Emotional Regulation and ADHD

Your Ultimate Guide

Published on
October 1, 2023

Imagine the last time you received negative feedback or criticism. How did you react? Have you ever been told you “take things too seriously,” or that “you’re too sensitive?”

If so, know that your “sensitivity” is not a character flaw, or weakness. It’s how our neurodivergent brains are wired.

Research shows that people with ADHD experience normal emotions - that is, emotions that make sense in context. However, the way that we feel and respond to emotions may be more intense, or last longer, than for our neurotypical peers. What’s more, studies suggest emotional regulation challenges play an even greater role in an ADHDer’s wellbeing and self-esteem than hyperactivity and inattention - the things we’re ‘known for.’

Sounds pretty important, right?

Unfortunately, emotional regulation in ADHD is typically overlooked in the discussion about ADHD management. So if you’re looking for coping skills for ADHD and emotional regulation, or just want to understand it better, this blog post goes out to you.

Let’s hit it.🤘

What Is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation, also known as emotional self-regulation or emotional control, refers to the ability to recognize, understand, and effectively manage one's emotions in order to respond to situations and interactions in a balanced and adaptive way. When someone’s Emotional Regulation ability is impaired, it’s called Emotional Dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation is often associated with mental health conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). People who struggle to regulate their emotions may:

  • React in ways that seem extreme or overblown, or that don’t seem like they fit the situation
  • Have difficulty calming down, even if they know their feelings are disproportionate
  • Be easily annoyed, irritated or prone to sudden outbursts
  • Be easily overwhelmed by their emotions
  • Have difficulty focusing on anything other than the emotion
  • Experience prolonged or frequent crying spells
  • Engage in self-harm or isolate themselves
  • Experience intense anxiety

How Does ADHD Affect Emotional Regulation?

Whether you have ADHD or not, life is constantly throwing us into emotionally-charged situations. These may be internal experiences (what we think about ourselves, memories, or future possibilities) or external (present experiences, like seeing a cute puppy or being cut off in traffic). The criticisms people with ADHD often hear related to emotional regulation - that they’re “too sensitive” or “take things too seriously” - can be broken down into two processes. We’ll call them Emotional Sensitivity and Emotional Response.

Whether they have ADHD or not, Emotional Sensitivity is a what determines if, and how, a person is affected by internal and external experiences. The level of Emotional Sensitivity a person has can vary day to day, and from one experience to the next. It depends on:

  1. The amount of attention they pay to the situation
  2. The meaning or significance they ascribe to the situation
  3. The level of confidence they have in their ability to handle the situation

Can you see now why people with ADHD are often accused of being “too sensitive?” With impaired Attention, and a lifetime of challenges that may reduce self-confidence, it’s no wonder we hear this a lot!

The Emotional Response a person has describes the intensity and duration of their emotions. This, too, can change day to day, and from one experience to the next. Emotional Response depends on:

  1. whether or not they have been getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising and participating in stress relieving/relaxing activities, etc.
  2. their executive function capacity, which influences their Response Inhibition
  3. their habits or habitual responses

Once again, it makes sense that we are criticized for “taking things too seriously.” Self-care activities like sleep, eating, exercise, etc are often really challenging for us due to motivation and task initiation challenges, hyperfocus, planning, and time blindness. Response inhibition is impaired, so people with ADHD may struggle with impulsivity. We also struggle to form and maintain habits. All of those ADHD symptoms are connected to emotional regulation in some way.

In short - of course coping with ADHD and emotional regulation is hard; it requires us to use a whole host of executive functions that our brains aren’t wired for!

What Causes Emotional Dysregulation in ADHD?

The jury is still out on the exact mechanisms responsible for emotional regulation in ADHD. And not everyone with ADHD experiences emotional dysregulation to the same extent. However, scientists have honed in on two regions of the brain that play a significant role: the amygdala and the frontal cortex.

