Head's up, there could be affiliate links ahead!
As someone who coaches adults with ADHD, I understand the challenges of dealing with emotional dysregulation. It’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to overreact to events or find themselves unable to process big emotions. It can be a real challenge and I often deal with it myself (in fact, it happened to me this week).
Listen to the podcast version of this blog post
To illustrate how impactful emotional dyregulation can be, I’m going to share a message I received from one of my readers who vulnerably shared how this shows up in her life. I’ll also share some tips and advice on how I’ve learned to manage my own emotional dysregulation and stay focused, centered, and productive.
But First, What is Emotional Dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation is a term used to describe difficulties in regulating and reframing emotional context. The reason for this is rooted in inconsistent executive function for ADHDers and it impacts how our brain interprets situations based on what we’re paying attention to. We’re always scanning for the most important thing to react to, and typically, that ends up zeroing in on the negative.
When we’re emotionally dysregulated, we’re in the limbic area of our brain where fight, flight, or freeze reactions occur. The emotions associated with that area are anger and fear, and when we’re feeling those emotions, it can be incredibly difficult to access our prefrontal cortex, where executive function resides.
A Reader Shares Her Struggle with Emotional Dysregulation
The challenge I’m currently facing is losing track of time. Especially not arriving to work as early as I should be. It causes me a ton of anxiety. The harder I try the worse it gets. I get really overwhelmed. I feel like I’m looked at as lazy or not mindful of others, as if I am late for things on purpose. It’s a struggle and I am embarrassed by it. I’m an adult…Why can’t I figure it out?
I was diagnosed at the age of 38 with ADHD. I often feel like I failed at so many things. My house overwhelms me, I just can’t get it in order. My husband doesn’t seem to understand how hard this is for me and gets angry. He thinks I should just be able to do it. He doesn’t understand why I struggle to wake up in the morning or why I have to have at least two alarms and snooze one of them twice. Before I married him I had a routine to help me fall asleep. I had a routine to wake up, it didn’t always work, but it was my routine and it helped me stay calm. I had to change much of this to accommodate him when he moved in. I have always just adapted or changed to make it easier for the other person.
The most important beings in my life are my twin girls. I have put them first since the day I became pregnant. They are my world. They are now in their second year of college. I find myself lost and feel as if I have no purpose anymore.
So that’s me in a nutshell! I feel like a failure in many ways, as an adult, as a mom, as a daughter…. the list goes on.
The first struggle I see here as it relates to emotional dysregulation is losing track of time. This is a symptom of ADHD, but it’s exacerbated by emotional dysregulation. When we’re running late, we’re often in self-anger mode. Everything feels extra hard, and it takes forever to get dressed and ourselves together. This of course, exhasperates the problem and makes us even more late (As the reader mentioned – the harder she tries, the worse it gets).
So what can we do? When I’m in those moments of frenetic energy, it’s ideal take a deep breath and consider how we can bring in a state of calmness. I know that’s a tall order when you’re already late and stressed out, but rushing tends to make things worse.
Instead of trying harder in the morning, I would encourage the reader to design a morning routine that eliminates choices and ambiguity. Include the people you live with in the process and talk about how you can bring in more calm as a family. By doing so, you can stay out of the limbic brain and in the prefrontal cortex to help you stay on track.
Why Emotional Dysregulation can Leave Us Feeling Like a Failure
Our reader also shares that she feels like a failure in many ways, as an adult, as a mom, as a daughter, and more. Her struggle with overwhelm leads to feeling like she has failed at so many things. Why does her mind go there? Because the emotional response is so intense, that there’s no other possibility that can enter her awareness. She is fixated on the negative and personalizing it.
The reason we end up feeling like a failure (or similar feelings), is that when we’re in this emotional state, we don’t have access to our prefrontal cortex in order to look at the situation more objectively. We can reason with our emotionally dysregulated self, so we just believe whatever idea it has latched onto.
The Tricky Part About Managing Emotional Dysregulation
Here’s the rub – we often don’t know when we’re emotionally dysregulated. So the golden rule is to practice not responding in the moment whenever you start to feel triggered, but let your emotions cycle through and come back into a place where you can pause, breathe, and think about things more rationally.
When you’re in that place of empowerment as opposed to stress, you’re accessing your prefrontal cortex more often, able to show up in your life the way you want to, and that has a ripple effect in a positive way.
How can we practice being in that place of empowerment?
I would invite the reader to think about how can I start to put my own needs first? The best place to start is by understanding what those needs are, along with her strengths and values. Once we have clarity around these elements of ourselves, we can use them to design a life where we don’t have to struggle so much.
Tips for Managing Emotional Dysregulation
Here are a few tips and pieces of advice that have helped me manage my emotional dysregulation:
- Take a deep breath and ask yourself how you can make things easier for yourself in the moment.
- Design your routines and spaces so that it eliminates choices and ambiguity to bring more calm into your life.
- Understand what your needs are, what your strengths are, and what your values are to design a life where you’re thriving.
- Never respond in the moment when you’re emotionally triggered, but let your emotions cycle through and come back into a place where you can pause, breathe, and think about things more rationally.
Emotional dysregulation is a real challenge for those of us with ADHD. However, with the right tools and strategies, it’s possible to manage our emotions and stay focused, centered, and productive. By designing routines that eliminates choices, ambiguity, or anything else that could cause unnecessary stress, we can take greater control of our emotions. In addition to that, understanding our needs, strengths, and values, and never responding in the moment when we’re emotionally dysregulated, we can show up in our lives the way we want to and thrive.