Emotions & Shame

Melancholy and My Infinite ADHD Sadness

“Everyone has regrets. Everyone gets sad. Everyone ruminates. But when you have ADHD, emotions set in more quickly, last longer, and require superhuman strength to escape. We get stuck in a blink — emotionally paralyzed as depression lies in wait. Sneaky and leering, the darkness of despair smells our weakness, grabs us, and pulls us into a dungeon we fear we’ll never escape.”

How to Cope with ADHD Sadness, Anxiety, and Depression
A melancholy woman with ADHD stands facing a sunset

He’s five minutes late. Why hasn’t he called yet? Is he mad at me about something?

Not one single person has loved my Instagram post today. Did I say something wrong? Does everyone hate me?

Linda and Cheryl didn’t invite me for coffee this week. They don’t think we have anything in common anymore. They aren’t real friends.

When my ruminating ADHD mind latches on to something, it will play that thought over and over again like a broken record (remember those?) — and of course it’s never a happy, carefree song. Once a negative thought seeps in, my ADHD mind focuses intently on analysis, examination, and reevaluation — never with the possibility for a solution.

For example, the other night I was in the mood for pasta. The restaurant didn’t have a pasta dish that suited my quirky eating requirements. And instantly, like a child who didn’t get cotton candy at the fair, I felt disappointed. On top of that, I felt embarrassed for feeling disappointed. Really? I thought to myself. How immature is that? But the thought persisted, circling through my mind like a bat caught in a bell tower. I could not stop ruminating on the disappointment.

Everyone has regrets. Everyone gets sad. Everyone ruminates. But when you have attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), emotions set in more quickly, last longer, and require superhuman strength to escape. We get stuck in a blink — emotionally paralyzed as depression lies in wait right around the corner. Sneaky and leering, the darkness of despair smells our weakness, grabs us, and pulls us into a dungeon we fear we’ll never escape.

[Self-Test: Inattentive ADHD Symptoms in Adult]

If I’m not vigilant about policing my overactive mind, I can easily fall into anxiety or depression. Here are my 7 biggest challenges — and a few ways I keep my ADHD brain from becoming its own worst enemy.

Challenge 1: ADHD Ruminations

When my ADHD brain is stalled in rumination, my thoughts tumble endlessly into darkness. One sudden, negative thought is all it takes to spark this negative cycle. Like a cow chewing her cud, my mind keeps coming back and back and back to the thing that I neither change nor control.

When we ruminate, our brains focus on identifying the distress, its causes, and its end results. A solution is not usually a part of the equation. But if we teach ourselves to become aware of when this cycle begins, it can be stopped before it’s too late. Since I’ve learned more about my ADHD, I can now catch myself from falling. I know how to throw myself a life preserver and stop myself from drowning in my own thoughts.

By taking the time to honor what my ADHD brain needs — physically leaving a space, practicing mindfulness, and leaning on loved ones — I’ve learned how to rescue myself.

Challenge 2: Intense ADHD Emotions

My emotions can escalate out of control quickly. If I’m not on guard, I can go from a calm conversation into a full-blown emotional outburst in a flash. I remember feeling afraid to open up to my emotions even as a child. I knew that if I did, I might start crying uncontrollably. As a young adult, it wasn’t much better. But through the years (and lots of therapists), I learned to face my true self.

Gradually, I felt safe enough to feel what I was trying to hide. I developed the confidence to not only recognize my emotions, but to own them — the first step toward control. When I recognized what triggered me, I became more comfortable with myself. I also developed coping skills. The fear of losing control can bring with it serious emotional repercussions. Eventually, I built the mental strength to manage that fear, which helped me to became emotionally confident and self-reliant.

[Free Resource: Make Mindfulness Work for You]

Challenge 3: ADHD Obsessions

My brain processes more thoughts than the average brain. This is not boasting; it is fact. Recently, I was talking to a relative about a serious problem we were facing. After I told her my opinion on how we would get through this as a family, she said, “Whoa, that’s how many thoughts you have about this? Is that what goes on in your mind all the time?” It didn’t seem like an excessive amount of thinking to me, but when I stepped back from myself, I could see that my thoughts continued long after other people’s thoughts had stopped.

Knowing this about myself, I can say, “That’s enough for now. I’m going to put it aside for a while. If I need to, I can come back to this problem later.” Revisiting a situation is an opportunity to let go, temporarily. Knowing that I can return to the situation later with clearer thoughts is empowering.

Challenge 4: ADHD Mental Tugs-of-War

At times, I feel like two people locked in battle: the ruminating thinker and the fleet-footed fire brigade captain who is trying to stop the plummeting thoughts from falling. When this happens, I talk to myself as an outsider. I become aware of the negativity in my mind, and find the strength to step away from it. An inspirational mantra, spiritual reminder, or change of atmosphere alters the scenes I create in my mind.

