Emotions & Shame

Emotional Numbness and the Spectrum of ADHD Feelings

The ADHD brain experiences feelings on a spectrum that ranges from emotional numbness to intense engagement. Learn how to understand what your brain is communicating in different emotional phases.

Woman showing signs of autism in adults sits alone on a bench feeling emotional because she worries "I think I have ADHD."
Woman sitting alone on a bench feeling emotional because she worries, "I think I have ADHD."

Whenever I exceed my emotional limits, my ADHD brain is forced to reboot. I can’t process many strong emotions for too long. I retreat and, mentally, log out. It isn’t just negative emotion that leads me here.

Positive emotions can also burn me out, because I’m a sensitive person. I try to ride the center line of my feelings and not get pulled too high or too low. But sometimes I do.

The beauty of logging out is that I get a respite from feeling things intensely. I used to think there was something wrong with me, but I realized that it isn’t a character flaw or that I’m cold-hearted. It’s my brain’s way of protecting me from too much stimuli and stress flowing through my body — the challenge most people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) face.

In general, I find myself in one of three phases, and each requires a different to-do manual. Sometimes, I experience emotional numbness, unable to get even a glimpse of what it means to feel happy or sad. Other times, I’m so fully engaged with my emotions, I can taste the colors of my feelings. Most of the time I’m observing my emotions as they float through me in their own version of a thought bubble.

ADHD Brain in Complete Emotional Numbness

In this phase, I don’t feel emotions at all. There is no sadness, there is no happiness, there is no attraction, there is no aversion. I don’t have a connection to things around me, and if something catastrophic happens, I doubt I’d be able to find some tears.

As an empath, and someone who is highly tuned in in to what I’m feeling — as well as the feelings of everyone else in the room — my numb state is sometimes welcome, sometimes uncomfortable. Where normally my gut is giving me boatloads of information, in this state it is an empty box, with small gusts of wind blowing some trash in the corner.

I used to think I was a serial killer in the making — or at least a terrible person — when I went into this numb state. I’ve come to realize that’s not true; I’m not bad at all as far as people go. Instead of looking at this state as something my brain is “doing” to me, I now know it’s something my brain is trying to tell me. More often than not, it’s saying one of two things.

[Take This Test: Do You Have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?]

Brain: “I told you to slow down! I’m going to have to terminate all emotions until you get yourself back together. For three weeks, you shall be called Spock.”

Or

Brain: “Dude. Your neurotransmitters are out of whack. I’ll make you uncomfortably numb until you seek out stimulation to get your juices flowing again.”

ADHD Brain Fully Engaged

As a seeker of everything that means something, this is my favorite phase. It’s the most intense emotional state and I fall into it less frequently than the others. Whether I’m insanely happy, or desperately sad, I’m feeling something, and that means everything to me. I’ll roll around in the emotions, soaking them up and breathing them in. I know it’s a passing fancy, but I fully appreciate the act of feeling and being alive. Passion is my best friend here. You just don’t know if she’s going to show up ready to ravage someone with a wild lovemaking session or throw a table lamp in his direction.

Brain: “Go ahead and do a Flashdance chair routine.”

I ignore my brain when I’m in this phase because neither one of us knows what’s going on. At this point, I think my brain has given me free rein to the heart, kind of like hoping the spaghetti sticks to the wall and we all come back in one piece when it’s over.

[Download This Free Resource: Understanding ADHD Emotions]

ADHD Brain as Casual Observer

This is where I usually hang my hat. I consider the ability to just observe emotions a gift for people with ADHD, because it’s a resting place between the two extremes. I have some freedom as a casual observer, because I don’t get caught up in being attached to emotions, but I do get to watch my own stuff being played out. It’s like I’m watching it on a screen: I see it happening and I feel it happening, but instead of grabbing onto it and holding on for dear life, I observe it and learn from it. I look at emotions as something curious that should be investigated and appreciated but not held hostage. Things, feelings, and people can change from one second to another. If you don’t let go, you’re holding on to yesterday’s news.

Brain: “Whoa! That was some serious jealousy that just spiked through our body. Where in fresh hell did that come from?”

By recognizing the emotion, you’re breaking the speed at which it comes at you. You’re taking away some of its power without rejecting it; rejecting it is the quickest way to be overcome by it.

We will always have emotions, and we will all handle them in our own way. We can accept them and co-exist peacefully, or we can fight them and feel out of control. It’s the same amount of work, but the outcome is the difference between authentic living and simply existing.

[Get This Free Handout: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]

Updated on November 13, 2019

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