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for keeping you safe - it deals with the fight, flight, or freeze response. In people with ADHD, the amygdala is smaller. It may also be overactive, meaning emotions are much stronger than they “should” be. I like to use my dog as an analogy here. Korra is a Chihuahua mix, and if you know anything about Chihuahuas, they have a reputation for going NUTS about even the smallest things. Our ADHD amygdalas are smaller than average, just like a tiny dog, and they’re also extra reactive.

When emotions are triggered in the amygdala, the frontal cortex is responsible for filtering and processing those emotions, then making decisions about what to do with them. Problem is, studies have found that in people with ADHD, the frontal cortex is structured differently, is a bit smaller than average, and reacts more weakly. Kind of like how I am disabled, so when my dog overreacts to something and tries to run out the door, I’m often too slow to reach her before she bolts.

How Does ADHD Emotional Regulation Impact a Person’s Life?

ADHD-related emotional regulation difficulties can have a profound impact on almost any domain of a person's life. For example, emotional regulation challenges associated with ADHD can affect:

  1. Interpersonal Relationships: Emotional outbursts, impulsivity, and difficulty in controlling emotional reactions can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. These challenges may lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, a sense of isolation, and shame.
  2. Academic or Work Performance: Emotional dysregulation can disrupt concentration and focus, making it harder for individuals with ADHD to perform well in school or work settings; it’s tough to concentrate on productivity and task completion while experiencing intense emotions.
  3. Self-Esteem: Frequent struggles with emotional regulation can erode self-esteem and self-confidence. Individuals with ADHD may feel frustrated or ashamed of their inability to control their emotions, leading to low self-esteem.
  4. Impulsive Behavior: Emotional impulsivity can lead to impulsive actions that have negative consequences. This might include making hasty decisions, saying things without thinking, or engaging in risky behaviors.
  5. Stress and Anxiety: The constant effort to manage emotions can be exhausting and stressful, leading to heightened anxiety. This can create a cycle where anxiety exacerbates emotional dysregulation, and vice versa.
  6. Mental Health: Emotional dysregulation is associated with an increased risk of coexisting mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders.
  7. Substance Abuse: Some individuals with ADHD may turn to substances like alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with overwhelming emotional challenges, which can lead to substance abuse problems.
  8. Social Isolation: Due to difficulties in controlling emotional reactions and maintaining relationships, individuals with ADHD may withdraw socially, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  9. Day-to-Day Functioning: Emotional dysregulation can impact daily life, making it harder to complete routine tasks, manage responsibilities, and stick to schedules.
  10. Physical Health: Chronic stress and emotional dysregulation can have physical health implications, including an increased risk of heart problems and other stress-related health issues.

How To Regulate Emotions With ADHD

So, how do we regulate emotions with a brain that’s not built to regulate emotions?

Generally speaking, ADHD emotional regulation involves three parts: developing awareness, engaging in self-regulatory activities, and self-care. Let’s walk through each part and explore some coping skills for adults with ADHD.

Part One: Developing Awareness

To manage emotional regulation in ADHD, you first have to understand how your brain and body experience and respond to different emotions. One way to improve your awareness is to write out how you’re feeling as soon as possible when emotions get high. Here are a few reflection questions:

  • What are your emotional triggers? Think about the situations where you tend to make decisions you regret later. What were you feeling?
  • What are your environmental triggers? In those situations, where are you? Who are you with?
  • How does your body respond to different emotions? For example, do you feel hot in certain areas of your body? Do you notice tension in specific areas?

If you struggle to identify or label emotions, I highly recommend printing a feelings wheel and keeping it handy for when you practice developing emotional awareness.You can also print out this emotion tracker worksheet to use.

Part Two: Self-Regulation

While it’s always valid to feel what we feel, sometimes it’s necessary to tuck big feelings away while we deal with the business of life. Yet, when emotions are particularly intense, we can get so wrapped up in them that it’s difficult to think about anything else. That makes work, chores, and even relationships really difficult to manage. That’s where self-regulation coping skills for ADHD come in handy.


In the moment, distressing emotions may seem impossible to overcome. However, over time, these emotions will lessen in intensity, and eventually fade away. The acronym ACCEPTS outlines seven techniques for distracting yourself from distressing emotions until they pass - download the worksheet here to give it a try.

