Learning what to do with your negative thoughts and feelings and treating your ADHD go hand in hand.
I know you want to learn how to work with your ADHD so you can leverage your strengths and manage the ADHD symptoms that get in your way. And sometimes you need to exert control to do this. For example, you might try to temper your impulsiveness, avoid distractions, manage your stress, decrease your perfectionism, etc. It takes a lot of time and energy to do this, right?
But are you wasting your time and energy trying to also exert control over your thoughts and feelings?
You frequently have automatic thoughts in response to a trigger. And these elicit various emotions. Sometimes these are helpful. For example, if you are driving on icy roads at night, you might think to yourself, “I should be careful.” Then you feel anxious and subsequently drive more cautiously. That’s a good thing! Beats impulsively doing 180s on the ice.
But, if automatic thoughts lead to what you consider negative feelings, you may be tempted to use your limited resources to try to control your thoughts and feelings. It makes sense. After all, who wants to feel bad? You just want the bad feelings to go away. I get it.
The problem, as Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, points out is, the control strategies you are using to avoid these feelings may not be working. Rather than diminishing your unwanted thoughts and feelings, your strategies are likely causing them to expand. And, consequently, get in the way of doing what is important to you.
To avoid this the first step may be exiting the happiness trap. So, you can take effective action toward your goals regardless of how you are feeling.
Let’s start by seeing…
How the Happiness Trap Can Keep You Stuck
I’m confident you already know feelings ebb and flow. And I’m also sure you know you won’t always be happy. Yet, you may fall into the trap of wanting to be happy all the time, despite knowing it’s not possible. And, as a result, exert a lot of time and energy trying to get rid of “negative” feelings.
Not sure if you do this? Check out this list of core emotions from Brene Brown, and write down all of those you have an aversion to. Got it? Your list might include overwhelm, anxiety, shame, etc.
Now, think of a recent situation when you had one of these undesirable feelings. How did you react? Maybe, when you felt overwhelmed and anxious after a hard day at work, you went home and:
- drank too much.
- went to sleep when you weren’t really tired.
- spoke crossly with your family or friends.
- ate too much.
- watched excessive amounts of TV.
- avoided family and friends.
Then you felt worse and maybe even beat yourself up for acting in a way that wasn’t in alignment with your values. If you recognize this cycle, you know your efforts to avoid feeling bad aren’t working. And, obviously, you’re not any closer to feeling happy.
To avoid this cycle, start by recognizing that…
You Can’t Control Your Thoughts and Feelings
In the above example of driving at night on icy roads I pointed out that the automatic thought, “I should be careful,” and feeling of anxiety were helpful. Because with these you are more likely to act in alignment with your value of safety and arrive at your destination with your body and car intact.
What if your automatic thought was, “That would be fun to speed on the ice!” Then you might feel excited. And, if you did this, you might momentarily feel happy. But, if you acted on this, went faster, you wouldn’t be in alignment with your value of staying safe.
While you can’t control your thoughts and feelings, you can control how you act. Though, as an ADHD adult, you may need additional scaffolding — support, strategies, and skills — to avoid acting impulsively on your thoughts and feelings. And behave the way you want.
Still think you may be able to control your thoughts and feelings? Give it a try and see what happens. Stop thinking about the pink elephant above. Now feel afraid of the pink elephant. How did that go? You get my point.
If you want to exit the happiness trap, you need to stop trying to control your feelings and thoughts, and instead ask yourself how…
Your Thoughts and Feelings Can Help or Hinder You
Instead of struggling with your thoughts and feelings, ask yourself:
- “Are the thoughts and feelings I’m having right now helpful or not?”
- “Do they help me take effective action — an action that is in alignment with my values and will help me reach my goals?”
When I started blogging, I was nervous I didn’t have anything interesting or important to say. And wondered whether anyone would read my posts. I also worried about the criticism that might come my way from those who did read them. I was full of fear, anxiety, and self-doubt.
It’s been almost 12 years, and I’m still blogging. But those thoughts and feelings have never gone away. They ebb and flow, becoming more pronounced when I do receive the occasional critique.
In fact, recently, when a reader told me one of my articles “was NOT designed for anyone with ADHD or who might be feeling overwhelmed,” I questioned whether I was qualified to be an ADHD coach and felt like an impostor. Clearly, these thoughts and feelings were not helpful.
And I could have tried to get rid of them. One way Would have been attempting to force myself to think positively. Maybe rereading the testimonials of people who said they benefited from my writing would have done the trick. Alternatively, I could have avoided work altogether, and watched TV or gone out to lunch.
Trying to think positively or avoid anything that might trigger uncomfortable thoughts or feelings in an effort to feel better could have worked. For a moment. But it would have taken time and energy away from doing something meaningful. Then I might have felt bad for wasting my time.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. And you can start practicing by learning…
How ADHD Adults Use Diffusion to Lessen the Impact of Painful Thoughts
While you can’t banish painful thoughts, you can learn to live with them so they have less of a hold over you — less influence over your behavior — by learning how to use ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) techniques. These techniques can help you stop struggling with your thoughts and feelings, stay in the present moment and accept (acknowledge) your feelings, rather than trying to avoid them.
The first step is to remember thoughts are just words, sensations, and images — not reality. When you take them as reality, fuse with them, they can cause you pain. But, if you practice diffusion, you can immediately lessen the hold they have over you.
For example, you could diffuse the common thought, “I’m a failure,” with one of the following techniques recommended by Harris:
- Tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.” You could even go further and tell yourself, “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.”
- Take the thought and sing it to yourself to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”
- Try hearing the thought in a cartoon character voice, like Mickey Mouse.
- Take 10 deep breaths as slowly as possible and notice the sensations as you inhale and exhale.
As you practice, notice how the thought has less of a hook on you.
And remember the goal is not to get rid of the thought. Have you stopped thinking about the pink elephant? 😊Rather the goal is to lessen their impact so you can take effective action — act in alignment with your values.
Working With Negative Thoughts and Treating Your ADHD
The above, adapted from The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, is just a taste of some of the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And diffusion is just one of the ACT techniques you can use to lessen the impact of painful thoughts
I hope this post piqued your curiosity.
And, if you are interested in learning how you can have more time and energy to take affective action toward what matters most to you, regardless of how you feel, check out The Happiness Trap book and website. And start learning how to apply the ACT techniques in your life.