Self-Regulation: Controlling your emotions with ADHD

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 “Emotions motivate action — action to engage or action to avoid.” By Joan Jager

Emotional dysregulation, while often thought as a lack of self-control, is now recognized as a core symptom of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Self-Regulation is a non-shaming way to express the necessary steps to learning to control your emotions with ADHD.  For more than 10 years, the model of Executive Functions, or rather of delayed development of Executive Functions better explains the impact of ADHD than do the symptoms of a variable of attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Executive functions affect the ability to control one’s actions and reactions toward a future goal. They include problems with concentration, memory, staying on task, organization, planning, prioritizing, waiting your turn, restlessness, and more. Drs. Russell Barkley and Thomas Brown now propose that emotional regulation is one of the basic Executive Functions affected by ADHD. Research indicates emotional regulation difficulties have the greatest impact on an individual with ADHD’s well-being and self-esteem (far more than the core symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention).  (Source) For this reason, researchers are pushing for emotional dysregulation to be included in the description of ADHD in the next DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., author of  Smart But Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD explains emotional dysregulation as a function of working memory impairments and poor connectivity between areas of the brain that modify emotions.  Being unable to recall past experiences, momentary emotions can become overpowering. Some people turn that upset against themselves while others express their feelings outwardly and react angrily, sometimes even violently. Source)

Dr. Brown notes that an individual with ADHD may:

  • be quick to get frustrated by minor annoyances
  • worry too much or too long about even small things
  • have trouble calming down when annoyed or angry
  • feel wounded or take offense at even gentle criticism
  • feel excessive urgency to get something they want immediately

Unfiltered emotions can have a positive or negative effect.  In How ADHD Triggers Intense Emotions, Dr. Brown continues, “Emotions motivate action — action to engage or action to avoid.”   Dr. William Dodson calls this the “Interest Driven Nervous System” and suggests that the ADHD brain is largely activated by “interest, challenge, novelty, urgency, or passion.” It is these properties rather than the traditional motivators of importance, long-term reward and “shoulds” that propel forward action. Happily, the feeling of being under stress can also be expressed as excitement. This can propel rather than deter action. With self-awareness, and through practicing new coping skills, you change your perception. Fear and shame, looming deadlines, and desperation do NOT have to be the only tools at your disposal. (Sources: One and Two)


 Your emotions affect everything you do. Negative emotions can delay necessary action indefinitely. As coach Lou Brown explains, “Individuals rely on emotional self-regulatory skills to enhance or subdue an emotional response and thereby protect goal attainment (as well as social relationships, health, and wellbeing).” (Source)


One may also get carried away with positive feelings, develop unwise crushes on people or get fixated on projects that divert them from normal activities. Both positive and negative emotions, when taken to the extreme, can be overwhelming and damaging. Although this article focuses on negative feelings, the excitement that propels an inordinate focus, what some call their “Super Powers,” is also difficult to break away from.  This often causes a life imbalance between work, daily chores, play, and relationships.  If you miss sleep, fail to eat, cannot pay your bills, or keep your home life and finances in order, you may be in over your head. You can get help to attend to these boring tasks and regain a healthy balance, but first, you have to overcome self-criticism that says you are a failure if you cannot do it all yourself.

Author of the book Understand Your Brain, Get More Done, Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., MBA, explains some of the consequences of these out of control thoughts and poorly thought out actions.

“Runaway emotions cause more than drama. They undermine relationships, sap motivation, and lead to regretful actions… “What might take an hour for others to calm down from, could take someone with ADHD the whole day.”

Answers to Emotion Commotion


I’ve found some favorite articles and provide a synopsis of some great tips for controlling your emotions below. For greater detail, I recommend that you read the articles in their entirety.I’ve used many of these ideas over the years with some success.  (I’m not done working on controlling my emotions as yet. Nor do I ever expect to be. I often have to change approaches when they just plain stop working for me or my circumstances change.)


ADHD and 8 Strategies you can use to Control your Emotions by ADHD Coach Marla Cummins focuses on developing an awareness of how ADHD impacts YOUR life and maintaining basic self-care. Answers to ADHD, like your symptoms, are uniquely individual. Take the time and try many approaches to find the right ones for you.

  • Practice good self-care – (lIKE REMEMBERING TO EAT AND SLEEP!) Self-care is a basic tenet for controlling all aspects of ADHD.
  • Be aware of cues that indicate your emotions are ramping up
  • Pause – Give yourself time to think before your emotions build up.
  • Question your thoughts – They may be distorted or automatic negative thoughts.
  • Treat other conditions that also affect (Depression or anxiety for instance)
  • Think ahead – What triggers you or make you feel uncomfortable? What might you do instead?
  • Remember this too shall pass – Give yourself the time you need to allow the feelings to settle down.
  • Own it – You will goof up. Explain. Apologize, Try to make it right. And try to move on…

A different plan of attack is offered by other ADHD experts interviewed by Margarita Tartakovsky in Coping with Heightened Emotions.

  • Avoid criticizing yourself.
  • Know yourself.
  • Be clear about interruptions.
  • Set boundaries
  • Exercise
  • Feel your feelings
  • Practice self-soothing techniques.
  • See your doctor about medication changes. (or explore the possibility of other conditions that may be contributing factors.)

I also like many of the 15 Good Habits Your Brain Craves (But Isn’t Getting) by Ari Tuckman,  Psy.D., MBA. These habits include:

  • Manage your stress.
  • Avoid over-committing yourself.
  • Make time for yourself.
  • Take a break.
  • Train others to talk you down.
  • Don’t take things personally that have little to do with you.
  • Separate feeling from acting.
  • Educate others about your emotional patterns.


Just knowing that your emotions are extra sensitive and can cause inordinate problems in someone with ADHD is the first step.  For me, fear, doubt, self-criticism, shame, and sometimes anger at other people or projects that also demand your attention can be paralyzing. Letting go, moving on, and even getting anything done seems impossible.  Despite years of practice, my emotions still get in the way sometimes.   I’m tired of being “Smart but Stuck.” Today I am more aware of what’s happening, treat myself with kindness, define the problems and try strategies that bring peace and forward movement. Every day is a chance to move forward.  Hope you find some help here for yourself as well.


By Joan Jager: Editor and sometimes author of ADD Also the Curator for associated Pinterest and Facebook pages.


Editor’s note: For a more technical explanation of how emotions relate to ADHD, see Thomas Brown’s  NEW Understandings of ADHD: The role of emotion. These slides from the Burnet Seminar offer some Key Takeaways. These examples give way to more accessible language for most of the presentation. “Chemistry of motivation is modulated by complex processes resulting from amygdalar integration of idiosyncratic emotion-laden memories embedded in perceptions and various cognitive networks. “Also, Working memory & focusing impairments characteristic of ADHD may impair motivation by causing emotional flooding or constricted focus.

Please see Rollercoasters and Eggshells by Lou Brown for a very personal viewpoint on emotional dysregulation and its impact on her life and her relationship with her family.

Photo by Simon Zhu on Unsplash – Person with incense – Modified on