Learn how to listen to your emotions and be in the driver’s seat in managing them, not your ADHD brain, so you align with your values.
- It’s important to listen to the messages your feelings give you.
- ADHD can make it hard for ADHD adults to be in the driver’s seat when managing their emotions.
- Performance, not knowledge or skills, is the primary challenge for ADHD adults to be able to say and act how they want in response to their feelings.
- ADHD adults need to externalize cues to both remember and motivate themselves to use strategies that will help them manage their emotions.
Emotions aren’t right or wrong. They’re just a signal. A message. So you don’t want to try to squelch them as you’ll miss the message and your attempts may even backfire. You also want to respond to them in the way you want. But are you able to do that right now?
You’ve tuned into Scattered, Focused, Done – Reimagining Productivity with ADHD, a podcast for ADHD, adults, like you, who want to learn how to adopt the best strategies, tools, and skills, to be able to get your essential work done in a way that works with the way your brain is wired. I’m Marla Cummins. And I’m glad you decided to join me today on this journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD. So you can get what is important to you die without trying to do it like everyone else.
Yes, you want to listen to your emotions, for sure. But you also don’t want them to be in the driver’s seat, right? That is, you want to be able to say, be, and act in alignment with your values. If you feel you can’t do that right now, it’s likely your ADHD is contributing to your challenge to do so. Of course, it’s common for ADHD adults to have comorbid conditions, like depression and anxiety. So if you have any of these, it’s important you also investigate how these other conditions might be impacting your ability to regulate your emotions. But, for purposes of this podcast, I’ll focus on addressing two main questions you likely have, which are:
- How is my ADHD related to this challenge?
- And of course, what can I do about it?
If it feels as though your emotions are bigger and last longer than your neurotypical peers, it’s because they likely do. And, again, while there might be other factors, one of the reasons is your internal systems are prone to hyperarousal because of your ADHD brain chemistry. So, when you’re happy in the moment you feel like the world is your oyster, you’re on top of the world. And when there is something in the moment that is causing you distress to be frustrated, you may feel like the world is going to end, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just can’t stand it anymore. Sound familiar?
While I know you’re not interested in in-depth biology lesson, I also think a little detail about your ADHD brain can help validate you’re not lazy, crazy, or stupid. So I hope you’ll hang with me for a moment for a summary.
In short, each region in your brain is responsible for particular function. I know. You already know this. So the prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for carrying out higher mental processes, such as thinking decision-making planning and inhibiting and keeping the rest of the brain under control.
But, because of the imbalance of neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine and norepinephrine, the messages carried by the neuro-transmitters between the neurons that would allow for these various executive functions to function well are impaired.
As a result, according to one model called the intersection model, promoted by psychologist and ADHD Coach Alison Kravitz, you will respond to whatever is dominating your focus in the moment, cutting off weaker messages. So your brain, you can think of it as like driving through Manhattan midday. But without any traffic lights.
Let that sink in for a moment.
So, while you may want to say and act in a certain way, without your prefrontal cortex keeping the rest of your brain under control, your thoughts and feelings are careening through your brain. And you’re focusing on the most predominant thought or feeling. Think of it as the truck coming your way. And you’re not thinking about the pedestrian crossing the street or the bicyclist, which you can think of as sort of the weaker message, like wanting to regulate your emotions, for example.
You’re just thinking about staying out of the way of that truck. And remember this happens because you have a brain-based biological condition. Not because you’re crazy, lazy or stupid.
While you have a tendency towards hyper arousal, there are steps you can take so you are more often in the driver’s seat and not your ADHD brain. So you can also focus on the important, albeit sometimes weaker messages in the moment.
You may decide to start with a combination of medication and therapy to do this. Medication to address the deficit of neurotransmitters. And therapy to help you both understand your emotional landscape, as well as learn techniques to be able to respond to your emotions in healthy and helpful ways that are in alignment with your values.
A few of the issues you may deal with in therapy are rejection sensitivity, perhaps fears born from a history of feeling like you miss the mark and low self-esteem. These three are pretty common for ADHD adults and also may be contributing to your tendency toward hyperarousal in the moment, as you may be interpreting situations through these lenses. That makes sense, right? So cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, has been shown to help ADHD adults learn techniques to moderate these feelings by helping to change your thought patterns and perceptions. And that’ll allow you to better be able to respond how you want in the moment.
In addition, whether subsequent to or concurrent with therapy, you may also choose to engage in coaching. So you can be more proactive in reaching your goals. And as you’re better able to reach goals that may have previously felt unattainable, this may help you moderate your emotions that may be born from fear of failure, rejection sensitivity, and low self-esteem. That makes sense, right?
