Emotions & Shame

The Emotional Resilience Playbook for People with Big Emotions

Big emotions spill over sometimes. It happens, especially when ADHD brings with it emotional dysregulation. But by developing emotional resilience we can learn to minimize the damage caused by big emotions and hone emotionally healthy responses in the future. Here’s how.

ADHD brains are routinely hijacked by big emotions — and big problems often follow.

Sometimes, adults with ADHD react with big emotions when things don’t go according to expectations. Even minor frustrations and interruptions can cause us to overreact with an outburst or meltdown, making it hard to complete tasks and maintain relationships.

This emotional dysregulation creates a vicious cycle, dooming us to repeat the same reaction again and again.

We can’t always stop big emotions from spilling over, but we can learn to minimize the damage they cause to others and ourselves and develop emotionally healthy responses in the future. This process of developing emotional resilience is critical. But first, we need to understand how we process our emotions: by hurling or by hiding.

Hurlers and Hiders (aka Fire Breathers and Shame Eaters)

Most people with ADHD who experience strong ADHD emotions fall into one of two camps: the “hurlers” or the “hiders.” The hurlers, aka fire breathers, sling their big emotions at anyone or anything around them. In doing so, they damage their relationships in ways they may not realize or understand.

The hiders, aka shame eaters, shove their emotions inside. Why? It might be due to conflict avoidance, fear of rejection, low self-esteem, or the feeling that they won’t be heard. They may experience stomach or digestive issues because they’re stuffing their emotions into their body.

[Free Download: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]

Strategies for Hiders

Name that emotion. Don’t judge the emotion you are feeling; just identify it. This is critical to releasing it. Otherwise, your stuffed-deep-into-your-body emotions will resurface as unresolved pain that needs to be felt and heard.

For example, perhaps you got yet another parking ticket, and you reason that you deserve this punishment because you are bad at life. That is the feeling of shame.

Breathe and release. Now that you have named the emotion, let it go. Find an effective catharsis — a healthy release valve — like exercise, music, or even a primal scream. (See more ideas below.)

Strategies for Hurlers

Understand your patterns so you can anticipate big emotions before they erupt. What do you start to feel? How do you know when big emotions are building? When I’m angry, I hear, “Oh, heck no,” in my head. When I hear this big emotional tell, I tell myself to calm down, listen to that emotion, and not give in to the hurler mode.

[Take This Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

Learn to release emotions pre-emptively. Ask: “How do I let go of this energy? What are my options?” Find a healthy release.

Strategies for Relatives and Friends of Hurlers

Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of a hurler in full fire-breathing mode? Here are a few tips to manage this:

Don’t argue with the hurler in the moment. The individual isn’t capable of rational thinking until the hurling is done. If you say, “Don’t talk to me like that,” the hurler’s ADHD brain will say, “Oh, yeah. That’s more energy. That’s more fire for me to breathe.”

Create a boundary. After the hurling is over and some time passes, say to the person, “Your hurling hurts me.” Sometimes, the hurler will feel ashamed.

Don’t bury the hurt. If the hurler refuses to take responsibility, consider seeking help from an ADHD coach or ADHD-informed therapist.

Calming Big Emotions

Here are some more catharsis tips:

  • Sit up, push back your shoulders, and take a deep breath. Inhale, hold, and exhale — each for five seconds. This sends a signal to your brain that you can’t possibly be in danger; if you were in peril, your breathing would be fast and shallow.
  • Vomit words (i.e., rant) safely. For some of us, spouting out grievances provides an emotional release. One client of mine would call a friend and ask, “Permission to vomit?” The friend would say, “Permission granted,” and then my client would rant. Once she got it all out, the emotion was gone. Crying or yelling into a pillow also works.
  • Move your body. Go for a run or take a hike to trigger a release.
  • Try tapping (also known as Emotional Freedom Technique). This practice involves tapping your fingertips on meridian points on the face and body. Tapping can help relax the nervous system, calming our fight-or-flight mode and creating space to breathe.
  • Consider self-havening, or therapeutic touch, to calm emotions. Begin by focusing on something calming, then cross your arms and give yourself a hug.
  • Cool down. When you feel your emotions intensifying, or your pulse or breath quicken, go to a bathroom right away and put your hands and wrists under cold water. It is amazing how quickly this can reset your brain. Ice cubes on the wrists also work.
  • Establish daily practices to frequently assess your emotional state. When you start your day, rate your emotional intensity using a number from one to 10, with 10 being the most intense. Repeat this assessment at lunchtime and at the end of the day. If you’re feeling like a 10, you can say, “I need to do a catharsis ASAP.” On days when I don’t get enough sleep, I’m at risk for high-intensity emotions, so I check in with myself frequently to make sure I’m emotionally managed.
  • Choose how you want to feel. If something frustrating happens, check in with yourself and say, “I don’t want to react in an unhealthy way.” Choose an appropriate and healthy level of intensity; that’s key as we practice emotional resilience.

Emotional Resilience with ADHD Big Emotions: Next Steps

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.