How Do You Regulate Your Emotions When You Have ADHD?

When it comes to ADHD, most people think first about cognitive symptoms like inattention and lack of focus, getting easily distracted, memory troubles, and executive functioning.

The inability to self-regulate applies to self-regulating emotions as well. Some research found that the majority of people with ADHD have problems regulating emotions and most of them have severe emotional regulation impairments. 

Emotional dysregulations make a person acting impulsively, having difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships at work and in personal life, having problems dealing with grief and other negative events. They have an increased risk of depression, and more psychological distress compared with those without ADHD.

How do you regulate your emotions when you have ADHD? Let’s review in this article what is emotional dysregulation, the three different types of emotional problems, and the best strategies to regulate these emotions. 

What exactly is emotional dysregulation?

Simply put, individuals with emotional dysregulation have problems managing, moderating or putting into context their emotions. They are unable to modify their emotional state in a way that they can adapt behavior and perform optimally day-to-day activities. Researchers believe that emotional dysregulation is a core feature of ADHD and should be added to the diagnosis criteria. There are 3 types of emotional dysregulation and all of them are associated with ADHD:

  • Emotion recognition and understanding -this is related to a person ability to perceive and process his own emotions and also the emotions of others
  • Emotional reactivity/negativity/lability -this type is related to the intensity of the emotional response, being quick temper, and having mood swings. 
  • Empathy/callous-unemotional traits – an individual with this trait is either empathic and understands other people’s emotions or exactly the opposite where will show little/no emotions to situations that would normally trigger strong reactions to an average person.

ADHD emotional regulation strategies

In addition to the treatment prescribed by the doctor, consider the following strategies: 

  • Cognitive behavior therapy is a very effective strategy to help improve emotional regulation. A research study found that two thirds of the participants with ADHD who received counselling once a week for 12 weeks experienced a 30% decrease of the symptoms compared with only one third in the control group that received relaxation techniques as a therapy. For best results, look for a therapist specialized in ADHD. 
  • Mindfulness meditation. Scientists believe that the cingulate gyrus, a special  area in the middle of the brain tissue, plays a key role in regulating behavior, attention and also emotions. Brain scans show that ADHD is associated with lower activity in the cingulate gyrus compared with people without ADHD. Mindfulness meditation seems to improve the activity in the cingulate gyrus, and improve self regulation and attention in those with ADHD. It is easy to incorporate mindfulness meditation in your daily routine. Set aside 10 -15 minutes, once or twice daily. You can choose various apps, program on youtube or simply practice deep breathing during this time. 
  • Practice gratitude. There is evidence that practicing gratitude makes you feel good, both physically and emotionally. Furthermore, this practice increases mental strength, improves self esteem, promotes restful sleep, enhances empathy and ability to form relationships,  while reducing aggression and depression. Every day,  in the morning and/or before bed time, make a list with 5 things that you are grateful for. 
  • Work out. Exercise can help rewire the brain, boost several feel good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins. Aim for 30-40 minutes, most days of the week. Rather than searching for the most effective workout, find workouts that you really enjoy. This way you can maintain a fitness routine long term. 

Simple techniques you can use “as needed”

  • “Name” your emotions. Instead of hiding or avoiding dealing with an emotion, be aware of it, acknowledge it and name it. In other words, own that emotion. If you try to ignore it, it will come back, and it will come stronger. This can make emotional dysregulation worse.  Avoidance puts you in a state of hypervigilance, making you more stressed and anxious. Solution: Simply say “ I feel sad” or “I feel angry” and watch how that emotion becomes less and less intense. If you are unable to point out the exact emotion you are feeling , check out this list of emotions
  • When you experience an intense emotion, try the opposite action.  Feeling an intense emotion makes you take a certain action right away. You can change that emotion by doing the opposite to its action urge.  You need to repeat acting the opposite to your normal action until the emotion changes. This requires some practice. For example, when you experience fear, do what you are afraid of instead of avoiding that situation. If you feel anger, simply walk away from that person or situation rather than raising your voice or losing your temper.  If you feel guilt or shame, try to accept what you have done, forgive yourself, let go and move on.