People with ADHD tend to have a hard time regulating their emotions. For instance, they report going from zero to 100 in just several seconds, according to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“They report being emotionally hypersensitive, as long as they can remember.”
Their feelings also may be more intense. “[W]atching a sad movie can push them into an episode of depression or crying. A happy event can bring on almost a manic type of excitement,” said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach.
In another example, if a driver cuts them off, a person with ADHD might become enraged, whereas someone without the disorder may get irritated, she said.
People with ADHD have difficulty censoring strong reactions. “They have problems inhibiting inappropriate behavior related to strong positive or negative emotion,” Olivardia said. He gave the example of insulting your boss when he angers you.
And it can take longer to relax. “What might take an hour for a non-ADHD-er to calm down from, could take someone with ADHD the whole day. Part of this is due to difficulty refocusing attention away from the strong emotion.”
On the other hand, he said, other people with ADHD don’t give themselves enough time or space to process their emotions.
If you’re finding it difficult to regulate your emotions, here are eight tips to help.
1. Avoid criticizing yourself.
“First and foremost, understand that emotional regulation issues in ADHD are neurologically based,” Olivardia said. It has nothing to do with being too emotional or too sensitive, he said.
“Accept that you are an emotional being but need some boundaries to your emotions.”
2. Know yourself.
Matlen stressed the importance of having self-awareness. For instance, “women’s emotions during hormonal changes can cause pretty significant highs and lows, causing emotional outbursts and hypersensitive reactions.”
So it’s helpful for women with ADHD to prepare for this time. For instance, you might carve out more downtime and avoid taking on extra responsibilities, she said.
3. Be clear about interruptions.
When many adults with ADHD are hyper-focused on a project, disruptions can spark anger, said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD. That’s because transitioning from one activity to another is tough for them, she said.
“This causes much stress and frustration and unfortunately, the outcome is often a lashing out.”
If you get particularly enraged when people interrupt you, be clear on when you can and can’t be interrupted, Matlen said. Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign, and close your door, she said. “Build in times when you are available to others.”
4. Set boundaries.
“Set healthy boundaries between yourself and [a] situation or others around you,” Olivardia said. For instance, instead of watching continuous coverage of a disaster, inform yourself about what happened, and then unplug, he said.
Also, when you feel yourself losing control, walk away and focus on calming down, Matlen said.
Exercise is key for adults with ADHD, Matlen said. “It’s a boring piece of advice, but it’s true: Exercise will help regulate mood and take the edge off.” Just find physical activities that you enjoy doing.
6. Feel your feelings.
Coping healthfully with emotions means learning to manage them — not avoid them. “Trying to not feel something will only result in an exacerbated expression of that feeling,” Olivardia said. He gave the example of panic, which is “when someone is getting anxious about getting anxious and trying to not feel anxious.”
7. Practice self-soothing techniques.
Olivardia suggested practicing deep breathing, and being mindful of the moments you’re stressed out or revved up. Some research also has found that meditation is helpful for managing ADHD symptoms, including regulating mood, Matlen said.
8. See your doctor about medication changes.
If you find yourself frequently losing control, it might be your medication. “Sometimes, becoming overreactive is an indication that your meds are wrong,” Matlen said. People may experience rebound effects where they become very irritable as their medication wears off, she said.
Ultimately, “The goal is to honor yourself as an emotional being, while at the same time, working at experiencing, expressing, and managing those emotions in a healthy and productive manner,” Olivardia said.
However, if nothing seems to be working, consider if severe moodiness might be a symptom of something else — aside from ADHD — which may require treatment or different types of treatment, Matlen said.