Emotions That Disrupt Life Can Be Part of ADHD

Have you ever gotten so angry after another driver cut you off that it’s all you think about rest of the day? Or did a coworker ignore you at a staff meeting, leaving you worried that you had somehow offended them? Maybe your spouse’s loud chewing agitates you so that you feel you could fly into a rage?

What if you knew these symptoms are common for some adults with ADHD?

“Many with ADHD syndrome report disproportionate emotional reactions to frustration: a short fuse, a low threshold for irritability,” says Dr. Thomas E. Brown, clinical psychologist and director of the Brown Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders.

If you experience extreme emotion swings due to ADHD, there are strategies that can help you better manage how you feel in the moment.

Suddenly flooded with emotion

Emotional dysregulation can be compared to a computer virus, says Dr. Brown.

“Emotions tend to gobble up all the space in their mind,” he describes. Even though extreme emotional reactions are a complaint of many adults, it is not part of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

Emotional dysregulation is said to happen when “a person feels emotions more intensely than they should, feels them for longer than they should, feels them at inappropriate times, or responds to them in extreme ways.” Extreme feelings of emotion can have a significant impact on a person’s home and work life and personal relationships.

These over-intense emotions can make it hard for someone with ADHD to experience their other emotions. They may be so angry with their spouse that they forget how much they love their spouse. They could become so frustrated at work that they blow up at their boss, possibly losing their job. Dr. Brown calls this experience of overwhelming emotion “flooding.”

“While flooded with one emotion, persons with ADHD tend to forget about other relevant emotions,” he says. “They may forget their love and their wish to protect the person—friend, parent, child, coworker—who frustrated or angered them and say or do things that are too hurtful.”

Dysregulation makes it hard to get started

Often overlooked is how much emotions play into not being able to get started on something like a school or work project, the ability to sustain interest, and problems with working memory—which are also symptoms of ADHD.

“Prioritizing our tasks, what’s important to us, and our being able to get started on tasks and set aside one thing in order to be able to get to something else, has a lot of emotion involved in it,” says Dr. Brown.

Procrastination, a lack of interest or motivation in doing something, can be tied to how well a person regulates emotions. With impaired working memory, someone who has ADHD may have a hard time keeping several details in their mind at the same time. Working memory involves recalling how a similar situation happened and using different perspectives to handle the current situation. They might not be able to keep multiple key details in mind when having a discussion.

“Working memory is like a very active computational unit that not only holds information, but also actively processes this current information in connection with the vast files of longer-term memory,” says Dr. Brown. Problems with working memory can also affect how a person communicates, how well they can comprehend something they’ve read, and how well they can do math computations.

What you can do to increase emotional regulation

Dr. Brown cautions that there isn’t a cure for emotional dysregulation, but there are many things you can do that can help. He recommends an individually tailored approach to medication for increased emotional regulation. An ADHD specialist can work with you to find a medication and dosage that works best for you. A mental health practitioner who is knowledgeable about ADHD can help you identify and develop ways to handle your conflicting emotions.

Other ways to increase emotional regulation:

  • Set aside time each day to check in with yourself to assess how you are feeling.
  • Consider situations that make you feel emotionally “flooded.” Prepare yourself in advance of these situations so that you are not caught off guard and wind up in an emotional spiral.
  • Practice mindfulness, which can help you slow down and acknowledge your feelings so you are less likely to react in negative ways in a situation.

When overwhelming emotions arise, don’t respond in the moment. Instead, pause and take time to think about other ways you want to handle the situation. Problem-solve by thinking about what helped you effectively handle similar situations in the past.

Learn more about adult ADHD and emotions:

Join the discussion: Do you experience overwhelming emotions?