Adult ADHD

After the Shame: How to Re-Center Your Bruised Emotions

If you feed intense emotions with negative thoughts, you create something I call emotional distress syndrome. The good news? You can break this cycle and lead a calmer, joyful life.

The emotional instability of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) can wreak havoc on our lives. Since childhood, our emotions have seemed extreme — to ourselves and to others. Family and professional relationships are often difficult and strained. This negative pattern develops over a lifetime with ADHD. The continual negative reactions to our emotions creates a PTSD-like condition I call Emotional Distress Syndrome, or EDS.

Feeding Your Emotions with Negative Thoughts

Chronic emotional distress becomes the go-to reaction for those with ADHD. It works something like this:

A person with ADHD does something impulsively under stress. My latest experience of this happened yesterday. As I was driving on a 12-day, once-in-a-lifetime trip with my younger brother, I impulsively passed several cars on an open stretch of road. I was going much faster than I should have been, yet I really wanted to get around those cars. It wasn’t wildly unsafe, but it was enough to set off feelings of shame and embarrassment. This type of impulsivity happens when our brains go down this path again and again. The embarrassment or shame we feel later makes our emotions seem totally out of control.

“Normal” emotions peak and drop off. With EDS, you create higher peaks with negative thoughts. So, after my impulsive driving, I thought: “I am an expert in ADHD, but here I am again.” Such thoughts create waves. You feel frustration, anger, despair, or anxiety. We are building patterns of emotional distress in our brains.

When you learn to maintain balance by re-centering and calming yourself time and time again, you neurologically ingrain the pattern of getting your life back on track. You stop being afraid of screwing up again. Instead of driving people away, you bring them closer. Knowing you can reset, re-center, and re-envision your purpose raises your self-esteem.

[ADHD and Emotional Distress Syndrome: Your Truth and Tactics]

Managing the disruptions of ADHD is a matter of finding and practicing what works for you. I encourage my clients to identify three to five strategies to help them emotionally and mentally rebalance during or after an EDS storm. The following strategies are some of my favorites that work for me:

1. Re-Center Yourself

Learn to calm and re-center your emotions several times a day, whether you feel you need to or not. You can do what I call a micro meditation of one to three minutes: Stop and breathe deeply, taking breaths that push out your stomach. Then push all the air out of your lungs when exhaling so your stomach sinks in. Try it now. Keep going.

Now try taking three, four, five, or even 10 breaths, and on the last one, push all of the air out of your lungs and hold it as long as you can. Then take a full breath in, and hold it until you have to let it out. This technique increases the oxygen level in your body. By training yourself to feel and hold this pressure, you will stay centered during the pressure of the EDS storms of ADHD.

2. Create an Emotionally Safe Place

Link soothing ideas in your imagination to real-world reminders. I pass a majestic oak tree every day while walking my dog. I have uploaded this tree into my mental emotionally safe place of my imagination. Thinking about the tree as I walk by it each day wires my neurological network together. The connection with the tree is strengthened each time I do it.

3. Surround Yourself with Things That Give You a Sense of Purpose

Gaze at these daily, remembering why they are important to you. This will help you connect to yourself and to your purpose, which enhances your feelings of well-being. When I look at and admire the artwork I have placed around my office, I feel a connection to the intentions of the artist and the stories behind the paintings. The peace I experience counterbalances any mental distress from my ADHD.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

4. Slow Yourself Down by 25 Percent

Pause and reflect. When walking to your car after work, slow your pace by 25 percent, listen to the birds singing or feel the wind blowing through your hair. The neurological patterns of ADHD that create a whirlwind of activity will slow down. This allows your mind and your emotions to stay more at ease. Every day I try to slow down my walking pace. Early this morning, as I was on my way to swim, I noticed I was more hurried than usual. So I slowed down, took a deep breath, and noticed a woman doing yoga in the park. Observing her helped me feel centered and calm. I would have missed this encounter had I not slowed down.

5. Keep Your Chosen Strategies Front and Center

Write down your strategies. Put them in places where you will see them every day, like taped to the middle of your steering wheel. This really works. I keep up with the details of life with a single yellow folder that has sticky notes on the front. Inside there are papers to manage as well as a cut-out heart my son made when he was nine years old.

If I turn the folder over, I will see an inspiring quotation taped to the back. This folder, along with the meaningful items contained in it, restrains the wild emotions that can pop up at any moment and gives me a sense of insulation from them.

Integrating personalized strategies into your life takes time. This is not a skill learned in one day. The tools I suggested will help you build a feeling of safety and counteract EDS, so that your life will become more joyful.

[Restart Your Brain: ADHD-Friendly Tools for Handling Emotional Stress]

James Ochoa, LPC, author of Focused Forward: Navigating the Storms of Adult ADHD, is founder and director of The Life Empowerment Center in Austin, Texas. 

James M Ochoa, LPC, is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

Updated on June 18, 2019

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