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» Learn the Skill of “Pulling Over” with ADHD Overwhelm

Learn the Skill of “Pulling Over” with ADHD Overwhelm

ADHD Strategies    September 3, 2019

ADHD OverwhelmAs many of you know, I moved back to Washington State several years ago and I noticed something different. On Washington State freeways, there are a lot more cars pulled over on the side of the roads.

Having lived in California for 13 years, a car on the side of the freeway usually meant one of two things. The car was having some sort of “trouble” – out of gas, flat tire, minor fender bender, etc. Or it humbly sat with the dreaded red, blue and white lights flashing. In general, Californians and California freeways are designed to get you somewhere fast and directly as possible. Taking a break on the side of the road didn’t factor in.

On the freeways of Washington State, it’s different. There is an undeniable number of cars pulled over on the right margin of the road, stopped and safe. No flashing lights, no raised hoods. Instead, the driver is typically parked on the side of the road on their phone talking or texting. It seems safety and taking a break when needed is more important than getting there.

I experienced this phenomenon on one of my many freeway trips during my move. The hood of my car wasn’t latched securely and I started to panic, looking frantically for an off-ramp. Yup, I was convinced the hood was going to suddenly flip off and block my view like a bad road trip movie.

Thankfully, I was traveling with my sister (a long-time resident of Washington state) who just kept saying, “Pull over…pull over…Laurie, just PULL OVER!”

It took me a minute to actually comprehend what she was saying since experience taught me that stopping on the freeway was rare and forbidden. Even so, I crossed to the far right lane, safely pulled over onto the shoulder, latched the hood (took a deep breath), merged back into the traffic and we were on our way.

This all reminds me of an analogy Dr. Hallowell used during his 2018 Succeed with ADHD Telesummit interview: “People with ADHD have a Ferrari brain and bicycle brakes.”

Yup, our ADHD brains can be like the California freeway – with its many revved up sports cars swerving in and out of lanes, racing along at a frantic pace, working so hard to get somewhere.

But the California way isn’t always the best way for an ADHD brain. It can lead to feeling overwhelmed, lost or in crisis. You don’t want to go fast and only stop when something breaks down or you get in trouble.

Instead, what if we add in a bit of the Washington mentality? What if we give ourselves permission to “pull over?” Time to take stock of our situation and determine what we need to do to avoid a crash? Maybe even “phone a friend” or ask “Siri for directions” and then when we are ready, pull out into life again.

So how can you develop the skill of “pulling over” when it feels like your brain is meant to go at high speed and wants to ignore the flashing warning lights?

Here are a few suggestions:


Notice how your body feels when overwhelmed. It may be a tight stomach, fuzzy or spinning feeling in your head or some other sensation. This is your cue that the overwhelm is beginning.


When you notice your overwhelm signals beginning to start, change your response and plan for how you can “pull over” to regain your calm. For most, this might include removing yourself from the current chaos. (Learn more about the feelings of ADHD here.)


Because you may not be able to figure out what to do next in the moment, the next step is to pull over and take a break. It will depend on the context as to what type of break you’re able to take, of course.

For example, if you’re working and overwhelmed, you may decide to stop working. If you are in a meeting or class, perhaps you can excuse yourself to go to the washroom. And, if you are having a one-to-one conversation and start to notice the overwhelm, you might ask to reconvene at another time entirely.

You might even decide to engage in an activity you enjoy so you can have some time away from whatever is causing you the overwhelm. It might just be the best thing to do in the moment. (See if you can answer this question – How Good of a Relaxer Are You?)


In some cases, it might be enough to take the above 3 steps to reduce your feelings of overwhelm and get back at it. However, once you feel more in control, you might decide what plan you would like to take if it happened again.


With your Ferrari brain, becoming overwhelmed at times is common for persons with ADHD. Following the steps above, allowing yourself the opportunity to pull over when you become overwhelmed can help you get back to calm more quickly and have you on the road again in no time.


Want to learn more about ADHD and strategies you can use?

Why “HOW” is Not Enough for People with ADHD

Goals that Work for People with ADHD

3 Responses to Learn the Skill of “Pulling Over” with ADHD Overwhelm

  1. Kevin     September 4, 2019    9:02 am    Reply

    I love this metaphor. It really gives a good visual to what is going on when we are stuck on a course of overwhelm. And it also provides a basic and versatile method to regain positive control of our vehicle. Thank you for this great short read.

  2. Robin     September 5, 2019    3:08 pm    Reply

    After a lot of mistakes and deep burn out I was forced to pull over. It wasn’t fun. But during that first major pull over, I learned it’s ok to let others do the things you normally do. It’s humbling for certain, it wasn’t easy and now I sometimes pull over to quickly but like everything, somedays I am right in the middle of the extremes and life is going along well. Having teenagers doesn’t make that easy and just now I was asked by my all knowing 15 year old daughter, “Do you think you could do some dishes?” I told her it could still happen today because it is always part of the plan. But I will tell you, probably not. Life has thrown me a huge curve ball and I think a nap is more likely to happen than dishes because there other some things I have to do, and the dishes will wait until someone gets to them!

  3. Faith     October 16, 2019    2:00 pm    Reply

    Thank you for these strategies. Shifting to a different activity is something that’s hard for me to justify when I’m busy and have multiple to-do’s. I’m glad to see that it’s a worthwhile suggestion. I hope to try it out.

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