Cognitive Defusion

Cognitive Defusion is a powerful, simple tool, and can be practiced in numerous ways. Cognitive Defusion involves creating space between ourselves, and our thoughts and feelings, so that they have less of a hold over us. The image above is a great example of both how it works, and one way of practicing it. When we add those qualifiers to a negative thought, it goes from feeling like an objective truth to just a thought, which makes it more easy to fight against.

Changing the Narrative

As you may have experienced, our first thoughts about a situation aren’t always correct. Thoughts play a big role in emotion; so, practicing ways to ‘hack’ emotions by changing thoughts can be useful. Here are a few strategies to try:

  • Paint the Thought: Let’s say you’re asked to paint the thought (or the words of the thought, if you want to be more literal) in the color that most represents it. But you only have black and white paint. Is the thought black (completely negative), white (completely positive), or is it a shade of grey? Most of our reality is somewhere in the grey, so if you notice a thought is looking very black or very white, it may indicate additional reflection is needed.
  • Check the Facts: If you like a rational approach, you can use the following questions -
  • ~What event triggered the emotion?
  • ~What interpretations or assumptions am I making?
  • ~What are 3 alternative explanations?
  • ~How would I feel if they were true?
  • ~How likely are each on a scale of 1-10?
  • ~How can I know for sure what they meant?
  • Put Thoughts on Trial: Imagine you have to defend your thought in court. What evidence might you present to show that it’s accurate? What evidence might the opposition present to show that it’s not accurate? If your evidence is something like, “well, that’s [how it’s been/what they said/etc] in the past, so it must be the case again,” would that argument hold up in a murder trial?


Remember how we said above that one of the parts of the brain responsible for our intense emotions - the amygdala - is responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response? When activated, the amygdala floods your body with all the hormones and chemicals that urge you to take one of those actions. Even if the rational part of your brain knows what you’re experiencing isn’t a matter of life or death, it can’t take back all those hormones; so, you can either wait for them to subside on their own, or you can ‘trick’ your body into calming down by (sort of) giving it what it wants.

If you’re full of intense emotion, do some intense exercise (whatever intense means to you). Go for a run if your body is urging you toward ‘flight.’ Feeling aggressive? Give the ‘fight’ response an outlet with a punching bag, or even a pillow. Once your body exhausts some of that survival mode energy, it’ll be easier to engage in other coping skills or self-soothing activities.

Listen to Music (Or Play an Instrument)

Ever notice how much influence music can have on how we feel?

This video is a great example (plus, it’s pretty hilarious).

Isn’t it wild how something as seemingly simple as a different background track can change the way we feel? It changes our expectations, our perspective, and the ways we relate to what we’re experiencing. We can use that to our advantage!Studies show that both listening to music, and playing a musical instrument, can improve mood and emotional regulation in ADHD. Even if you struggle to change your mood on your own, putting on some soothing sounds can give you a push in the right direction. I recommend creating (or finding) playlists curated for specific moods. That way, when you’re struggling to pull out of an intense emotion, you can quickly pull up some tunes with a more positive vibe.

Part Three: Self Care

Self care isn’t all bubble baths and comfort food (although, if you’re overwhelmed, both might actually help). Self care is also how we think about ourselves, and how we prepare for the future.

Your emotional response depends, in part, on self care - sleep, eating well, exercising and participating in stress relieving/relaxing activities, etc. Self-care opens up your Window of Tolerance - the zone where intense emotional arousal can be processed in a healthy way, allowing you to function and react to stress or anxiety effectively.

In other words, the more you empty your stress tank, the more stress you can fit in it later.

Acceptance of Emotion

Sometimes the word ‘acceptance’ conveys a sense of giving up. In this case, acceptance is exactly the opposite - it’s about empowering yourself by exercising self-compassion and understanding. Emotions are a normal and natural part of being human. Rather than beating yourself up for feeling the way you do, or for feeling it so intensely, recognize that your emotional reactions are valid.

