Why We Feel So Much — and Ways to Overcome It
Research shows that people with ADHD have out-sized challenges with frustration, impatience, anger, and excitability. Here are four strategies to regulate our excessive emotional responses to frustrations and setbacks, so we can stay on course and move forward in our lives.
Everyone experiences frustrations, setbacks, and challenges, but not everyone reacts as strongly as you do to them. Small, relatively insignificant setbacks seem to get an outsize response from those diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Research shows that we have greater challenges with frustration, impatience, anger, and excitability than others do. That’s because ADHD impairs our ability to regulate our emotions, to experience them in a controlled way, so that they don’t gush out into the world.
But there are ways to tone down our emotional explosions and to turn them into positive energy. Before we explore them, here is more science on the ADHD emotions factory.
ADHD: A Failure-to-Regulate Mood Disorder
“ADHD is not a mood disorder. It’s a failure-to-regulate mood disorder,” says ADHD expert Russell Barkley, Ph.D. From a neuropsychological standpoint, regulation is all about connectivity within the brain. Emotions are generated in the limbic system — which includes the amygdala, the anterior cingulate, and other parts that make up our “primitive brain” — and that system controls fear, pleasure, and anger. When an emotion is generated, the limbic system connects with the prefrontal cortex, which is tasked with managing that emotion. The cortex pauses, assessing the significance of the situation, calculating the costs of reacting outwardly, and suppresses actions not in our best interest.
The frontal cortex is like a security checkpoint. But in the ADHD brain, the neurochemical connectivity needed to guard that checkpoint is weak, allowing emotions to stampede past the security gate and wreak havoc with outbursts. Not assessed. Not calculated. Not suppressed. Never in our best interest.
Unchecked Emotions Can Damage Relationships, Careers, Everything
- We react to minor problems or annoyances as if they were DEFCON Level 1 threats. We’re thrown into panic mode easily; we get super-stressed about little stuff; we lose sight of the big picture, often resulting in decisions or actions we later regret.
- We have difficulty calming down once a strong emotion has taken hold. We stew for hours or days over an emotional event. And that stewing prevents, or at least impairs, our getting back to work and moving our priorities forward.
- We’re extremely sensitive to disapproval, rejection, and criticism. We might interpret a colleague’s reaction to something we proposed as criticism, disapproval, or even insult, when none was intended. We tend to react self-defensively, or worse, angrily.
- We get overly excited about things, including good things. Just as we often overreact to minor problems and annoyances, we can also go overboard in the other direction. This may mean diving headlong into a new hobby, and realizing, after dishing out $1,800 on equipment and six months of lessons, that “I should have eased into this.”
Body Awareness Helps to Identify Unhealthy Feelings
This all sounds pretty bleak, but ADHD emotionality is actually a bad news/good news situation. The good news is that you can build some defenses and leverage against some of your strong emotions to shift your energy in the direction you want to go: forward.
Learning to handle our negative emotions as they occur begins with becoming fully aware of when we’re in their grasp. And a key to doing this is to listen to your body.
Research shows that body awareness helps you identify unhealthy feelings and step off the emotional merry-go-round. When you have a negative emotion, your body sends stress signals: tension in your neck and shoulders, discomfort in your solar plexus (“gut pangs”), or wherever it is you first feel stress in your body.
A second prerequisite to these interventions is to name your emotion. Naming your emotions, what psychologists call labeling, goes beyond just thinking, “Yes, I’m angry” or, “Wow, am I sad.” Emotional Agility author Susan David, Ph.D., says, “[When] experiencing a strong emotion…take a moment to consider what to call it, but don’t stop there. Come up with two more words that describe how you’re feeling.”
You Can Create a Healthier “Emotional Home”
Imagine a late afternoon at work. You got little sleep the night before, had to skip lunch, and haven’t been able to get to the gym or take a walk outdoors for a couple of weeks. You have just spent the last 10 minutes staring at the tasks you must do to keep what feels like a dead-end job. I would call this feeling an “unhealthy emotional home.”
