So, you’re wondering why ADHD adults get easily frustrated and angry, right? If this is one of your challenges, I’m not surprised. As it is often a topic of discussion in my individual and group coaching sessions. In fact, recently a client asked whether it was “possible for frustration not to be their dominant emotion.”
And that questioning prompted me to ponder, once again, why ADHD adults may become angry and frustrated much easier and quicker than their neurotypical peers. And this led me to also think about the strategies that can help ADHD adults both honor those feelings and act in a way that is in sync with their values.
Of course, it’s possible to manage your frustration better, if this is one of your goals. And this article is an attempt to begin to explore these questions. So, come along as we go on a journey to get some answers. We’ll use the example of someone interrupting you in a meeting or conversation. I’ll call this person Joe.
But, as you’re reading this, feel free to use the name of someone in your life who you often get frustrated or angry with.
ADHD Contributes to Your Tendency to Get Frustrated or Angry
Let’s start by looking at your ADHD brain wiring.
You know the primary job of the frontal lobe is to control cognitive functions, like emotional expression. And when your frontal lobe is working it can help keep your emotions under control. But because of the imbalance of dopamine and norepinephrine in the ADHD brain, your frontal lobe doesn’t do this efficiently.
In addition, because of ADHD working memory challenges, you have a hard time juggling multiple perspectives at once. If you could hold multiple perspectives in mind, you might be able to tell yourself, “That’s just Joe. He gets really excited. And there are plenty of times when he doesn’t interrupt me.”
But, when you are frustrated, that may be the only perspective you can hold. And without another perspective to consider, your frustration just grows. It is all you are focused on in the moment.
When your frontal lobe goes offline your limbic system (emotional brain) kicks in. If it were working, it would help you regulate your emotional and behavioral responses to stimuli — Joe’s interruption. But the deficiency of norepinephrine in the ADHD brain’s limbic system may predispose you toward emotional volatility — increased frustration.
Last, the ADHD nervous system is always looking for stimulation. So, it is difficult for you to screen out stimuli (from the five senses — smells, sounds, sights touches, tastes — and thoughts.). Because you have inefficient barrier you can become overwhelmed, and therefore frustrated easily.
There you have it. Your propensity to become frustrated may be in part due your ADHD because of:
- the deficiency of norepinephrine in your frontal lobe and limbic system
- working memory challenges
- stimuli overload
But it’s not just your ADHD that contributes to your tendency to become frustrated.
Your Frustration Is Also a Habit
For many ADHD adults, when anger and frustration take over, it may feel like your brain has suddenly been hijacked, and you’ve lost control. Dr. Thomas Brown, in his book, Attention Deficit Disorder, The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults, writes about a man who describes his frustrations as akin to “a computer virus in my head and it was taking up all the space.”
No doubt, if this resonates with you, you’re ADHD likely contributes to this feeling.
Though your brain wiring contributes to this predisposition, it also has become a learned behavior. One that cemented your “frustration neural pathways.” That is, you do what you do, in part, because that’s what you’ve always done. These well-grooved neural pathways have helped build your “frustration habit.” So that it is now a habitual way of responding.
One you’ll need to unlearn, if you want to manage your frustration so, for example, you don’t become frustrated every single time Joe speaks up when you’re talking. Sure, if it’s excessive, you may want to address it with Joe, you also want to give him a break now and then. Because conversations go like that sometimes. Right?
And to unlearn this old habit you’ll need to replace it with a new habit — a new way of responding. More on that below.
What Is the Difference Between Anger and Frustration?
But, first, let’s look at the difference between anger and frustration. As knowing this distinction can be helpful as you think about ways to manage both.
You know frustration is a byproduct of not getting what you want or expect. Like when Joe interrupts you in meetings. You want to be able to finish what you’re saying and expect people, including Joe, to allow you to do that. We all want to be listened to, of course.
But what happens when Joe repeatedly interrupts you, and you do nothing to address it? You may start to feel threatened or embarrassed, which can lead you to feel angry. And you got there because you repeatedly didn’t get what you wanted or expected. Eventually, you reached the tipping point and went from feeling frustrated to angry.
Then you might do or say something you later regret. Ever happened to you? The key is to be able to recognize when you are becoming frustrated and put on the brakes. So you can consider how to address the situation before you are stuck on a runaway train going the wrong way.
Because, once that train leaves the station, you might have a hard time going back, right? We know not everyone is forgiving of unintended actions are words. So, let’s see what you can do to make sure you’re on the right train and going in the direction you want.
Emotions Are Not Wrong!
This is such an important point it bears repeating. Emotions are not wrong! Yet, you may feel shame when you feel frustrated or angry. This is likely because you externalize your emotions more than your neurotypical peers. And you do this because it is harder for ADHD adults to internalize feelings — not express them openly.
