Recently, a subscriber asked me about “managing emotional dysregulation in ADHD adults” in response to my query: “What is the topic about ADHD that most interest you right now? And, like many ADHD adults, this topic may be of great interest to you, too. As the inability to regulate emotions can have pernicious results in your life, for sure.
But, if we were to probe deeper, your curiosity is likely about more than just regulating emotions. You are likely interested in figuring out how to address the challenges you have with using various executive functioning skills to reach your near-term and long-term goals. That is, you want to know:
- Why can’t I start doing “this”?
- Why can’t I stop doing “that”?
To better understand how to address these core ADHD challenges it is helpful to understand the connection between ADHD, self-regulation and executive functions. Once you are familiar with this connection you will be in a better position to engineer your environment to use your strengths and accommodate and compensate for your ADHD challenges.
So, you can reach your near-term and long-term goals. Ready?
The Connection between ADHD, Executive Functions and Self-Regulation
According to Dr. Russell Barkley, another name for ADHD could be SRDD (Self-Regulation Deficit Disorder) or EFDD (Executive Function Deficit Disorder).
That is, if you have ADHD, according to Barkley, your core challenge is self-regulating. He defines this as “(1)any action an individual directs at themselves so as to (2) to result in a change in their behavior (from what they might otherwise have done) in order to (3) change the likelihood of future consequence or attainment of a goal.”
Similarly, Executive Functions, according to Barkley are “those neuropsychological processes needed to sustain problem-solving toward a goal.” These mental processes, according to Dr. Thomas Brown’s model include:
- organizing, prioritizing and activating to work
- focusing, sustaining and shifting attention to tasks
- regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed
- managing frustration and modulating emotions
- utilizing working memory and accessing recall
- monitoring self-regulating action
Herein lies at least one piece of the puzzle.
To reach a goal, you need to self-regulate. And, to self-regulate, you need to be able to utilize your executive function skills well. To do this you’ll need to first upgrade the use of your EF skills. Make sense, right?
ADHD is a Disorder of Performance, Not of Skill or Knowledge
Notice, I didn’t say you needed to learn more about self-regulation and executive functioning. You already get it. For example, you know the principle behind strategies like the STOP method or similar ones to help you manage your emotions in the moment. You know you should:
- Stop when you realize you’re about to get hijacked by your reaction.
- Take a breath.
- Observe what is going on in your body and not just your head.
- Proceed once you’ve done all this.
Yet, you don’t use the strategies you know, despite the consequences.
And you repeatedly say to yourself “I know what I need to do. I just need to do it!” But, if you could just do it, don’t you think you would have done it by now? Why would you continue to say or do things you later regret, if you could stop doing it? You wouldn’t.
The reality is that, like most ADHD adults, you don’t need to learn the mechanics of a method like STOP. You already know and have tried plenty of the suggested strategies you found in books and on websites. But they just don’t stick.
There’s a good reason for that.
Your challenge with ADHD is primarily one of performance, rather than a lack of skills or knowledge. That is, at the critical moment of choice, you are not able to do what you know you need to do to reach your goals. Sure, you could probably learn a few more helpful strategies.
But that won’t be enough.
You need to re-engineer your environment to help do what you know and want to do when you want to do it.
Remembering to Remember — Externalizing Cues at Point of Performance
To illustrate, in the example of emotional regulation, you first need to come up with a plan. You could start with these 8 strategies ADHD adults use to control their emotions. Then you’ll need a plan to “remember to remember.” So, you can do what you need to do at the precise moment you need to do it.
Of course, you know that. But how many times have you forgotten the plan? Too many to count? I know.
To be able to remember the plan and close the gap between skills/knowledge and performance, you’ll first need to externalize the cues.
There are many ways to do that, and you can check out 20 ways to remember what you want when you have ADHD for examples. In addition, a client came up with the brilliant idea of creating a fun poster to put by her desk to remind her of her plan. Similarly, you could take the 8 strategies from the article above and create an illustrated poster. Artistic skill doesn’t matter! 🙂
You just need to be able to answer the question, “How am I going to remember…?”
Externalizing Motivation to Support Performance
Remembering the plan might not be enough to help you follow through, though. After all, how many times have you defaulted to old patterns, despite “knowing” better? Of course, there might be other factors. But a contributing element might be your inability to tap into your motivation — reward — in the moment you are choosing whether to act, perform.
Similar to externalizing cues, the antidote to this conundrum might be to externalize your motivation. So, you remember in the moment of choice why you would choose to follow the plan. The example below illustrates how this might work.
Raji had been called on the carpet one too many times for his explosive temper at work. Of course, he needed the income, but he also really liked his job and wanted to keep it. Also, it was important him to be seen as a professional.
Raji knew how to use the STOP method and even had a small stop sign on his desk to cue him to use it. That wasn’t enough.
So, he put a sign (a small one) on his desk that said: “pro, $, like.” Remembering these rewards (being seen as a professional, supporting his family and keeping a job he liked) helped him follow through in using the stop method when he felt triggered.
His boss even noticed how much more even-tempered Raji was and mentioned this to him. This praise was another source of external motivation
After a couple of months of practicing Raji’s neural pathways began to find a new groove — became rewired. So, his automatic response was no longer to explode but to pause and take a step back.
What do you think? How could you engineer your environment to provide external cues and motivation to help you manage your emotions better in your professional and personal life?
Emotional Dysregulation in ADHD Adults: Externalizing Cues & Motivation
Above I illustrated how you can use external cues and motivation to engineer your environment and help you manage your emotions. So, you can reach your short-term and long-term goals which, like Raji, may include being successful in your job. But you can apply these strategies in other areas, as well.
For example, if you wanted to follow through on work you did not find intrinsically interesting, you might also externalize the cues to remind you to do the work. And then create extrinsic motivation to follow through.
If you give these strategies a try, please let me know how they work out for you.
And, if you want to watch a video, check out ADHD and Emotional Dysregulation: What You Need to Know by Jessica McCabe of How to ADHD. Great stuff!