself to other students. 

I’m serious. Whether they’re neurotypical or not, their brain is not your brain, and it is for that reason that you are apples to oranges. Even no two ADHD brains are the same, because ADHD–like other disabilities such as autism–comes in a spectrum, and can present many many different symptoms caused by a vast range of genes. What works for them may not work for you, and that doesn’t make you less intelligent or less capable. It just means that you might not have found the strategies that work best for you. 

2. Let go of perfectionism. 

I know this can be irritating to hear because it’s preached so widely, but it’s really really pertinent. When I would study when I was burnt out, I would spend hours upon hours on just one subject, at the expense of all the others, simply because I wouldn’t accept any mark below a 90. You might not get that 90, and that’s okay! The only thing you can expect from yourself is your best effort. That doesn’t mean killing yourself reading and rereading your textbook and looking for every possible practice question. That means working hard, but giving yourself time to rest and relax. 

3. Prioritize!

When you’re burnt out, you cannot do it all, and so you have to do what’s most important: your physical and mental health, and studying. If you can, ask your employer for the two weeks before your exams off, explaining your situation and providing a doctor’s note if need be. Tell your friends that you won’t be able to make it to your weekly coffee appointment. Ask your parents for a two week pass on chores. Keep your exercises short but effective, and keep your eating habits healthy but simple. Remind yourself  and others that this is only temporary, and in a few short weeks you will be back to your usual habits. 

4. Rely on friends, family, and teachers as much as you can. 

The people you are close to in your life want to see you succeed, and that includes the teacher you think might be (just a little bit!) evil. Ask them. Ask your mom to quiz you before your biology exam. Ask your best friend to proofread your final essay. Most importantly, if you feel comfortable, ask your teachers for help. Ask them what units are most crucial. Ask them to explain any test questions you didn’t fully understand. Not every teacher will understand your struggle with ADHD, but they will understand a student who wants to do their best. The majority of them will see how hard you are working and respond accordingly. 

5. Schedule, but don’t over-schedule.

On pinterest and instagram I would see colour coded schedules divided into 15-minute increments. Every minute was accounted for, every minute spent productively. Please, learn from my mistakes and don’t fall into that trap. As tempting as it might be to create such a strict schedule, in my experience it does not work. It does not work because your ADHD is not predictable. You can’t schedule a 15 minute break every hour on the hour because your brain simply does not work that way. 

Instead, create a vague schedule. Decide to study in the morning, but take breaks when you feel your attention waning, not when a piece of paper says you should. Say you’ll go for a run before lunch, but don’t try to break yourself away from studying if you’re making a lot of progress. The run can wait an hour, or until you lose focus again! If you’re getting really frustrated, switch subjects, or switch activities. Take a nap. Lift some weights. Then, slowly ease back into it. 

I hope these tips help you in some way! Good luck and talk soon. 

Julia