While this is true, the emotions themselves are not inappropriate. It’s normal to get frustrated when Joe interrupts you at a meeting. It’s also normal to get frustrated, and, perhaps, even angry, when:
- you are stuck in traffic.
- your child does not follow your instructions.
- a friend is constantly late for meetings.
- your partner doesn’t listen to you.
- a colleague dismisses your idea outright.
The key is to accept and honor your feelings, not to try to get rid of them. Because when you can accept them and stop struggling with them, you will have an easier time acting and saying what you want, regardless of how you feel.
Tip #1 – Be Proactive
The first step is being aware that your behavior is inconsistent with your values and long-term goals. The second step, of course, is wanting to change.
One key to making this change — managing your emotions — is practicing good self-care, such as eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, getting enough downtime, taking your medication, etc. If you are lacking in any of these or other self-care areas, it will be harder to manage your emotional response in any given situation. You already know that.
Another key is preparing in advance for how you might respond to situations you know will likely trigger your frustration or anger. So, the next time Joe interrupts you in a meeting, you might decide you will say, “Hey, Joe, I want to hear what’s on your mind. Can I just finish this thought, so I don’t forget it? Thanks.”
Another way to be proactive is to be aware of the cues in your body you’re becoming frustrated or angry. So, you have a chance to decide what you want to do before you get too “amped-up.” Some of the common feelings are:
- a racing heart
- breathing fast, like you can’t catch your breath
- tight muscles
- feeling hot and maybe even sweating
- a headache, like your head is pounding or pulsating
What’s your cue?
Tip #2 – Pause and Think
Once you feel the cue in your body, heed the warning and hit the pause button. You just can’t think your way out of anger. If you’ve tried to do this, you know it usually does not work.
First, breathe. Really. Breathing is a great strategy to help minimize the fight or flight response. If you don’t already have a technique that works for you, try Box Breathing. If you practice yoga, as I do, you may be familiar with Ujjayi Breathing. Use any technique that works for you. Just breathe.
If that is not enough to help you feel grounded and able to respond the way you want, you might decide to remove yourself from the situation — stimulus. You could:
- go to the bathroom. Always a socially acceptable excuse, right? 😊
- walk or do your exercise of choice
- ask to change the conversation. Alternatively, take notes or just observe for a bit, rather than participating in the conversation.
- give yourself as much time as you need and is possible to think clearly in any way that works for you.
Then, once you feel a little more grounded — your frontal lobe is back online — you can figure out your best option(s) given the context. Maybe you decide you should schedule a meeting with Joe to discuss the issue, instead of saying anything in the moment.
Tip #3 – Change Your Story
As you are considering how you want to respond to situations like Joe’s interruptions, you’ll want to reflect on what stories you are telling yourself. Are you engaging in faulty thinking? You know, the kind of thinking that may lead you to say or do things that are out of sync with how you want to be and act.
When you check in with your thinking you may come to realize there are several possible interpretations of an event, and your story is by no means the “truth.” Let’s see how you might do this in situations you face like the one with Joe. You may:
- personalize it by deciding the person is interrupting you because they don’t respect you.
- see it through a black-and-white lens by concluding the person is a jerk. Then you must be on high alert whenever you’re in a meeting with this person.
- disqualifying the positive by ignoring the times the person doesn’t interrupt you.
There are other ways you may be engaging in cognitive distortions, but these are a few that may get in your way. And one way to reduce your frustration and anger is to replace these thoughts with others that could also be true.
What if you became curious and wondered if one possibility was that Joe may have ADHD? 😊 And maybe he was blurting out because well, you know, sometimes that’s what ADHD adults do. Would that change your perspective about the situation? It might, right?
Once you’ve entertained a few possible alternative stories you’ll be in a better place to respond. As your frustration and/or anger will dissipate with the reframing. While you might still decide you want to talk to Joe, you’ll be able to do it from a much more grounded place. Then, again, you might decide it’s not that bad and you can just let it go.
Whatever you decide to do, you’ll be able to respond with integrity.
ADHD Adults Get Easily Frustrated and Angry
While your brain’s wiring, your ADHD, may mean you are easily flooded with frustration and anger, taking a step back so you don’t feel like your foot is taped to the gas pedal can help you craft the response you want. Yet, unlearning old habits is difficult. So, changing your habitual responses will also be hard in the beginning.
But the more you practice responding differently, the easier and more automatic it will become to respond in this new way. So, when Joe interrupts you might think “Oh there goes Joe.” And then say to him, “Hey Joe, let me just finish this thought, and then I want to hear what you have to say.”
As you practice this new response, you will weaken the neural pathway of automatic frustration and anger by not using it. And will strengthen the new neural pathway every time you practice your new response. So that over time it may become more automatic. Nice, right?
What are you going to try this week to temper your frustration and/or anger?