A couple of weeks ago I was driving through the Boston area during rush hour. I normally try to avoid driving in rush hour. But my parents were visiting, and we were going to my sister’s for dinner.
We experienced what you would imagine happens during rush hour in any large urban area. Traffic moving at a snail’s pace… So, arriving at my sister’s 1½ hours after leaving home was not a surprise.
And, when stuck in traffic I try to hold the perspective that it is what it is. And it is also a good time to listen to NPR. If my daughter is up for it, we might even have a conversation sparked by one of the shows. I’d say that is a good use of time!
But the women who rolled down her window and started screaming at me, as I tried to merge at the off ramp, was definitely in a different place.
So, I also experienced another unfortunate side affect of rush hour, besides slow traffic. Road rage.
It seemed to me that her logical brain had gone offline, and her emotional brain had taken over!
When Your Frontal Lobe Goes Offline
The primary job of the frontal lobe or logical brain is to take in and determine how to use information that is located elsewhere in the brain.
More specifically, the frontal lobe carries out higher mental processes, such as thinking, decision making, and planning. When it is online and working it can help keep our emotions under control.
But when we are angry we may slip into primitive thinking – survival mode. Our limbic system (more below) kicks in and our frontal lobe shuts down and is not open to new information.
In essence, our frontal lobe goes offline…
And, because of the imbalance of neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine and norepinephrine, the circuitry in the frontal lobe does not function well in those with ADHD. Because of this imbalance the messages carried by the neurotransmitters between the neurons that would allow for the various executive functions to occur, including controlling emotions, are effectively interrupted.
This means that making sure your logical brain stays in charge is particularly hard when you have ADHD.
Your Emotional Brain Takes Over
The limbic system or the emotional brain is the feeling center of the brain.
It is also the central area in the brain where information is stored from previous experiences so we can determine whether incoming stimuli is a threat or not, and decide whether to approach, avoid or attack.
When we identify a stimulus as something to fear, the fight or flight reaction may occur. Road rage is a good example of the instinct to fight.
The woman in my story “couldn’t” let me merge into her lane of traffic. She was angry. And I know underneath this anger was fear. Fear that I would hit her? Fear that she would be late? Fear that I was taking advantage of her by getting in front of her?
I don’t know… But it appeared to me that her limbic system or emotional brain, had taken over. It is possible that her memory of people merging in front of her during rush hour was cause for attack.
What if her memory of people merging in front of her did not signal danger? More on this below…
Limbic System and ADHD
Like the frontal lobe, there is an imbalance of dopamine and norepinephrine in the limbic system of people with ADHD, which can further compromise the ability to manage anger.
Yes, when you are angry, like neurotypical people, your frontal lobe may shut down and your limbic system kicks in, leading to, among other events, fight or flight.
But you may be even more emotionally volatile and generally have more difficulty in regulating your emotions because of the impaired neurotransmitter activity.
Getting Your Frontal Lobe Back Online
Knowing all of the above, if emotional volatility and anger, specifically, is one of the ADHD symptom that is particularly problematic for you, the key is to use a strategy consistently to manage it.
One such strategy is the STOP Method, briefly outlined below:
The first step is to be aware of what happens in your body when you are angry. So you will know when it is happening.
Then think about how your angry thoughts are controlling your body, and decide whether the thoughts are accurate
But this can be hard to do in the moment when you have ADHD, as your brain is more easily hijacked. You just can’t think you way out of anger. If you’ve tried to do this, you know it usually does not work.
- So, you may have to go the extra step of removing yourself, and maybe even going for a run or something else to help you release the anger.
- Breathe through it. This will also help minimize the fight or flight response.
You need to get your frontal lobe back online before you can engage it to figure out what to do next.
One way to help get your frontal lobe back online is to replace your thoughts with ones that can help calm you. For example, maybe consider that someone who is giving you a hard time on the road is in a hurry for a very good reason and just can’t think straight…
Plan how you are going to respond when particular situations arise. So, in the example of driving in rush hour, anticipate that road rage might arise. And be prepared to respond without getting angry, like thinking of all the reasons they may be in a hurry.
If you are interested in using the STOP method, check out this more extensive explanation.
Neuroplasticity and Anger
Here is the really great thing! You can actually change your brain to respond differently.
Remember the limbic system above? In the my story, the amygdala may have signaled to the women that there is danger and she needs to take action to protect herself.
What if she tried to think differently?
What might happen in her brain and her nervous system, if she used the STOP method while in rush hour?
1. She could weaken the neural pathway of automatic stress and anger by not using it.
2. And she could create a new neural pathway of waiting in a traffic in a more relaxed state.
3. Moreover, she would strengthen this new neural pathway every time she practiced this!
Among other things, neuroplasticity means that emotions such as happiness and compassion can be cultivated in much the same way that a person can learn through repetition to play golf and basket ball or master a musical instrument, and that such practice changes the activity and physical aspects of specific brain areas.
~ Andrew Weil, Spontaneous Healing
Even though it can be more challenging and may take a few extra steps for Adults with ADHD, it can really work for you, too!
In what situations does your anger arise automatically?
How do you want your nervous system to respond differently?
What is the next step for you?