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.🤘
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:
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:
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:
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!
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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 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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.