Emotional Regulation and ADHD

Rebecca remembers it like it was yesterday. She recalls being in a meeting with colleagues going over the yearly marketing plan, when she lost control of her emotions. Her peers were suggesting some changes in tactics and she felt like a complete failure. Tears welling in her eyes, she says she abruptly removed herself from the meeting.

“I’m still ashamed when I think about that day,” she says.” Whenever I feel my chin start to wobble at the first sign of feedback from my boss, it’s like I’m a toddler and not the professional I need to be.”

Now in her 40’s, she is starting to reflect on her challenges in group settings and questioning her self-perception as emotionally damaged and lacking in character.

After a recent ADHD assessment, Rebecca is starting to understand that her responses to situations are an aspect of undiagnosed ADHD, not a personal failing.

The intensity is real

For Rebecca and millions of others living with ADHD, it’s difficult to regulate emotion, leading to frustration, impatience, and outbursts.

In an effort to meet new people, she recently joined an online dating site.  She says if she doesn’t get a response or a conversation goes cold (which is common in online dating), Rebecca sees it as a flaw on her part and spends two days in bed, scrolling social media and eating junk food.

This is partly due to the diminished working memory of folks with ADHD. When someone like Rebecca isn’t able to access other thoughts or memories, her thoughts may become hyper fixated on a negative memory or experience and before she can adapt, her emotions hijack her attention and flood her brain with one intense and unwanted emotion such as anger or sadness.

Now that she is beginning to understand herself more through a treatment plan that includes therapy and coaching, Rebecca is implementing a toolkit to help her navigate intense emotions.

She uses a meditation app and listens to soothing music when she feels agitated by the news of the day. For Rebecca, social media can be especially challenging. Seeing highly curated photos of her peers and celebrities causes intense feelings of inadequacy.

Awareness is powerful

With her newfound awareness of how her emotions can easily become overwhelming, she limits her time using an app that pauses her social media accounts during working hours. She says it helps.

“I used to feel so awful while scrolling social media but now I take intentional breaks and I’ve unfollowed hashtags that are distressing or make me feel insignificant.”

Rebecca is also working with a therapist to help her navigate work dynamics and the related stress. She’s already noticing a difference in how her colleagues respond to her in meetings and in correspondence.

“By taking more time to respond in highly charged situations, I’m able to organize my thoughts better and offer solutions to thorny problems instead of reacting from a place of fear or anger.”

Regulating emotions for people living with ADHD can seem like an impossible feat, but there are ways to help reduce the intensity.

Tips for managing intense emotions

Get it on paper. Often, seeing your thoughts on the page diminishes their power. If you don’t have a journal handy, using the voice notes on your smartphone can also help.

Breathe from your belly in through the nose counting to 4 then out through the mouth, counting to 4. Repeat 4 times.

Mindfulness, while popular in the general population can be stressful for ADHD folks, so start with mini-meditations of 1-5 minutes.

Resist the urge to binge on unhealthy foods and eat plenty of vegetables and fresh fruit.

When feelings become intense, stop and drink a glass of water.

Reach out to your community and don’t self-isolate

Count to five or even 10 before speaking. It will give your mind the chance to slow down and provide a calmer response.

If your emotions feel out of control, seek help immediately through a crisis line, listed below. 

BC Crisis Line

(includes links to other services)
Crisis Services Canada