“Why Do I Get So Angry with the Ones I Love Most?”
The emotional impulsivity of ADHD can make it easier to fly off the handle, or blurt out hurtful things. Recognize the signs of approaching anger, and use these tips to disarm and manage out-of-control feelings.
An ADDitude reader recently wrote: “I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder 10 years ago. I have trouble controlling my emotions. I get angry with my wife when she asks (nicely) whether I did something she had asked me to do. I think she is cross-examining me, checking up on me, when all she wants is a simple answer.”
“I also get upset with my kids when they don’t do well in school, or when they get into fights with friends. I think this is due to the fact that I screwed up, and they remind me of myself back when. Can you give me strategies to control my emotions so I don’t alienate the people I love?”
We all know the destructive power of anger, particularly when it’s uncontrolled. Here are some tough truths:
- Anger impedes our ability to be happy.
- It can send marriages and other family relationships off-course.
- It compromises our social skills, interfering with healthy relationships.
- It can hurt productivity at home and in the workplace.
- It can lead to health problems because of increased stress.
There are many ADHD traits that make it tough to control anger. The strongest, perhaps, is impaired executive function and diminished inhibition, leading to hasty responses to frustration and impatience. People with ADHD also feel emotions more intensely than neurotypical people, causing them to overreact to situations or experiences that most people would respond to reasonably.
You say that you fly off the handle with your wife and kids. Perhaps you find yourself blurting out hurtful things in the heat of the moment, forgetting the last time you did this and the regret you felt afterward. When you combine poor working memory skills, typical of those with ADD, with emotional impulsivity, a person may not say the right things or take the right actions when he is frustrated or angry.
How to Control Your Emotions with ADHD
Here are some things you can do to control emotions to turn around the relationship with your family:
1. Remember that anger is not necessarily bad. It is a natural reaction to feelings of hurt and betrayal. Anger can be a motivating force promoting positive energy. At times, it is important to demonstrate a sense of injustice at wrongdoing. At times, it is OK to express your anger in a healthy, non-confrontational way.
2. Recognize the early warning signs that indicate you are losing control of your emotions. Are you easily irritated? Are you impatient with others? Do you go from calm to furious in a flash? Do you feel your chest tighten? Do you start clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth? Learn to recognize those ADHD moments that tell you that anger is on its way. For example, if you always seem to argue with your wife at night, avoid bringing up contentious topics when you are tired. It is difficult to make smart choices when you are in the grip of negative feelings.
3. Give yourself a “time-out.” Put some distance between whatever is stressing you and your reaction to it. Allow yourself time to process harsh feelings and negative thoughts, so that you can channel them into positive action.
4. Get lots of exercise. Physical activity will help you focus and feel better. Exercise helps burn off extra tension and reduces the stress that fuels angry outbursts. Go for a walk. Fresh air will do you good. Later, you can come back to the problem with a new perspective. It is also important to get enough sleep and eat healthy food, both of which will help you regulate emotion.
5. Think before you speak, and become a better listener. In the heat of a discussion, it is hard to listen. Pause a bit to collect your thoughts and reflect on what the other person is saying.
6. Practice simple relaxation strategies, such as deep, focused breathing or focusing on relaxing imagery. Choose a memory from the past that calms you. You can also use progressive muscle relaxation techniques, slowly tensing up your muscles and then relaxing them. Start with your toes and work your way to your neck and head.
7. Be aware that adults with ADHD often fixate on thoughts and feelings. This means focusing on a thought, whether positive or negative, and not being able to shift away from it. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about how someone reacted to you or about a situation that is overwhelming to you. There is an expression, “Hurting people hurt people!” In those moments, ask yourself how your thoughts are serving you, and what it would feel like if you let go of them.
8. Know that anger may come from poor self-esteem. Your self-identity is how you see yourself in relation to the rest of the world. Do you see yourself as having value? Do you typically judge yourself harshly? Poor self-esteem has detrimental effects on your relationships, especially when it brings constant emotional turmoil.
9. Leave your past behind. As you mentioned, some of your anger toward your kids may be due to memories of your own failures as a child. It is important to forgive your past self. Give your children the freedom to be themselves.
10. Think about trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT enables you to focus on how you process your thoughts and emotions. It is a short-term, goal-oriented treatment that can change your patterns of thinking and actions by focusing on the thoughts, images, beliefs, and attitudes that hold you hostage to negative behaviors.
11. Have you thought about medication? ADHD medication is very helpful for impulsive behaviors, as well as for improving your focus and working memory. You may also need medication if a mood disorder and/or anxiety trigger your anger. It is best to see a mental health practitioner who is well-versed in ADHD to make sure that you have the right diagnosis.
You can’t completely eliminate angry feelings, but you can change the way you handle your emotions and keep your anger in check. You can make a positive difference in your relationship with your family.