Now imagine that your teenage son calls and tells you that he just totaled the SUV. Your reaction probably won’t be measured and balanced.
Let’s rebuild that emotional home: You’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep most nights; you’re feeding your ADHD brain with protein and complex carbs, and, even when the day is so crazy that you have to skip lunch, you have some raw nuts and protein bars handy. Even though you haven’t gotten to the gym in a couple of weeks, you took a long walk around the neighborhood before bedtime; you’ve been blocking off the mornings in your calendar, so that quality work sessions and restorative breaks are built in.
Now you get that awful call from your son. Will your emotional response be different? Maybe you would go into your problem-solving mode rather than launching into a scream-fest? Diet, sleep, exercise, mindset, and other lifestyle adjustments will help protect you from emotions.
There are many things you can be doing every day to reduce your emotional vulnerability. Here are four simple additions:
- Daily gratitude ritual. The act of writing down three things every day for which you are grateful has been shown in the research of Harvard’s Shawn Achor to reduce reactivity and boost positive outlook in the face of challenges.
- Get a positive nag. You’ve likely heard of vision boards or dream boards. Research shows that positive imagery reduces stress and improves mental clarity. Consider creating a simple montage of aspirational images reflecting your ideal life, and put it where you’ll see it every day, if not all day long. My computer screensaver is a rotation of such images along with empowering quotes.
- Journaling. There are more than 40 years of research on the link between writing and emotional processing. For instance, a study of laid-off workers found that those who explored their negative feelings in writing were three times more likely to find a new job.
- Self-compassion. When you screw up, be kind to yourself. It’s like the golden rule with a twist: treat yourself as you would treat others. Talk to yourself as if you were consoling a good friend: “Hey, Buddy, don’t sweat it. Tomorrow’s a new start.”
Replace the Negative Emotion with a Positive One
After you’ve caught that tension in your body and named that emotion, you have the opportunity to release it. And the best way to release an emotion is to replace it — with gratitude, for instance. Gratitude vaporizes negative emotions. Personal development guru Tony Robbins notes: “When you’re grateful, there’s no anger. It’s impossible to be angry and grateful simultaneously.”
Easier said than done? Yes. But think about this: We are the only species that can think a thought and become angry… think a thought and become sad…and think a thought and be grateful.
My client, Erin, who is a life coach, has learned to listen to her body to detect an emotional storm on the horizon. “When I grab a strand of my hair and start twirling it, I know it’s time for me to stop, listen to my breath, and reclaim my brain from my amygdala,” She solidifies control by defaulting to gratitude and asks, “What is good about right now?” There’s always something to be grateful for.
“Flip” Your Anger
What if a fit of anger could become the spark for getting busy on a tough task? With a little mental jiu-jitsu, you can flip your anger around, so that it’s moving you in a positive direction.
Since anger is grounded in a feeling that something needs to change, that feeling creates energy. Usually, destructive energy, but energy that could be constructive.
As author Soleira Green puts it: “Anger is the tip of passion. You wouldn’t get upset if you didn’t care so much about something! Anger is your own body telling you, ‘Here’s something that matters… and here’s some energy to deal with it!'” The trick to flipping angry energy is to ask a few questions:
- “What’s triggering me — what’s underneath this?”
- “What do I care about that’s making me angry?”
- “What could I do to use that energy to move forward with this thing that’s making me angry?”
Answering these questions creates what Green describes as “negative nag”: using that which ticks you off to fuel motivation and problem-solving. Next time you’re angry about something (even at yourself), observe that energy and ask that series of questions.
All emotions, particularly negative ones, have “adaptive value” — meaning they can be used to help us cope and respond to difficult situations, because at the heart of every negative emotion is the sense that something must change!
Research shows that those who recognize and control their emotions earn more and achieve more than those who don’t. So our emotionality is one more way people with ADHD have a tougher journey than our neurotypical friends. But with these strategies, you can go from destructive emotions to acceptance and problem-solving.