A few ways to practice acceptance of emotion:

  • Imagine that emotion as a character - for example, like the emotions in the movie “Inside Out - or as a smaller piece of you, like your inner child. Then, comfort that character or piece of yourself the way you’d comfort a friend, or a child. Imagine giving them a hug, and saying “it’s okay to feel this way.”
  • Practice mindfulness - sit with the emotion and notice it. Simply notice, without evaluating, judging, figuring out, or pushing it away. Notice the way the emotion feels in your body. Every time you find yourself judging the feeling, thinking about the situation or how to resolve it, instead gently re-direct yourself to Noticing. If it’s difficult to keep words out of your head (which often turn into figuring out, judging, etc) you can repeat something in your head like, “[Emotion] is present now. [Emotion] feels like [body sensation]. I’m aware of [Emotion] in this moment.”
  • Practice Urge Surfing. This is especially helpful if the emotion is wanting you to take a specific action.

Planning Ahead

When we’re more aware of our trigger emotions, and how we typically respond to them, we have the knowledge we need to plan ahead. It takes time and consistent practice to change our initial emotional reactions; but in the meantime, we can plan for them.

One way to plan ahead is by using The 4 R’s Reference Card. Use this framework to identify which triggers put you in the green, yellow, and red zones. Then, plan out what coping skills or tools you’ll use when you are in each zone.

  • Every time I feel _____, I will immediately practice deep breathing to the count of 10.
  • Every time someone says ______, I will immediately say, “hm, let me think about that,” and repeat __________ mantra in my head 5 times.
  • Every time _________ happens, I will immediately pause what I’m doing and look at a picture of (something that makes you happy).

ADHD Coaching Can Help

Sometimes, even knowing the tools and strategies to use is just not enough. It can be difficult to figure out how to implement them, or why they don’t seem to work no matter what you do. If that’s the case, ADHD coaching, provided by certified adult ADHD coaches or ADHD life coaches, can be instrumental in helping individuals with ADHD improve their emotional regulation in several ways:

  1. Skill Development: ADHD coaches specialize in understanding the unique challenges faced by individuals with ADHD, including emotional regulation difficulties. They can provide tailored strategies and techniques to develop essential emotional regulation skills.
  2. Self-Awareness: Adult ADHD coaches help clients increase self-awareness about their emotional patterns and triggers. Through guided discussions and exercises, clients gain insights into how ADHD affects their emotions and learn to recognize early signs of emotional dysregulation.
  3. Goal Setting and Planning: Coaches assist clients in setting realistic goals related to emotional regulation. They help clients break down these goals into manageable steps and create personalized action plans for achieving them.
  4. Coping Strategies: ADHD life coaches offer a toolkit of coping strategies and techniques to manage emotions effectively. These strategies may include mindfulness practices, relaxation exercises, and cognitive-behavioral techniques.
  5. Time Management and Organization: Many emotional regulation difficulties in ADHD stem from challenges in time management and organization. Coaches work with clients to improve these executive function skills, which can indirectly enhance emotional regulation.
  6. Stress Management: ADHD coaches teach stress management techniques, helping clients reduce the emotional impact of stressors. This includes developing healthy routines, setting boundaries, and implementing self-care practices.
  7. Feedback and Accountability: Coaches provide feedback and hold clients accountable for their goals and progress. This accountability helps clients stay on track and make consistent improvements in emotional regulation.
  8. Problem-Solving: When clients encounter specific emotional challenges, such as impulsive reactions or overwhelming emotions, coaches help them develop practical strategies for problem-solving and decision-making.
  9. Building Resilience: Coaches focus on building emotional resilience, helping clients bounce back from setbacks and adversity. This resilience can help individuals better navigate emotional ups and downs.
  10. Communication Skills: ADHD life coaches may work on enhancing communication skills, both in expressing emotions effectively and in understanding the emotions of others. Improved communication can lead to better interpersonal relationships.

Shimmer’s ADHD coaching offers valuable support and guidance for individuals seeking to enhance their emotional regulation. By addressing specific ADHD-related challenges and offering personalized strategies, our adult ADHD coaches empower clients to better manage their emotions, reduce emotional dysregulation, and improve overall well-being.

You don’t have to do it alone.

Get started today.

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