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A sudden trigger can unleash a torrent of anger and negative emotions. Before you know it, you’re doing or saying things that you’ll later regret. In some cases, it might even feel good to let it all out. When living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), emotional reactivity is often a response pattern, but it is something that can be adjusted with the appropriate mindset and tools.
The ADHD Brain and Emotional Regulation ADHD is often accompanied by emotional dysregulation. This is due to a combination of factors that contribute to the frequency and intensity of emotional outbursts.
The Role of the Amygdala and Emotional Overwhelm The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response. Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., coined the term “amygdala hijack” to describe situations where the brain overreacts to perceived threats and takes over the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s thinking center.
People with ADHD are more prone to amygdala hijack due to a variety of reasons. Amygdala abnormalities are often found in ADHD brains, and the ADHD brain struggles to shut down emotional processing. Persistent stress and emotions can lead to a constant emotional flooding, causing individuals to lose touch with their rational selves.
The Impact of Poor Working Memory Effective emotional regulation is linked to strong working memory, whereas weak working memory, which is associated with ADHD and executive dysfunction, can impair a person’s ability to manage and respond appropriately to emotions. Weak working memory might make it difficult to recall and choose appropriate coping strategies when faced with triggers. Executive dysfunction can also limit impulse control, leading to regrettable actions or words when overwhelmed.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) RSD causes extreme emotional reactions to rejection and criticism, whether real or perceived. It is also linked to:
- Intense feelings of embarrassment, shame, and failure
- Fear of losing love, support, or friendship due to mistakes
- Difficulty letting go of past experiences of rejection and hurt
RSD can fuel emotional outbursts by keeping individuals on edge and causing them to react defensively. Anger is often a secondary emotion, with fear and other feelings lying beneath the surface.
Managing ADHD-Related Anger
- Understand Your Anger Patterns Habits are mostly involuntary patterns of behavior developed to fulfill an emotional need. They consist of triggers, routine behaviors, and reinforcing outcomes. To change a habit, you only need to target one of these components.
Anger and emotional outbursts are habitual responses to uncomfortable feelings, often arising when we underestimate our ability to cope with stressors.
Explore Your Reactivity To understand your reactive patterns, consider these metacognitive questions:
- What situations activate or put you on edge?
- What sensations do you experience when you’re angry or upset?
- What behaviors do you engage in when you’re upset or angry?
- What has helped you calm down in similar situations? Are those responses useful?
- How are others reacting to your words and actions? What are their facial expressions or body language indicating?
Developing metacognitive skills takes time and effort. Avoid judgment and focus on observing and adjusting one aspect at a time.
- Replace Unhelpful Anger Habits with Effective Responses Identify strategies to calm anger at every stage of emotional intensity.
When You’re Mildly Uncomfortable:
- Notice the negative, critical thoughts and compare them to the reality of the situation.
When You’re Activated:
- Acknowledge and validate your feelings, and ask yourself what you can do to settle down.
- Repeat affirmations or supportive phrases.
- Visualize yourself calming down.
When You’re On “High Alert”:
- Practice focused breathing techniques or engage in physical activity.
- Physically distance yourself from the stressor or situation.
- Use a timed distraction, such as listening to music or playing a game on your phone.
Remember that you can mix and match these responses, and that breathing techniques can be beneficial at every stage.
Practice Makes Perfect Managing stress and changing our responses to it is an ongoing process. Keep these tips in mind as you shift from reactive habits to more constructive responses:
- Commit to change and list your coping tools in multiple places to help you easily access them.
- Focus on one change at a time for greater progress.
- Adopt a growth mindset, expecting challenges and frustrations as you adjust your emotional responses. See mistakes as learning opportunities, not personal flaws.
- Remind yourself of your reasons for changing your habits and moving away from anger.
- Be gentle with yourself. Shame and regret about your emotional responses can hold you back. Practice self-compassion, and remember that progress may look like two steps forward and one step back—but that’s still moving forward.
Remember that you are more than your ADHD reactivity. Intense emotions might have been a part of your life for a long time, but they don’t define you.
Additional Strategies for Improving Emotional Regulation Manage RSD:
- Recognize your strengths and focus on the positives. Write down three things that went well each day, no matter how small.
- Treat yourself with kindness, using affirmations and words of encouragement.
- Plan how to respond to criticism, even if it’s constructive, using methods like the STAR method (Stop, Think, Act, and Recover) to cope with RSD.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle:
- Establish a routine that includes sufficient sleep, balanced meals, regular physical activity, and social connections to help manage stress.
- Use the HALT method throughout the day: Are you hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Address these factors to help regulate emotions.
- Focus on building positive relationships and learning how to resolve conflicts by planning for them in advance.
Seek Professional Support:
- If you find it challenging to manage your emotions and responses independently, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor specializing in ADHD and emotional regulation.
- Participate in support groups or online forums to connect with others who are also navigating ADHD and emotional challenges. Sharing experiences and coping strategies can provide valuable insights and encouragement.
Develop Mindfulness Techniques:
- Incorporate mindfulness exercises, such as meditation or yoga, into your daily routine to increase self-awareness and promote emotional stability.
- Use grounding techniques during moments of emotional overwhelm to anchor yourself in the present moment and redirect your focus away from negative emotions.
Set Realistic Expectations:
- Understand that change takes time, and progress may not be linear. Be patient with yourself and recognize that setbacks are a natural part of the growth process.
- Acknowledge and celebrate small victories along the way. Positive reinforcement can motivate you to continue working on your emotional regulation journey.
In summary, living with ADHD often comes with challenges related to emotional regulation. By understanding the underlying causes of emotional reactivity, you can equip yourself with the right tools and strategies to manage your emotions more effectively. Remember that it’s essential to be patient and gentle with yourself throughout the process, and that seeking support from professionals or others who understand your experiences can make all the difference. With time, effort, and persistence, you can take control of your emotions and enjoy a more balanced and fulfilling life.