Repetitive chanting, for example, flips my thoughts from negative to positive. When my mind is tuned into an undesirable channel, I can change what I’m hearing by repeating calming phrases. My spiritual beliefs ground me. I know there’s a greater power guiding my path. Spirituality calms me and gives me a rope to grab on to when I’m falling.

Other times, a change in atmosphere is all I need to change my thoughts. I will go for a walk, sit outside and just breathe in the sunlight, or get in my car and drive to my favorite café.

Challenge 5: ADHD Physical Exhaustion Gone Mental

My mind is hyperactive. It is working every moment of my waking day. And that is not just mentally and emotional exhausting; it is physically draining as well. If I’m tired or don’t sleep well, I have a harder time pushing through the muck (see above) than does a person without ADHD. Without adequate sleep, my processing system shuts down. Chances are, I’ll stare at a blank computer screen or scroll around social media most of the day.

Sleep doesn’t come easily when thoughts are speeding through my brain. As soon as I put my head on the pillow, my thoughts dart out forcefully like a racehorse at the starting gate. It sounds weird, but I’ve found that if I rest for a while in a reclining chair before bedtime (with my head elevated), my thoughts are quieter. Restorative yoga poses (gentle stretching) usually calms my hyperactive mind, too. If it’s 3 am and I can’t go back to sleep, I get out of bed, make a cup of tea, and skim through a magazine (books are too hard to focus on at that hour). A change of scenery is mind-altering.

Challenge 6: Hormonal Fluctuations and ADHD

A woman’s body fluctuates in cycles. Hormones are rarely static and, what’s more, their affects are seldom felt immediately or all at once. It’s often tough to connect your hormone levels to the reaction they have on your body. But when you’re feeling out of sorts, ask your doctor to check your hormone levels. During each stage of life — early menstruation, motherhood, and menopause — fluctuating hormone levels have a real and significant effect on ADHD symptoms. If you suffer from PMS and ADHD, watch out; hormonal changes can set off an emotional explosion. All you need is someone to say the wrong words, not pay attention, or disappoint you and you’re triggered into an intense emotional response.

Be on high alert during the obvious times when hormones change: PMS, post-pregnancy, or menopause. Hormones cannot be denied or laughed off, especially when you have ADHD.

Challenge 7: Anxiety and ADHD

Anxiety is a part of me I cannot deny. My body reacts when my mind slips in to overdrive. I am not a calm and relaxed person, and I never will be.

Traveling used to make me anxious. My husband didn’t know what to do. Standing in line at the airport, he looked at me helplessly while I cried uncontrollably. The fear of not having my medication, self-help books, knitting, tech devices, and cords was consuming. The 3 Ps of travel — planning, preparing, and packing — set off panic alarms the minute our flight reservations were confirmed. Letting go of the details I could not anticipate or control was an emotional test that was too heavy to handle. Years of therapy helped me through, but I can relapse at any time. I now have self-care skills to save me when I do. And sometimes I just sit there and cry.

When in Doubt… Stop, Pause, and Breathe

Stop means to come to a halt. A pause allows the halt to linger long enough for realizations to happen.

Almost 20 years ago, I took a deep dive into spirituality. I was searching for something to calm my hyperactive thoughts, slow my rapid heart rate, and cure my depression. Through the process, I learned a valuable lesson… how to pause. I realized I had a choice — not in what happened to me, but in how I reacted to the things that were happening. Though life’s challenges persisted — my loved ones kept hurting me, disappointments kept coming, and relationships kept breaking my heart — but I was able to manage it all because I had learned to harness the power of the pause. That’s when I shut my mouth, hit the brakes in my brain, took a deep breath, and made smarter choices.

Explore Your Creativity

Creative projects help to calm me when I feel overwhelmed. Whether I’m writing a page in my journal, knitting a blanket, or beading a necklace, I always have a creative outlet nearby to take my mind in a healthier direction. I hyper-focus and let the repetitive motions soothe my soul. I know myself, and I know that creating is my oxygen. I need to continuously nurture myself — mind, body, and soul — to feel balanced. If I don’t, the weight of my internal scales will grow unbalanced, tip over, and cause me to malfunction.

Stay Grateful

The sand trap of complaining can quickly suck me in. Gratitude keeps both of my feet on the ground. I know this is true, but when life is difficult, gratitude becomes a real struggle.

Complaining is a gateway drug that leads to misery. It’s addictive and self-destructive. When you complain, you see the bad in everything and everyone. No one speaks the right words or does the right thing. People always disappoint you. Other drivers are always the cutting you off. Waiters purposely get your order wrong. Your boss is unfair. The list is long.

As long as you’re complaining, you’ll never be happy. When I judge situations favorably, feel compassion for others, and know that there is a reason for everything, I find peace in acceptance. Journaling, creativity, and nature brighten the darkness. Acceptance leads to serenity. For an ADHD brain, this is nearly always true — and really tough to comprehend.

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