Typical ADHD Behaviors

Why ADD Makes You Feel. So. Much.

The volatile (and sometimes destructive) emotions associated with ADHD can manifest as frustration, sensitivity, or tendency to feeling sad. Here’s what you need to know about rejection sensitive dysphoria, and how to control it.

ADHD bipolar woman holds a sign with smiley faces
ADHD bipolar woman holds a sign with smiley faces
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Emotion Commotion

You can’t manage the impairments of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) until you understand how you process emotion. Researchers have ignored the emotional component of ADHD because it can’t be measured.

Yet emotional disruptions are the most impairing aspects of ADHD at any age. Find out how your emotions affect your life and happiness and how you may be able to manage them.

A man tries to tune out his ADHD emotions by plugging his ears.
A man tries to tune out his ADHD emotions by plugging his ears.
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Sensitive to Criticism

Nearly everyone with attention deficit disorder answers an emphatic yes to the question: “Have you always been more sensitive than others to rejection, teasing, criticism, or your own perception that you have failed or fallen short?” This is the definition of a condition called rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD), which many individuals with ADHD / ADD experience.

A woman feels depressed, a common ADHD emotion.
A woman feels depressed, a common ADHD emotion.
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Feeling Blue with RSD

For many years RSD has been the hallmark symptom of an atypical mood disorder — this is the ADHD nervous system’s instantaneous response to the trigger of rejection.

[Self Test: Is It a Mood Disorder?]

The emotional response to failure is catastrophic for those with the condition. Perceived criticism and withdrawal of love and respect is just as devastating as the real thing.
The emotional response to failure is catastrophic for those with the condition. Perceived criticism and withdrawal of love and respect is just as devastating as the real thing. The term “dysphoria” means “difficult to bear,” and most people with ADHD report that they “can hardly stand it.”  ADHDers are not wimps; disapproval hurts them much […]
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Disapproval from Others

The emotional response to failure is catastrophic for those with the condition. Perceived criticism and withdrawal of love and respect are just as devastating as the real thing. The term “dysphoria” means “difficult to bear,” and most people with ADHD report that they “can hardly stand it.” People with ADHD are not wimps; disapproval hurts them much more than it hurts neurotypical people.

A person with ADHD does math homework.
A person with ADHD does math homework.
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Always Tense and on Edge

Many individuals with ADHD say the same thing when you ask them about their emotional life: “I am always tense, I can never relax. I can’t just sit there and watch a TV program with the rest of the family. Because I’m sensitive to other people disapproving of me, I am fearful in personal interactions.” Most people with ADHD don’t show much overt hyperactivity after age 14, but it’s still present internally.

A woman with ADHD loses control of her ADHD emotions.
A woman with ADHD loses control of her ADHD emotions.
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How the Pain Expresses Itself

If emotional pain is internalized, a person with ADHD may experience periods of sadness and loss of self-esteem in the short term. If emotions are externalized, pain can be expressed as rage at the person or situation that wounded them. Luckily, the overly emotional response passes relatively quickly.

A woman with ADHD holds a gift.
A woman with ADHD holds a gift.
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ADHD Emotion: How It Affects Personality

Because of their innate sensitivity to emotional pain, people with ADHD might become people pleasers, always making sure that friends, acquaintances, and family approve of them: “Tell me what you want, and I’ll do my best to become it. Just don’t get mad at me.” After years of constant vigilance, the person with ADHD becomes a chameleon who loses track of what she wants for her own life.

[Free Download: How to Rein in Intense ADHD Emotions]

A woman with ADHD puts her head in her hands, frustrated by overwhelming ADHD emotions.
A woman with ADHD puts her head in her hands, frustrated by overwhelming ADHD emotions.
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ADHD Emotion: How It Affects Behavior

Some individuals with ADHD find that the pain of failure is so bad that they refuse to try anything unless they are assured of a quick, easy, and complete success. Taking a chance is too big an emotional risk. Their lives remain stunted and limited.

A couple with ADHD fights while two children look upset.
A couple with ADHD fights while two children look upset.
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ADHD Emotion: How It Affects Relationships

RSD can wreak havoc on relationships. Since the wounds of RSD are almost unbearable, the only way to deal with the situation is to deny that the person — teacher, relative, coworker, or spouse — who is rejecting, critical, or teasing has any importance to the person with ADHD. Rather than suffer more wounds at the hands of an authority figure, he devalues the importance of the other person. The person with ADHD has to find occasions several times a day to remind the other person how worthless, stupid, and even harmful they and their opinions are.

A woman sees a doctor to help get her ADHD emotions under control.
A woman sees a doctor to help get her ADHD emotions under control.
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Treating RSD: Counseling

Most people with ADHD have learned to hide RSD, but it is vital for clinicians and patients to be aware of this emotional intensity that is so much a part of the ADHD experience. It is equally important to recognize when a patient is attempting to hide this component of his or her emotional life out of fear of being wounded further if the truth were known.

