Motivational Paralysis: The Silent Killer

Motivational paralysis is when you cannot control your “will” do to things. You do not have the drive to initiate, either through internal forces or through external forces. It feels like nothing matters. To understand motivational paralysis we need to dive deeper to learn where motivation comes from.

According to most experts, motivation is the driving force behind all human actions. It’s the feeling that pushes us to meet deadlines, care for our loved ones, and to go to the gym even when we’re tired. While there are many definitions out there, motivation can easily be defined as a mental push to get us moving.

Understanding motivation helps us answer one of the most puzzling questions known to man; why do we behave the way we do?

Motivation is the Driving Force

Let’s take a closer look at motivation for a minute. There are two main types. These categories help understand what the source of the motivation is:

Internal forces drive the willingness to do things

Intrinsic Motivation is when actions are driven by internal forces such as emotions, curiosity, and the need for autonomy. This means that you are looking to satisfy something within yourself.

Example of intrinsic motivation: You learn how to bake banana bread because you enjoy bananas and want to learn something new. You simultaneously feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfy your hunger cravings.

External forces make you do things

Extrinsic motivation is when actions are intended to create an impact on others or gain acceptance from the environment.

Example of extrinsic motivation: You learn to bake banana bread during the pandemic when everyone is doing it and post pictures of it on social media. You gain acceptance and feel included in the newest trends.

But what happens when we run out of motivation?

Just like all other human emotions, motivation also comes and goes. Loss of motivation is known as motivation paralysis; the inability to push ourselves to do anything.

The feeling of motivation paralysis can be very strong and make us lose focus for long periods of time.

What is Motivational Paralysis?

In simple words, motivational paralysis is an inability to perform tasks, socialize or, at times, engage in basic activities.

Depending on the severity, motivational paralysis inhibits our actions and can go so far as to trigger a negative cycle of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that continue to keep us paralyzed.   

It’s when you have an assignment due but refuse to work on it, sometimes till the last minute, sometimes even after the submission date.

When you plan to go out with your friends but then all of a sudden don’t end up going. In extreme situations, it’s also when you stop taking care of yourself and distance yourself from your friends and family.

Motivational paralysis can strike at any time. Although it is linked strongly with depression and ADHD, however, it can still creep up on unexpecting individuals. Although not fully understood, let’s look at some of the reasons motivational paralysis happens. 

The Lethargy Cycle

The lethargy cycle is triggered by self-deprecating thoughts leading to increased negative emotions which in turn cause you to be reclusive.

Let’s look at an example to understand this better. Say you have a party to go to. You’re getting dressed but you start thinking that no matter what you wear you won’t look good, that your outfit will be judged and people won’t talk to you (yes, some people’s thoughts can be that exaggerated!). All of a sudden you are filled with negative emotions like fear and shame and you’ve lost interest in going at all. So instead, you choose to crawl into bed and be alone rather than potentially have a great time with your friends.

This lethargy cycle continues with negative and self-deprecating thoughts, feelings, and behaviors reinforcing each other, creating a spiraling effect.


Motivational Paralysis in Depression

When you’re feeling low, are you able to stay productive? Be social and connect with people around you? Most likely the answer to both questions is a big no. Whether it’s a temporary low mood or clinical depression, one thing is for sure; motivation paralysis will hit you like a train at full speed.

Sadness can make even simple tasks and responsibilities feel like a burden. The low levels of energy associated with this mood add to the problem, leading to increased chances of motivational paralysis. In people with diagnosed depression, levels of motivation contribute to their prognosis and can potentially improve their chances of overcoming their issues. However, if they suffer from motivation paralysis their prognosis can be adversely affected. This is mainly because depression is countered by focusing on two main feelings; mastery and pleasure, neither of which can be achieved without feeling motivated.

Motivational Paralysis in ADHD

Motivational paralysis is very common in ADHD. People with ADHD might be good at completing short tasks, however, focusing on long-term tasks or difficult ones can really bring them down. This is because these kinds of tasks make them feel pressured and overburdened, something they would rather avoid. 

The ability to perform certain tasks while being unable to perform others is key to ADHD behavior. And what’s interesting about it is that the person does not choose to leave certain tasks incomplete, they simply feel no motivation to do it.

Considering the types of motivation we had talked about earlier, it is possible they lack intrinsic motivation when it comes to difficult tasks because it might take too much effort.

What Can You Do About Motivational Paralysis?

Although it might sound like there isn’t much you can do to get your motivation back once it’s lost, that’s not true at all. Just like any human feeling, motivation also, can come back to you.

Although there are many things you can try, we thought of sharing the following with you:

Go easy on yourself

Life is all about ups and downs. Beating yourself up when you’re at a low point won’t help you get back up. It’ll just keep you down longer.

Try to answer the ‘why’

Look beyond the motivational paralysis and see what could be causing it. Did you just go through a breakup and are feeling too depressed to concentrate? Did you bite off more than you can chew at work? Addressing the underlying issue will also reduce the problem with motivation.

Set smaller goals

Looking at the bigger picture might be intimidating. Instead, try to break it down and take in smaller pieces, bit by bit.

Celebrate your victories

Positive reinforcement can go a long way in improving our motivation. Celebrating even the tiniest steps you take can feed your brain the positivity needed to break out of the rut.

You’re not alone

Remember that in your mind it might be just you, but there are many others who are willing to be there for you, to support you. Use your support system to build you up when you aren’t able to do that yourself.  

Ending Notes

Just like the good times, even the bad times don’t last forever (even though, they can feel quite differently!).

Motivational paralysis might bring you down, and it might seem like an endless tunnel, but remember there is light at the end of the tunnel. That there is going to be a way for you to overcome the difficult times and come out feeling motivated and excited about life all over again.


  1. APA
  2. Science Direct
  3. Springer

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