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E23. ADHD and Emotional Regulation



Welcome to ADHD CrashCourse! Today we're going to talk about ADHD and emotional regulation or emotional dysregulation. Many people with ADHD struggle with regulating when it comes to a lot of things, but in particular, their emotions. Although this isn't included in one of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, it is absolutely something that many of us struggle with, myself included.


When we talk about regulation, emotionally, we're talking about our ability to experience our emotions. We're not checked out or numb to them, but we're able to experience them and not be carried away by them. You know, emotional regulation, when you're talking about that skill, has to do with experiencing your emotions, being able to self soothe to bring yourself down if you're really elevated emotionally, or if you need to be.

We often think about emotional regulation having an impact when it comes to emotions that are traditionally considered difficult emotions- things like anger or sadness- but emotional regulation can also impact us when we have excitement or joy. It's almost an overwhelming emotion that can be a little disruptive, especially if you need to transition and move between something that you're really excited about to something else.


I mean, obviously this impacts how we relate to people, talk to people, connect with people. It impacts how we spend our time and how easily we can switch between tasks. The thing that I wanted to point out (I believe I've mentioned this in previous episodes), but just because someone appears to be regulating emotionally, does not mean that their internal experience is regulating emotionally. It's never been very obvious to people around me that I have been dysregulated because I was somebody that was really able to internalize it with a lot of things that were not particularly helpful to me.


We don't necessarily always see the evidence that someone is struggling with this. One thing that the research points to is that people with ADHD have an increased chance of developing addictions. Not just substance addictions, but what are considered behavioral addictions, also known as process addictions. These are addictive behaviors. These are things like compulsive shopping, gambling, and behaviors around food and eating. This makes a lot of sense, if you are dealing with super intense emotions that are very overwhelming, it makes sense that you may want to jump off of that experience of that emotion and self soothe, and it's difficult to self soothe for many of us (with ADHD and without).


So when we're talking about emotional regulation, we can't really talk about it without talking about that correlation, that connection between being dysregulated emotionally and being at a higher risk for all kinds of addictions. So what is a dysregulated ADHDer supposed to do?


Let me start by saying this is tricky. It is not a "Oh, follow this list to becoming perfectly regulated". That's just not how all this works. It's much sloppier than that. Personally, in my work with my clients, the balance is always acknowledging, accepting, understanding your brain and knowing what's just going to be different for you and working with the things that you can work with. So, when it comes to emotional regulation, just acknowledging that these intense experiences of emotion are just kind of par for the course with ADHD.


To me that's not at all a fatalistic response to this. To me, this is an empowering response because I'm not wasting my resources feeling badly that this is my wiring, feeling badly that this is my response, or thinking "Wow, adults shouldn't get so excited about a crane machine." I have this crane machine addiction, you know, the little claw that picks up stuffed animals, things that I would throw away from the dollar store in a heartbeat and be annoyed are in my house... I will be really excited about winning. Not like spending our mortgage, but still, excitement that I experience when I win a crane machine stuffed animal is not typical, I will admit.


Obviously that example is nothing that is really disruptive to my life, but there are areas that are disruptive to my life. So, I wanted to share some strategies that can be helpful when it comes to emotional regulation. An important first step is to become an emotions expert, not just the emotions but how they show up in your body, how you experience them, so you know what's going on. Know the difference between irritation, anger, and rage in your body, in your experience. Know when joy or excitement feels a little too much.


This is a really important skill to develop because it helps us peel back layers and get to the heart of what's going on. If you're kind of annoyed by some nagging thing versus I'm about to blow, you have a really different range of responses that you might need to help you move through that intense emotion. So getting really expert, not just on the differences in emotions, but really your personal experience of these emotions, can make a big difference. Recognizing what's popping up for you is a huge step in being able to backtrack and find ways that you can help.


So you're going to become this emotions expert, you're going to notice how you experienced that, the thoughts that come along with it, whether there's a sensation in your body, you're going to pay attention to how it shows up for you. Then the next piece may sound really similar, but it's important to differentiate, and that is to accept it. You're going to notice the emotion and accept it.

