If you have ADHD, you may experience heightened emotions. But there are coping strategies you can try that may make it easier.
Well-known features of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) include hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. If you live with this common neurodevelopmental disorder, you likely know about these challenges — and may even have found strategies to cope with them.
Many people with ADHD have difficulty with heightened emotions and lesser-known symptoms like emotional dysregulation. “You are doing fine, something triggers you, and then BOOM — you’re now drowning in a tidal wave of intense emotions that you cannot control,” explains Sharon Saline, a clinical psychologist, author, and consultant.
“The flooding of hurt, frustration, fear, or anxiety is too much to process for the already taxed executive functions of folks with ADHD.”
She says these factors combined can mean those with ADHD may react impulsively.
If this sounds familiar, understanding the links between emotional dysregulation and ADHD can increase your compassion for yourself. You can learn strategies for managing heightened emotions. Over time, you can learn how to act in your best interest under emotional pressure.
Emotional regulation involves five processes:
- making efforts to choose situations that minimize your negative emotions and create positive ones
- controlling what you can in a given situation
- paying attention to the elements of a situation that make you feel okay
- reevaluating situations that upset you
- changing actions that are purely based on negative emotions and may make things worse for you
If you have ADHD, the processes involved in emotional regulation may not occur automatically, and you may experience emotional dysregulation. This means not being able to adapt your emotional state to meet your goals.
Impulsivity and executive functioning challenges can heighten emotions. Impatience, frustration, and anger may:
- come on quickly
- hit with intensity
- last a long time
“Whether [the] tidal wave [of negative emotion] comes from a thoughtless comment (‘Why can’t you remember things?’), an unpleasant interaction (‘I’ve explained this to you ten times before — are you stupid?’), or a disturbing headline (‘The Delta variant is spreading rapidly’), the prefrontal cortex, often known as the ‘thinking brain,’ simply cannot manage the rapid rush of feelings,” Saline says.
In this circumstance, she says, the “emotional brain” takes over.
Mental health researchers have found emotion regulation deficits (ERD) in about
A literature review of 77 studies of emotional dysregulation identified three types of emotional dysregulation:
- Emotional reactivity/negativity/lability (ERNL). This refers to the intensity and tone of the emotional response.
- Emotional recognition and understanding (ERU). This involves the ability to figure out one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.
- Empathy/callous unemotional traits (ECUT). This describes both strong sensitivity and strong insensitivity to other’s feelings.
A high number of people with ADHD experience emotional dysregulation, particularly in the area of emotional reactivity. The association between ADHD and these areas of emotional dysregulation increases with age.
Emotional dysregulation can cause problems for adults with ADHD ranging from misunderstandings in relationships to frustration with other drivers and automobile accidents.
Emotional dysregulation is not currently a formal symptom of ADHD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) because it’s not a distinct feature of this neurodevelopmental disorder.
It seems to arise from the key symptoms of ADHD rather than cause them. However, if you have both ADHD and trouble with regulating your emotions, you’re more likely to experience challenges than if you have ADHD with attention and impulsivity symptoms alone.
Fortunately, you can take evidence-based, actionable steps to develop emotional regulation. These are easy to do right now.
Slow down and name your emotions
Dr. Sharon Saline recommends these techniques to interrupt heightened emotions:
- Identify your bodily signs: Shortness of breath, increased heart rate, louder voice, and perspiration indicate that you are being triggered.
- Create a plan for what to do to center yourself and pause.
- Go to the bathroom and wash your hands or face.
- Step outside for fresh air.
- Listen to music.
The goal is to “give yourself some time and space between what you are feeling and what you want to do,” she says.
In order to do that, you could try the following techniques:
- Write the options of your plan in your phone so you can access it easily.
- Feel free to say to someone who is setting you off, “I need a minute or two to catch my breath.”
- Or, you can try saying, “Let’s take a 10-minute break and come back to this discussion.”
Recent studies suggest mindfulness may help symptoms of ADHD and ERD in both children and adults. You might want to try one or all of these three meditative techniques:
- body scan
- sitting meditation
- mindful yoga
Mindfulness brings you back to the present moment through awareness of the body. This awareness can give you the pause you need to redirect strong emotions. It can also help you develop emotional awareness.
You can often join mindfulness practices through churches, community centers, or online. Many apps allow you to practice mindfulness in your own home.
Listen to your thoughts and learn from them
A comparative research study found that people with ADHD often unconsciously engage in the following types of thinking:
- Self-blame: “It’s all my fault.”
- Blaming others: “If only they hadn’t done that.”
- Catastrophizing: “This is the worst day ever.”
- Rumination: “If only, what if, if only, what if…”
If you’re experiencing negative emotions, you could try writing down your thoughts. It may take work, but you might consider reframing repeated negative thoughts:
- “I did one part well.”
- “Maybe they had good reasons for their actions.”
- “The morning was rough, but the day is getting better.”
- “I’ll let it go for now. Tomorrow is another day”
Your spirit and mind play a role in emotional regulation and ADHD. So does your body.
A review of research on ADHD found that exercise can reduce symptoms of ADHD in adults as well as children.
- Exercise improves executive functioning and emotional regulation.
- Cardio exercise is particularly effective.
- Noncardio exercise also has some effect.
If you’re experiencing significant problems with social relationships — or in your relationship with yourself — it’s advisable to seek the help of a health professional to treat ADHD and ERD symptoms.
A health professional can help you find a support group or a therapist who can teach you strategies for managing your emotions in a way that works for you.
Looking for mental health support? You can check out Psych Central’s Find Help resource for some options.
Emotional dysregulation and heightened emotions are not formal features of ADHD. However, if you live with ADHD, they may challenge you.
Slowing down, practicing mindfulness, reframing negative thoughts, and exercising are all accessible ways to redirect strong emotions. Seeking the help of a mental health professional — in person or online — is another option that may work for you.