How to Control Your Anger When ADHD Emotional Reactivity Kicks In
Yes, the ADHD brain is wired to overreact and to feel emotions intensely. But you are not your ADHD reactivity. Here, learn how to change your reactive, habitual anger responses with thoughtful, soothing responses.
It starts with a trigger. In an instant, a volcano of anger and negative emotion erupts. Before you can process what’s happening, you say or do things that you will surely regret later. But you can’t stop yourself. If we’re being honest, sometimes it feels good to let it all out.
Living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) means living with a stress-producing condition that begets emotional reactivity. Though the ADHD brain is wired to feel emotions like anger, frustration, and hurt quite intensely, emotional reactivity is ultimately a response pattern — one that you can shift with the right tools and frame of mind.
Why Anger and Big Emotions Rock ADHD Brains
Emotional dysregulation is part and parcel of ADHD. Taken together, the following features explain why emotional eruptions occur so acutely and so often in ADHD.
Amygdala Hijack and Emotional Flooding
The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain that drives the fight-flight-freeze response. Amygdala hijack, a term coined by Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., occurs when the brain overreacts to a threat, real or perceived, and effectively takes over the prefrontal cortex — the thinking part of the brain.
ADHD brains appear more likely to experience amygdala hijack for a variety of reasons. For one, amygdala abnormalities are commonly seen in ADHD brains.1 2 The ADHD brain also struggles to turn off emotional processing — a problem when stress, either caused by systemic or individual forces, is persistently present. A constant flooding of stress and emotions essentially causes individuals to lose access to the rational part of themselves.
Poor Working Memory
Strong working memory is tied to effective emotional regulation, while weak working memory — which is associated with ADHD and executive dysfunction — often compromises a person’s ability to manage and respond appropriately to emotions.3 Weak working memory could explain why you struggle to recall and decide on the coping strategies and tools available to you when faced with a trigger. Executive dysfunction also explains limited impulse control — or why you might say or do things you regret when you’re overwhelmed.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) causes extreme emotional responses to rejection and criticism, real or perceived. It is also associated with:
- intense feelings related to embarrassment, shame, and failure
- fear that others will withdraw their love, support, or friendship as a result of your mistakes
- difficulty letting go of painful experiences of rejection and hurt
RSD charges your thoughts and puts you on edge, which often contributes to emotional eruptions. As you brace to hear or experience the worst, for example, you may lash out as a defense mechanism. That’s why anger is often called a secondary emotion — fear and other feelings are often hidden beneath the surface. The possibility that the negative outcome you’ve imagined might not occur doesn’t even come into sight.
How to Control ADHD-Laced Anger
1. Understand Your Anger Habits
Habits are mostly involuntary patterns of behavior that develop to meet an emotional need. Habits are made up of triggers, the routine behavior, and the reinforcing outcome. Changing a habit only requires targeting one of these components.
Not all habits are good for us. Anger and emotional outbursts are habitual responses to uncomfortable feelings. They often arise when we underestimate our ability to cope with stressors.
Investigate Your Reactivity
Become curious about how your anger works (think about it in terms of the components of a habit), when it shows up, and patterns associated with the emotion. Metacognitive thinking is a powerful tool (and an executive function skill) that can help you monitor and evaluate your thoughts and behaviors when you are experiencing anger. The following metacognitive questions can help you understand your reactive patterns:
- “What is happening that is activating me or making me feel on edge?” Receiving negative feedback, being blamed unfairly, having someone yell at you, and/or feeling ashamed over something can all test your limits, as can other stressors.
- “What sensations do I feel when I become angry or upset?” Anger shows up in many forms: a headache; a stomachache; sweating; chest tightness.
- “What behaviors do I resort to when I’m upset or angry?” Reactivity habits include lashing out, attacking, catastrophizing, blaming, denying, and more.
- “What’s helped me calm down when I’ve been in similar situations? Are those responses useful?” Create a list of ‘slow me down’ options to manage the amygdala takeover more effectively.
- “How are others reacting to my words and actions? What are their faces or bodies showing?” Noticing other people’s facial or bodily expressions will also move you from a kneejerk response to something that is more thoughtful and measured.
It takes time and effort to strengthen metacognitive skills. Refrain from judgment as you observe your thoughts, sensations, and behaviors. Simply apply yourself to noticing and shifting one thing. Remember that you are doing the best you can as you investigate your reactivity and apply different tools to control your anger.
2. Change Old Anger Habits with Effective Responses
Gather Tools to Slow Anger at Every Stage
You need to access the modulated part of you that wants to stay calm. Here are ideas for responses at every stage of emotional intensity.
When You’re Mildly Uncomfortable
This stage is just above your baseline of calm and comfortable. There is a soft trigger that is easy enough to ignore, but it’s nonetheless there.