The difference here is if I'm noticing that I'm angry about something that I think is a small detail, or I "shouldn't" be worked up about, that is not accepting. That just creates more tension, more frustration, more disconnect from experiencing this. Even if it's not logical, even if you don't love that this is your emotional reaction, your emotional reaction is likely to become less powerful when it's acknowledged. When those emotions are articulated, you're able to either journal or talk to yourself or talk to a friend.


When you're able to put these things into words and move them from a body experience to a word experience where you're able to process, that can be really helpful, but we can't get there if we're not accepting the fact that this emotion is present. Now, what's next? You're noticing these things in your body, you're acknowledging them, you're accepting the emotion. So it's still a very overwhelming experience sometimes for us. So what's next? For me, personally, it depends on my nervous system level.


I have a training on my website, it's a free training on sensory strategies. In that training, I talk about our nervous system level regulation. And when we are at a super elevated place, whether it's anxiety, fear, anger, any amped up emotion and we're not available for things like making decisions, analyzing, we're kind of "offline" at that point.

If I recognize that I'm offline, I'm not going to choose a thought-heavy, processing-heavy approach. I'm going to choose something that is more of a body input, like a sensory input, a movement input, something that I know is regulating to my nervous system, but isn't going to require a lot of concentration or skill or stillness. Sometimes things like cognitive behavioral strategies are really helpful once you've calmed down enough to use them, but if you're super elevated, you may not be available for that at that moment.


So, if you want more information about sensory strategies as a regulatory tool, feel free to check that out on my website to sensory strategies course. You can get more information about how exactly to do that, but that tends to be something that's helpful for me when I am elevated, worked up and not able to process thoughts as easily.

If I'm just annoyed, or kind of looping on a thought- an anxious, thought, irritated thought- whatever it might be, then I still have the same process of noticing, acknowledging, accepting, and sometimes that whole process for me is better done through journaling and writing it out.


So, I might write about what happened, I might write about what I'm feeling with the sole purpose of just getting it out. My first pass is just getting it out, dumping it down on paper, and that can already give me a little bit of relief. Now, the second pass is taking a look at the facts, what happened that preceded my emotional experience, and identifying what my thoughts were about what happened. This kind of thought work does impact our emotions and our emotional regulation.


The thing about this thought work, when we're building flexibility in the way we think about things, when we're changing and reframing things in order to impact our emotional state, this is not quick work. This is work that is practiced. So, when we want emotional regulation tools, it's often easier to start with more body level, I call them, tools; things like breathing, sensory input, even mindfulness meditation. Although meditation can sound like a really cognitive pursuit, mindfulness meditation is just about being in your moment. It's not really this high concentration as much as a 'high noticing" practice.


These are more body level practices, where as challenging our automatic thoughts about situations is an emotional regulation tool that is a little more complicated and takes more practice. You'll want those tools, you want to practice that. However in the beginning, when you're thinking about emotional regulation, especially if this is something you're just realizing as an issue, it's more helpful to start out with something you can do and apply immediately to help you regulate.


So closing out today, I just want to encourage you, if you're somebody who's never even considered that this could be an issue for you (some of us know that we we struggle with this, some of us don't- we're not really that connected with our emotions, our body and our reactions) to just notice the things that you do to jump off of strong emotions. Sometimes it's really obvious- it's an explosion or a big reaction, but a lot of times it's not. It's anything we do, they can be even things that people consider healthy things or productive things, people can immerse themselves in work to a degree that's imbalanced to jump off of difficult emotions.


A lot of the people I work with struggle with people pleasing or perfectionism, and that is actually a way to jump off of that really overwhelming feeling when you feel you've been rejected or not feeling like you measure up. The response to that overwhelming emotion is often try harder, hustle, get it perfect. That drive for perfectionism, for people pleasing, for all of that is often just an attempt to, once again, jump off of really strong, overwhelming, difficult emotions.

Just like I say about so many other things, it could not be more true for emotional regulation, the most important part of it is noticing. That can move us from just reacting and responding and avoiding these intense emotions to just kind of riding the wave, riding them out, supporting ourselves in whatever ways we can to tolerate our intense emotions and accept that this is a part of the brain that we have.


Interested in learning more about my group coaching program, Embrace Your Brain? Considering 1:1 coaching or have other questions for me? Please feel free to contact me here.

Learn how to use sensory input to change your energy and focus! Register for my FREE Sensory Strategies for ADHD workshop here.


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