“I Felt Guilty for Feeling Guilty… and Overwhelmed… and Angry… and Inconsolable.”
“Research suggests that a subset of people with ADHD have overactive amygdalae, the parts of the brain that attach emotions to experiences. In other words, some ADHD brains (like mine) attach too much emotion to an experience. This is the crux of emotional dysregulation — a neurological phenomenon that others mistake for disproportionate overreactions.”
Here’s a childhood experience that still makes for a great story at family gatherings, and one I often use to make a point about intense emotions in ADHD brains like mine:
Standing over the metallic sink in our kitchen, I rolled up my sleeves to muster up all the elbow grease I could in my small arms. The clattering and sloshing of the dishes muffled my siblings’ laughter a room away.
Something shiny suddenly caught my eye out the kitchen window. A dull light flickered in the dark windows of our garage. Instantly, fear throttled my throat, and a whimper whirled out.
My little figure whipped around and my feet went flying out the room. Soon the muffled laughter of my siblings turned into discordant sobs. Our four little hearts beat very fast – mom was currently at the store. We were alone at home with the ominous light.
“It looks like a flashlight,” I said, my voice hushed and solemn.
My siblings’ eyes grew wide. We gathered around to scheme about where to hide as the image of robbers with dangerous weapons darkened our minds.
The sound of tires against gravel soon filled the night air and before long, four hysterical little voices enveloped our mom. Shamefully, my sobs rose louder than even my youngest siblings’ did. It seemed to me that our lives were in danger. Mom said that she was going to investigate. This soothed my siblings, but I desperately grabbed hold of her.
“Don’t go, Mom. They will hurt you,” I cried. “Mom, we need to hide now. Call the police!”
My mom gently resisted and continued to speak in a soothing voice. After investigating, she announced that the light was merely the reflection of the dog’s silver water bowl gleaming in the garage window.
Emotional Dysregulation and ADHD: What’s the Connection?
Not all my moments of emotional dysregulation are quite so humorous. I have ADHD and can tell you too many embarrassing stories about my tantrums, outbursts, and intense emotions. But I probably don’t need to, because you already understand – emotional dysregulation is common in individuals with ADHD, persisting into adulthood for about 33% to 65% of us.
Fascinating research has uncovered more details about emotional dysregulation and ADHD, with brain differences in some individuals with the condition appearing to be the core of this linkage.
Research suggests that a significant subset of people with ADHD have overactive amygdalae – the parts of the brain that attach emotions to experiences. In other words, some ADHD brains ascribe too much emotion to an experience, as my brain tends to do – when I saw the light through the window, for example, my brain unconsciously defaulted to interpreting it in the “worst light possible”(so to speak).
Many other factors apart from brain differences, however, can also heighten emotional dysregulation in those with ADHD. These include environmental factors, lifestyles, and comorbid mental health conditions like anxiety.
Still, the intense emotions that often accompany ADHD for many people, including myself, can make life difficult because they feel real and justified. My amygdala shouted at the rest of my brain that I needed to be afraid in that moment many years ago. My brain listened, and even found a scary, unlikely explanation for my fear: We are being robbed!
It seemed logical in the moment to respond with hysterical pleas and frantic plans to hide, believing we were in immediate danger. My surprised mother, meanwhile, struggled to understand how I jumped to such a conclusion. But I am sure that you, reader, can probably relate to others finding your reactions disproportionate to the situation.
Emotional Dysregulation: Don’t Hold It Against Us
The decades that I spent struggling with intense emotions made sense once I learned about emotional dysregulation and ADHD. I now know, for example, that I was not “misbehaving” every time I threw a tantrum as a child.
Understanding that emotional dysregulation appears to be partly rooted in biology, and that my brain is wired differently than most, makes all the difference. The problem, I know, is no longer me.
It is time to let go of the guilt associated with emotional dysregulation. I encourage anyone with ADHD to research their own symptoms, or seek professional help to better understand themselves. We need to speak openly about our challenges. They are real. They are explained, in part, by unique differences in our brain.
Emotional Dysregulation and ADHD: Next Steps
- Download: 9 Truths About ADHD and Intense Emotions
- Learn: 17 Ways to Throttle Intense Emotions
- Understand: ADHD and the Epidemic of Shame
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