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How ADHD Affects My Emotional Regulation — and What I Do About It

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I have emotions. And they’re big. I’ve been described as “high strung” ever since I was a child.

As a little girl, I teared up every time someone raised their voice at me. My heart broke when I felt that people were unhappy with me. I became frightened when people were angry at me. These sensitivities to other people’s emotions didn’t ease up much going into adulthood.

Does every child have those reactions? Absolutely. The difference is I somehow had a bigger reaction. I took insults to heart and carried them around with me. I wasn’t good at letting go.

That ability to control yourself and your reactions when your emotions get complex? That’s called emotional regulation.

ADHD is known for symptoms like:

  • distractibility
  • time blindness
  • disorganization

But many people with ADHD also struggle with emotional dysregulation.

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the ability to recognize and modify your emotions to adapt to your environment and achieve your goals.

People who have emotional dysregulation are more likely to feel overwhelmed by their emotions. They react to their feelings in a way that defeats their own self-interest.

It isn’t depression or anxiety; it’s ADHD

Emotional dysregulation is very common in people with ADHD. Research suggests that up to two-thirds of people with ADHD have some amount of emotional dysregulation.

I find that people aren’t as aware of emotional dysregulation as an ADHD symptom. Emotional sensitivity is sometimes written off as depression or anxiety in people with ADHD. But it’s not the same thing.

Think about the last time you got upset and almost said something you’d regret. Now add in an ADHD symptom like impulsivity. Are you going to stop yourself from saying those words as easily? Likely not. Emotions can quickly spiral out of control.

It isn’t just about emotions causing distress. It’s the consequences of those emotions combined with ADHD symptoms. It’s much bigger than depression.

What’s the result of emotional dysregulation?

Problems with emotional regulation can manifest in ways that cause trouble and pain for people with ADHD and those who love them.

One research review found that emotional dysregulation had a greater impact on well-being and self-esteem than other ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity and inattention.

People were significantly more likely to have problems in relationships with their peers and family and to struggle in school and jobs.

I’ve found that emotional dysregulation leads me to overreact and hurt other people’s feelings. I might be bothered by things that would otherwise slide off my back. I may feel weepy. It varies depends on my mood and what’s going on in my life at the time.

These reactions disturb my life. I’ve seen it result in broken relationships, lost jobs, and missed opportunities. This feeds a sense of shame.

Eventually you feel caught in a toxic soup of your own emotions, other people’s negative opinions, and a mental reel playing all of your mistakes on a continuous loop.

Is it any wonder that we tend to spiral once we get too far down this path?

How I keep emotional dysregulation in check

Now that you know about emotional dysregulation, you’re likely wondering what to do about it. Is there a way to keep emotions from getting out of control?

Here are ways I cope with emotional dysregulation.

Practice mindfulness

For me, emotional dysregulation usually comes up in conjunction with rising panic. It’s hard to remain in control when you’re panicked.

Focusing on the present moment helps me to back up for a second before I jump in and go on the attack. Taking a few seconds to pause and breathe before reacting (when you can) can be extraordinarily helpful.

Try psychotherapy

Therapy can’t remove the challenges in life. But I’ve learned a lot about managing my emotions when faced with potential triggers.

Psychotherapy gives me new coping skills and strategies to control my emotions. I don’t get as emotional over as many things. It seems to help keep my emotional dysregulation in check.

Get rid of negative and toxic people

Toxic people can consume so much emotional energy. Too much exposure to certain people manipulates my emotions.

If possible, avoid people who:

  • talk down to you
  • create chaos and confusion
  • are mean-spirited

They have no room in your life, especially when you’re learning to control your emotions and maintain a sense of peace.

Emotional dysregulation can be just as damaging as other ADHD symptoms. Learning to take control of your emotions is an important step in managing your ADHD at last.

For more information on how to manage ADHD, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.


NPS-US-NP-00611 APRIL 2020