A pharmacist fills a prescription to help manage ADHD emotions.
A pharmacist fills a prescription to help manage ADHD emotions.
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Treating RSD: Medication

Until recently, all that a person could do was to wait for his dysphoria to dissipate over time. In my clinical experience, I've found that patients can get some relief from the alpha agonists, either clonidine (Kapvay) or guanfacine (Intuniv). Talk with your doctor about these medications.

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

William Dodson, M.D., is a member of ADDitude's ADHD Specialist Panel.

27 Comments & Reviews

  1. Most all articles are presented as slideshows so click the arrows on the picture. I find it annoying too.Took me a few tries to figure out how to actually read a full article. No need to scroll down at all.

      1. So how do you do it? How do you get around the slideshow or scrolling down and seeing hundreds of clickbaits?

        Just hit the printer icon above the first photo. It will display the entire text minus the pics.

      2. I love your idea about clicking the printer icon to read the article in it’s entirety simply. I found it counterproductive that an ADHD website would format their article-based website in this way. It’s like trying to read one line of text at a time, with many other flashing distractions. As great as your idea, it’s only viewed in black and white, in small text. I can modify the small text, but what a bunch of hoops to jump through just to read an article here. Any one else feel the same way?

    1. Thank you you just saved my phone many times I found myself getting ready to body slam it normally I wouldn’t admit this kind of rage/fustration that flares up and goes away so fast that I often find myself looking around embarrassed at the thought I was seen after 41 years I’m just now learning about all this I’m overwhelmed but mostly excited cause there is a answer but so sad for the little boy who grew up hating himself I’ve decided to use this pain to fuel a movement of ADHD awareness in young minds I spent my whole life in the system I love who I am today and often say I am who I am because of my past not in spite of…. If I could save anyone from them selves by just helping them be aware it will have all been worth it….thank y’all for your experience N honesty its inspiring!!!

  2. Before Strattera this was so me. Even if someone made an small comment and I knew they were my friend my feelings would get hurt. Understand, I knew they loved me. I knew they were joking or trying to help me. But many times my feelings would get hurt and what they said would play in my head over and over again. With Strattera I’m able to let things go.

  3. Ummm a question if I may?
    1. What is Strattera?
    And my comment: I’ve never had a problem with rage (only my inability to feel it for very long) but I’m a girl and I cry at the drop of a hat.
    I’ve always been told ‘you’re too sensitive’ and it’s true. Having no idea what was wrong with me, I thought I was an empathy because I feel other people’s emotions but maybe it’s just part of the ADHD?

    1. I just wanted to say you’re not alone. What you wrote is exactly what I have been going through for most all my adult life. To the point that I also had come to the empath conclusion. Basically I would pose your question exactly.

    2. I’m not the person who originally posted about it but Strattera is a non-stimulant ADHD medication. It’s a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor and is useful for those who are concerned about taking a stimulant or the heavy regulations of them. I took it for about two years and it helped a little bit but I eventually switched to a stimulant which is helping me a lot more. Still, it is incredibly helpful for some.

      1. I need a stimulant, but that doesn’t even help. I am continually disorganized and late. I can’t keep a job because of it. I was shunned in middle and high school. I hung around with a bad crowd, but managed to stay out of trouble without drugs and alcohol. I smoked for 13 years and gave it up. I sneaked some cigarettes after that and haven’t had one in over 15 years.

  4. First time commenting here because I cannot even begin to describe how validating this article is. My entire life has been one of “drama”. People say I’m too dramatic or too sensitive, or both. So instead of allowing myself to feel these extreme, and “wrong” feelings, i self medicated for most of my teens and 20’s. I’m constantly under the thumb of “you have so much potential, but……” I never seem to know what the right feeling is in any given situation, not because of how I feel, but because of how others perceive me when I vocalize those feelings. Of all the things I would give back or have removed, it would be the never ending emotional turmoiltgat is ADHD.
    DBT in combination with medications has helped, but it took 38 years, too many therapists to count, a nearly successful suicide attempt, and the destruction of almost every important relationship in my life to date. The price had been too steep and I often daydream about simply being “normal”. What I wouldn’t give
    Anyway, thanks for this. It helps to know I’m not as crazy as I feel most days and that I’m not alone in this

      1. DBT is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Based on CBT and originally created to treat borderline pd. It’s a very effective and rigorous skills-based therapy that treats everything from mood disorders to personality disorders to ADHD.

    1. I do! I’ll sleep through 8 alarms and have no recollection of them going off but my phone will be disconnected from the charger and buried under pillows.

  5. “… the person with ADHD becomes a chameleon who loses track of what she wants for her own life.”

    RSD….? Yup. No idea who I am. I’m everything and nothing. An idiot genius. Criticism and self-criticism too hard to bear. Lost most jobs and my business to ADHD. Wife couldn’t cope. Separated after 18 yrs. Don’t blame her. I don’t blame me.

