Emotions & Shame

Restart Your Brain: ADHD-Friendly Tools for Handling Emotional Stress

People with ADHD experience the constant, corrosive emotional drain of wondering what’s wrong with them. Here are seven tools to weather the storm.

Four faces experiencing emotional stress and one happy face
Happy faces and sad faces

Those of us with ADHD can thrive, as opposed to survive, when we learn to know ourselves — and our emotional stress. The concepts and tools I’m about to introduce to you are meant to strengthen that sense of loving and supporting yourself. If you can do that, you can reset yourself when you hit a roadblock, a setback, or anything that restarts your brain in Panic Mode.

Think of the list that follows as a smorgasbord for your brain in challenging Emotional Distress Syndrome.

Emotional Stress Tool #1: Acceptance

Acceptance gives you the courage to face your ADHD.

  • Accept that this is how your brain is set up.
  • Accept the wisdom and IQ you carry, despite, or even because of, your ADHD.
  • Accept that ADHD is not the main feature of your identity. It’s just something about you, far from the only thing about you.
  • Accept the possibility of treatment. From now on, you’ll be the most important member of your treatment team.
  • Accept that your life will continue to have ups and downs, as it always has. There may even be some poetry in your lifelong quest for equilibrium.
  • Accept yourself. Notice I didn’t say, “Love yourself” or “Try not to hate yourself.”

Emotional Stress Tool #2: Mindfulness

Mindfulness practice acts as a pause button, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t need to pause once in a while. The ritual of letting distractions fall away by concentrating on the present moment has been practiced for millennia. Images of the stressed-out brain, before and after mindfulness practice, seem to indicate that the brain can repair frayed neural connections.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

For those of us with ADHD, the implications are very encouraging. We have more trouble than most people, not only in concentrating, but in deciding what’s worth concentrating on and what can wait. Mindfulness helps us sort it out. At its most basic, meditation is deciding to pay attention to what is happening now, without judging the experience.

Emotional Stress Tool #3: Humor

As a long-time “ADHDer,” I’ve had to rehabilitate my ability to laugh about life. Early on in my career, while working at a psychiatric hospital, I attended a lecture on humor, given by a very funny minister. He reminded us that every time we laugh, we’re deep breathing, and we’re also making it possible, just for a moment, not to think about anything but what’s funny. Both are very helpful for our overactive minds.

To embrace humor, you must risk looking stupid. I recommend looking stupid as an exercise in humility and joy. It’s never too late to learn how. Your natural ability to look silly and embrace humor may have been stymied, as mine was, by years spent using humor as a bludgeon — as a way to make fun of others or myself. But all that was pretty easy to overcome by taking a deep breath and forgetting to take myself seriously.

Emotional Stress Tool #4: Intuition

All of us received the gift of intuition at birth, but few of us use it. Intuition is your sixth sense, your gut reaction. Intuition is infused knowledge, or knowing without knowledge. Most people with ADHD, based on life-long misunderstandings of who they are and how they operate, don’t trust their own internal experience. Any help they get teaches them to rely on strategies that come at them from the outside: things like research-based protocols and medication. They’re not taught how to trust the intuition they have, or how to develop the intuition they don’t have (yet).

[Free Resource: Rein In Intense ADHD Emotions]

People with ADHD don’t necessarily have a stronger sense of intuition, but they may be able to use it more effectively than their “normal” friends. This may be the upside of the under-active prefrontal cortex.

But, wait — how can we trust intuition? How do we tell the difference between intuition and impulsivity? Intuition and impulsivity could be described as “aha” moments: “I know! I’ll do this!” But where impulsivity often gets us in trouble, intuition leads us to somewhere wise and grounded.

The next time you’re struggling with an issue or a challenge, ask yourself, “What is the next and simplest action I could take with the information I have?” See what comes to you — within a few seconds, no longer. See if you get a “good” impulse, an idea or suggestion that comes from your wise sixth sense rather than the confusion of ADHD.

Emotional Stress Tool #5: Imagination

Imagination is one of the highest and best uses of the mind, and, in my experience, one of the most therapeutic. Connecting to your imagination is the best way to rebuild that internal sense of safety that may have been missing for years, or perhaps was never there at all. Your imagination is your own video-editing tool. Seen through the lens of a healthy imagination, your life with ADHD can seem a lot less like a mess and a lot more like an adventure. Most important, developing your imagination strengthens your relationship with yourself.

Emotional Stress Tool #6: Strategic, Therapeutic Daydreaming

You may have been told that daydreaming is pointless. You may have been told to cut it out, especially if you’ve had trouble keeping your mind on the task at hand. When you’re trying to rebuild yourself, daydreaming is the task at hand (see sidebar above). All the previous tools can be combined into this one. And another thing: If you have ADHD, you’re probably a skilled daydreamer.

[Life Is Too Short for Shame]

Excerpted from Focused Forward: Navigating the Storms of Adult ADHD.

ESP: Daydreaming on Steroids

Your Emotional Safe Place (ESP) is a personalized, private mental refuge — perhaps the most therapeutic daydream of them all. You are its architect. You will go there whenever you need a break, a strategy, a vacation, have to reset your focus and concentration, or crave escape from a threat or everyday boredom. When you’re out of ideas, you’ll go to your ESP to regroup. Here’s how you can visit your Emotional Safe Place:

  1. Find a little spare time — 10 to 20 minutes.
  2. Stop what you’re doing. Begin to slow your thoughts.
  3. Get into a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Imagine experiencing a sense of peace.
  4. Now begin to see an island or any other geographic feature, created by you, for you. It doesn’t have to be an island. It can be a galaxy far, far away or a tiny, magical closet, or a fairy garden. Think about positive experiences you’ve had, in places where you felt peaceful or serene. Remember times when all of your cares slipped away.
  5. Use the senses that most appeal to you — your sense of smell, sight, hearing, touch, taste. Tap into your senses to find what you need to nurture your soul. The more you use your senses, the stronger the neural net becomes.
  6. There are no limitations in your ESP — everything is possible, and if something doesn’t feel right, it disappears. This is not a place for judgment, criticism, or harm. These concepts do not exist in your Emotional Safe Place.
  7. Feel your connection to this place. Walk down any path that appeals to you. How do these surroundings make you feel? Relaxed? Happy? Nurtured? Adventurous? This is your place. Visit whenever you want.

James Ochoa, LPC, is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.

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