If you are very reactive, and have difficulty managing frustration and modulating your emotions, you are not alone. Everyone experiences this from time to time, especially when tired or stressed, but for some people with ADHD this reactivity is neurologically based and occurs more frequently, regardless of fatigue or stress.
How is emotional reactivity related to ADHD?
Emotional regulation is one of the “executive functions” of the brain, functions that manage and coordinate our mental efforts. Recent understanding is that one or more executive functions are commonly impaired with ADHD. In fact, researchers have found that over half of people with ADHD have trouble regulating their emotions.
According to ADHD expert Dr. Thomas E. Brown, although the formal diagnostic criteria for ADHD “does not recognize any symptoms related to the management of emotion as an aspect of ADHD, many with this disorder describe chronic difficulties managing frustration, anger, worry, disappointment, desire, and other emotions.” This can lead to “quick bursts of anger, frustration, impatience, or excitability in response to everyday events.”
What are the signs of emotional reactivity?
Emotional regulation challenges are different from depression or anxiety, which can also accompany ADHD, and can show up in a number of ways:
- emotional “hypersensitivity” starting early in life
- emotions that zoom from zero to 100 in no time at all
- feelings that are more intense than normal
- feelings that take one over, making it difficult to pay attention to other things
- difficulty putting emotional reactions into perspective
- difficulty managing strong emotional reactions
- difficulty inhibiting inappropriate behavior related to strong emotions
- a long refractory time, with difficulty coming down from, or relaxing after strong emotions
What helps in managing emotional reactivity?
While emotional reactivity is neurologically based, there are some strategies that can help in managing and modulating your emotions:
1) Recognize and accept the fact that you are emotionally reactive, that it has a neurological basis, and – most importantly – that nothing is “wrong” with you.
2) Accept the emotions you feel, and don’t fight against or ignore them – that just makes the pressure worse.
3) Learn to identify and label/name your emotions – that gives you a feeling of more control over them. Here’s a link to a large list of feeling words you can look at when emotions flare : Feelings inventory. When you have a strong feeling, take the time to inventory even the nuances of what you feel – this also helps put your in your rational, calmer, brain.
3) Know that you do not have to act on emotions, even they are strong. In fact, sometimes acting on the emotion makes things worse. Most emotions will peak, and then slowly reduce in intensity. Try to remain calm, perhaps by detaching just a bit, and watch the emotion peak and wane over time, waiting out the intensity. Practicing mindfulness can help you develop this detachment.
4) To manage an intense emotion, remove yourself from the triggering situation, then try using deep breathing and/or distraction until the intensity subsides.
5) Notice your triggers. If the same situation repeatedly triggers intense emotions, you may want to explore the circumstances to see if you can understand why it is so triggering for you and what you can do to avoid or modify the triggering situation in the future.
6) Develop some regular habits that will decrease your baseline for reactivity. These include:
- getting plenty of sleep
- maintaining a healthy diet, including adequate protein
- getting regular exercise
- developing a daily mindfulness or meditation practice
- taking some alone time every day to decompress
7) Talk with your psychiatrist about your medications to make sure you are on the best medications and dosages for your needs.
8) Talk things through regularly with a loved one, coach and/or therapist so you don’t let emotions build up, triggering stronger reactions. A coach or therapist can also help you learn some strategies to regulate your emotions, such as those above.
You don’t have to let your emotions sun your life! Use these tips so that you can learn to manage your emotions and live with more ease.