Typical ADHD Behaviors

Exaggerated Emotions: How and Why ADHD Triggers Intense Feelings

“Challenges with processing emotions start in the brain itself. Sometimes the working memory impairments of ADHD allow a momentary emotion to become too strong, flooding the brain with one intense emotion.” Thomas Brown, Ph.D., explains why (and how) ADHD sparks such intense anger, frustration, and hurt.

A doll with different faces showing how fast adhd emotions can change.
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Emotions Rule

Few doctors factor in emotional challenges when making an ADHD diagnosis. In fact, current diagnostic criteria for ADHD include no mention of “problems with emotions.” Yet recent research reveals that those with ADHD have significantly more difficulty with low frustration tolerance, impatience, hot temper, and excitability than a control group.

An illustration of a brain, and the complex pathways of ADHD emotions.
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Processing Emotion: A Brain Thing

Challenges with emotions start in the brain itself. Sometimes the working memory impairments of ADHD allow a momentary emotion to become too strong, flooding the brain with one intense emotion. At other times, the person with ADHD seems insensitive or unaware of the emotions of others. Brain connectivity networks carrying information related to emotion seem to be somewhat more limited in individuals with ADHD.

A person drowning with a hand above water, a metaphor for the emotional flooding that ADHD can cause.
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Fastening on a Feeling

When an adolescent with ADHD becomes enraged when a parent refuses him use of the car, for example, his extreme response may be due to "flooding" — a momentary emotion that can gobble up all of the space in his head just like a computer virus can gobble up all of the space on a hard drive. This focus on one emotion crowds out other important information that might help him modulate his anger and regulate his behavior.

[Free Guide: 10 Ways to Neutralize Your Child's Anger]

Glasses magnify the view of a bulletin board, in the same way ADHD can magnify certain emotions.
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Extreme Sensitivity to Disapproval

Individuals with ADHD often become quickly immersed in one salient emotion and have problems shifting their focus to other aspects of a situation. Hearing a slight uncertainty in a coworker’s reaction to a suggestion may lead to interpreting this as criticism and an outburst of inappropriate self-defense without having listened carefully to the coworker’s response.

A woman with ADHD and social anxiety covers her face
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Bottled Up by Fear

Significant social anxiety is a chronic difficulty experienced by more than one third of teens and adults with ADHD. They live almost constantly with exaggerated fears of being seen by others as incompetent, unappealing, or uncool.

A calendar with a marked deadline can help people with ADHD manage time.
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Giving In to Avoidance and Denial

Some people with ADHD don’t suffer from a lack of awareness of important emotions but from an inability to tolerate those emotions enough to deal effectively with them. They become caught up in behavior patterns to avoid painful emotions that seem too overwhelming — looming deadlines or meeting an unfamiliar group of people.

A woman having a meltdown because her ADHD brain is overwhelmed.
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Carried Away with Emotion

For many people with ADHD, the brain’s gating mechanism for regulating emotion does not distinguish between dangerous threats and more minor problems. These individuals are often  thrown into panic mode by thoughts or perceptions that do not warrant such a reaction. As a result, the ADHD brain can’t deal more rationally and realistically with events that are stressful.

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

A woman with ADHD and dysthymia rests her head on the steering wheel in despair.
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Sadness and Low Self-Esteem

People with untreated ADHD can suffer from dysthymia — a mild but long-term mood disorder or sadness. It is often brought on by living with the frustrations, failures, negative feedback, and stresses of life due to untreated or inadequately treated ADHD. People who are dysthymic suffer almost every day from low energy and self-esteem.

A man with ADHD procrastinates a project at work.
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Emotions and Getting Started

Emotions motivate action­ — action to engage or action to avoid. Many people with untreated ADHD can readily mobilize interest only for activities offering very immediate gratification. They tend to have severe difficulty in activating and sustaining effort for tasks that offer rewards over the longer term.

An illustration of how emotions work in the ADHD brain.
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Emotions and Getting Started 2

Brain imaging studies demonstrate that chemicals that activate reward-recognizing circuits in the brain tend to bind on significantly fewer receptor sites in people with ADHD than do those in a comparison group. People with ADHD are less able to anticipate pleasure or register satisfaction with tasks for which the payoff is delayed.

Post-it reminders to assist the working memory of a person with ADHD.
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Emotions and Working Memory

Working memory brings into play, consciously and/or unconsciously, the emotional energy needed to help us organize, sustain focus, monitor and self-regulate. Many individuals with ADHD, though, have inadequate working memory, which may explain why they are often disorganized, lose their temper, or procrastinate.

A person with ADHD ties a string around her finger to help her remember.
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Emotions and Working Memory 2

Sometimes the working memory impairments of ADHD allow a momentary emotion to become too strong. At other times, working memory impairments leave the person with insufficient sensitivity to the importance of a particular emotion because he or she hasn't kept other relevant information in mind.

A person with ADHD talks to a therapist to overcome emotional challenges.
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Treating Emotional Challenges

Treating the emotional challenges of ADHD requires a multimodal approach: It starts with a careful and accurate evaluation for ADHD, one that explains ADHD and its effect on emotions. ADHD medication may improve the emotional networks in the brain. Talk therapy can help a person manage fear or low self-esteem. Coaching may help a person overcome problems with getting boring tasks completed.

[Free Download: 15 Ways to Disarm (and Understand) Explosive ADHD Emotions]

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  1. 15 years ago or more I actually made a bookmark for LFT It was a metacrawler search for what caused it Nothing in the results mentioned ADHD and todayI think you have to go back seceral pages in a google search to find it. I nedded to know because my tolerance level was decreasing and my emotional trigger was becoming almost anyrhing frustrating. That is never good in business and the lack of a cause led me to sell my business and retire at age 60 12 years ago. As ayounpgster I was coached by my parents and 11 older siblings to control it but as a tee

    1. I’d sure appreciate any of your learned tools to deal with anger and frustration. I, too have difficulty with those. Particularly later in the day. I’ve learned it’s best for me to have alone time after 6:00 for the sake of those whom I love. I also have had multiple sclerosis for 34 years (I’m 62) which can make emotional outbursts more frequent.

  2. Can you stop putting things like this in a 15 page slideshow? This is a site for people with ADD, we both know I’m never going to get past slide 3. I really want to read the whole thing all at once. Please give me that option.

    1. I hate them too. Depending on your OS, browser, etc you may be able to use the print function to save the article as a pdf. This eliminates the need to go slide by slide. Only drawback is you lose the pictures. Honestly, I don’t consider that much of a problem because they don’t usually add anything to the article.

  3. As a parent of a ADHD child I have seen the outburst. He gets annoyed and angry so quickly. He fights with his 16yr old sister and only realise afterwards what he has done, then he will get emotional and feel guilty.. Its been very hard these past weeks for me..

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