    However, I’m an eternal optimist. Now I’m 54, living with my mum. I have some great friends and still on his terms with the ex. Kids are doing well.

    Have stripped my life down to the essentials. I feel more in control. Starting over again. Just small steps. Take the meds each day. Building a life I can control this time. Hey-ho!!

    If you’re struggling, love yourself, build on your strengths, have no regrets. Be grateful for little things. Get help and good friends and keep it simple.

    Much love


  6. I seem to have missed out on this shame, feeling bad about myself, having emotional over-reactions, and so on.
    To me, a lot of people are just stupid and immature and not worth worrying about.
    What they say tells me more about their own problems than mine.

    I do admit to being non-conformist, and this is because I think the standard expected is just nonsense.
    My limitations are known to me, and I manage them.

    1. I wish I had missed out on the shame, etc. It sucked, and was a vicious cycle. Shame for feeling bad about myself, feeling bad about myself for feeling shame, blah blah blah. I’ve left it behind for the most part, but it does pop up occasionally. Mostly I think I’m similar to Uncle Dharma, non conformist, aware of my abilities and where I stand amongst my peers. But I decide who’s in my peer group, and I decide what rules I play by. When either of those two actions don’t work out the way I think they should, I still get to decide the outcome.
      I either accept and change my thinking and behavior to match, or let others think I’ve accepted the situation and quietly follow my own rules anyway. On the rare occasion where that plan backfires, I’m perfectly willing to admit my mistake and accept consequences.
      My other ongoing theory, is that if anyone has a problem with what I do, and how I do it… They’re correct, THEY have a problem. Not me.
      It goes without saying, none of this is true 100% of the time, and your mileage may vary. Did I mention I’m a fan of disclaimers?

      AD⚡️HD RULES!!!

    2. Whoever this doctor is who claims the only cure for this is medication I think is being brutally irresponsible.
      What is he saying? That changing the meaning of rejections to yourself through therapy does not change anything about the sensitivity of the person to rejection? Is that a joke?
      It’s good to not that this condition exists. But this premise of only-medication is disgusting in my opinion.

      If you are still feeling a difference between a drunken clown telling you that you’Re an idiot and your girlfriend telling you the same, that means to me you can learn to assign meanings to the agents who reject you. And these meanings you can change through therapy.
      The more I think about it, the angrier I get at the medication-only hypothesis. What arrogance that is!

  7. I’ve found sensitivity and rejection anxiety to be the key issues I struggle with, aside from the regular ADD stuff. Has been true for four decades since I was a kid.

    This rings very true for me! Glad there is a tribe of us neurodiverse emotional wrecks!

  8. I object a little to the part where the article states that people who externalize their pain take out their rage on the person or situation who wounded them and that “luckily” the rage is verbal rather than physical. My father has never been diagnosed with ADHD (because he would never seek help, thinks everyone around him is stupid and at fault, lacks any self-awareness at the problems he causes by lashing out abusively toward his children, wife, co-workers etc). I have been diagnosed however (not until I was in my late 30s) and notice so many similar ADHD traits in him (and his sister has declared for years that he is as is she and some of my cousins. talk about it running in the family….). I used to internalize his traits of forgetting to pick us up (because he lost track of time at work), his constant criticism, and his unexpected verbal abuse that came and went with no warning, as rejections. Well they kind of are, but at least I know now most weren’t intentional. But anyway back to what I was saying, the verbal abuse we kids and my mom experience may not result in bruises but have caused so much damage that now two of the four kids are completely estranged from him (me being one). i don’t feel lucky that he lashed out verbally because I have never had proof of the very real damage he caused. had it been physical maybe someone could have seen the damage sooner. Watching my father’s behavior made me seek out help so that I don’t end up alienating myself and hurting my kids unintentionally the way my father’s similar behavior did to us. Self-awareness, medication, counseling, and alternative therapies have helped me, i didn’t want to perpetuate the cycle of verbal abuse. Although I may process my emotions differently and tend to internalize everything, knowing about the potential to lash out has helped me not do so. Anyway, stepping off my soap box now, have a great day all

  9. The part about us being a chameleon really hit home for me. I grew up with emotional abuse (being called stupid, rattlebrained, etc.by my perfectionist mother). My mmpi psychological test (taken as an adult) was invalid because he said that I was subconsciously giving answers that I thought he wanted. My question is this: Is there a way to undo the years of “programming” and find out who I really am? I know that sounds pathetic, but it’s a very real issue for me. BTW, I’m a 54 year old female. Thanks in advance for any thoughts you’re willing to share.

  10. I just found this sight in 2022. I’ll be 54 in October. Ready to be, trying to find, the real “me.” Is daydreamer22 still a user on this sight? Would love to know how you are these days? Has this site helped you? Has it helped anybody?!

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