- Notice the negative, critical voice that is starting to charge your thoughts.
- Compare your limiting beliefs about the situation or about yourself to the real facts on the ground.
When You’re Activated
You’re growing upset, angry, or overwhelmed at this stage — and it’s becoming difficult to ignore. Perhaps you’re ruminating on something that is bothering you. There’s a battle of sorts between the emotional and thinking parts of the brain. Talk down the emotional brain.
- Acknowledge and validate your feelings. Say, “It’s okay to be angry. But what can I do to settle down?”
- Repeat affirmations or supportive phrases. Here is an example: “This is not the most fun moment, or your best moment, but you’ll get through it.”
- Visualize yourself settling down. Imagine yourself by a lake, tossing in a few pebbles. As each one makes it journey to the sandy bottom, feel yourself settle into your feet or your chair.
When You’re On “High Alert”
You’re at your most dysregulated at this stage. Your body is fully engaged to fight or flee. Physical signs of anger show up here — and physical responses can help your body slow down in the middle of the tidal wave of emotion.
- Try focused breathing techniques — alternate nostril breathing, belly breathing, etc. I often recommend triangle breathing: Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four and exhale for a count of six. Pause before repeating the cycle. The longer exhales slow the physiological response of fight or flight.
- Physically remove yourself from the stressor or situation.
- Engage in a physical activity, like a walk or a run, to blow off steam.
- Turn to a timed distraction. Listen to music or play a game on your phone.
Identify your preferred soothers but know that you can mix and match responses. Breathing, for example, is useful at every stage.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Stressful situations are a part of life largely outside our control. But we can manage our responses using insightful strategies. Keep the following pointers in mind as you move away from habits of reactivity to new habits of responsiveness.
- Commit to change. List your coping tools in multiple places — in your phone, on sticky notes around your home — to help you readily retrieve them.
- Focus on one thing that you can change at a time. Smaller goals mean greater progress.
- Rely on a growth mindset. Expect to be challenged and frustrated as you adjust your emotional responses. See your mistakes as learning opportunities and areas for improvement, not as personal flaws.
- Remember why you want to change your habits and move away from anger.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself. Shame and regret about your emotional responses will only hold you back. Berating yourself for things that you’ve done is useless if you can’t take helpful lessons from those experiences. Practice self-compassion by honoring that you are doing the best you can. Accept that you will lose it at times, despite your best efforts. Progress may look like two steps forward and one step back, but that’s still one step forward.
- You are not your ADHD reactivity. Intense feelings might have been a part of your life for a long time, but they do not define you. You are more than your foibles. Stumbling helps us do what we are supposed to do: learn.
More Ways to Improve Emotional Regulation
- Identify your strengths and notice the good. Each day, write down three things that went well, no matter how small. Example: “I had a great cup of coffee. I smiled today. I like the clothes I wore.”
- Treat yourself with kindness. Gather a collection of affirmations and personal words of encouragement. Put these on your phone or post them around your house or office.
- Plan for how to respond to criticism, even the constructive kind. Use the STAR method (Stop, Think, Act, and Recover) outlined in this resource that explains how to cope with RSD.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
- Try to follow a routine that allows you to get enough sleep, eat nutritious meals, move your body, and connect with others. A routine can ground you and help keep stress levels low.
- Think HALT throughout the day – are you hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? What are your options to address these and regulate?
- Focus on building positive relationships with others. Learn how to resolve conflicts by planning for them well in advance.
How to Control ADHD Anger and Emotional Reactivity: Next Steps
- Quiz: Am I Experiencing Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?
- Download: Emotional Regulation & Anger Management Scripts
- From Readers: How to Manage Your Anger Before It Bubbles to a Boil
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “When ADHD Triggers Emotional Outbursts: Scripts for Your Flashpoints” [Video Replay & Podcast #426],” with Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast on October 19, 2022.
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View Article Sources
1 Tajima-Pozo, K., Yus, M., Ruiz-Manrique, G., Lewczuk, A., Arrazola, J., & Montañes-Rada, F. (2018). Amygdala Abnormalities in Adults With ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 22(7), 671–678. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054716629213
2 Hulvershorn, L. A., Mennes, M., Castellanos, F. X., Di Martino, A., Milham, M. P., Hummer, T. A., & Roy, A. K. (2014). Abnormal amygdala functional connectivity associated with emotional lability in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 53(3), 351–61.e1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2013.11.012
3 Groves, N. B., Kofler, M. J., Wells, E. L., Day, T. N., & Chan, E. S. M. (2020). An Examination of Relations Among Working Memory, ADHD Symptoms, and Emotion Regulation. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 48(4), 525–537. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-019-00612-8