Good self-care is also critical if you want to respond to your emotions in alignment with your values. This includes the usual suspects, getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, getting downtime, and connecting with important people in your life. I’m sure this is not news to you. Because you already know you are more easily triggered and your reactions are more intense and longer when you are tired, hungry, overwhelmed, and feeling disconnected.
Another way to be proactive is to plan for situations you know might trigger you. One strategy is to plan how you will respond in the moment to these triggers. And of course, you always have the option to avoid certain places if you decide it’s just not worth the turmoil. You just want to be judicious about using the strategies so you’re not hiding out from situations where you might benefit, but they also might make you feel a little bit uncomfortable.
Though, I’m guessing you probably already explored various methods and know them well for regulating your emotions, if this is not the case, then the next step is to learn methods such as stop S T O P, that you can use in the moment to be less reactive. If you already know this method and don’t use it, hang on a bit, as I’ll explain why you’re not using it when you could and what you can do about it. For those who are not familiar with the stop method, here’s what you can do.
The first step is stop. when you realize about to get hijacked by your reaction. Be aware of the cues that indicate your emotions are ramping up. The way you do this is by being aware of the cues that may include:
- physical cues, such as a tight stomach, pounding, heart thoughts,
- cognitive cues of revenge, put downs and more
- also actions or behavioral cues like shutting down, retreating, being sarcastic, not making eye contact or clenching your fist
- and last emotional cues like feeling disrespected, humiliated, rejected, or tired.
Then when you know that these cues are there, take a breath literally and figuratively. For adults with ADHD, taking a literal breath may not be enough. And you may need to remove yourself from the stimulus. For example, if you can’t leave a situation such as a large meeting, you might try taking notes and not talking for a bit. If you are talking with just one other person, you might suggest talking another time or excusing yourself for a short break. Yes, go to the bathroom, if possible.
And, if you’re working on a project by yourself and getting frustrated, you may be able to just stop, pause, breathe. Remind yourself, “Oh, I had better put the brakes on so I can think about what is really going on for me and decide what I want to do.” It can help to remind yourself that, while the intensity of the feeling is strong in the moment and may not disappear, it will dissipate over time. I’m sure you’ve had that experience. As it usually does, right? Think of all the times you reacted strongly to your feelings only to later wonder, “Why did I do that?” So, give yourself the time you need to allow the feelings to dissolve just a bit.
The third step then is to observe what’s going on both internally and externally, which includes your thoughts and feelings. Because remember, whatever you are thinking is fueling your feelings. ADHD adults often cannot do this in the moment, though. And you may need space to unpack the thinking, including cognitive distortions, like personalizing, over-generalizing and black and white thinking, as well as the associated feelings that come with these thoughts. To do this, you may need an extended break. As you may not have the cognitive in the moment to do this.
And then the third step is proceed with whatever course of action you decide you want to take only once you’re sure you’re in the driver’s seat and not your emotions or your ADHD brain.
The reality is though, like most ADHD adults, you don’t need to learn the mechanics of a method like stop. You may already have tried one of these strategies, but it just didn’t stick. There’s a good reason for that. You see 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’re not able to do what you know you need to do, like using a method, such as stop to manage your emotions.
To be able to act at the critical moment of choice ADHD adults often need to engineer their environment to remember what they want to do, and then follow through. The first step is creating a plan so you can remember to remember. How many times have you forgotten a well-laid out plan. Too many to count I know.
To be able to remember the plan and then close the gap between your skills and knowledge and performance you’ll first need to externalize the cues. There are many ways to do this. One client came up with the brilliant idea of creating a fun poster to put by her desk to remind her of her plan. Artistic skill doesn’t matter. You just need to answer the question, “How am I going to remember…?” Whatever it is you want to remember.
But 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 or recognize the reward in the moment when you are choosing whether to act.
So, like externalizing memory cues, the antidote to this conundrum is externalizing your motivation. So you can remember in the moment of choice why you would choose to follow the plan. Let’s take Raj, as an example. Raj 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 be seen as a professional. Raj 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. He often didn’t remember why he had the stop sign on his desk.
So, he put a sign, a small one on his desk that said pro, P R O, a dollar sign and the word like, L I K E. Remembering these words, these rewards rather, which are being seen as a professional and the money sign was supporting his family and the like was keeping a job he liked, really helped him follow through in using the STOP method when he felt triggered.
His boss even noticed how much more even tempered Raj was, and mentioned this to him. This praise was helpful as a source of external motivation. After a couple months of practicing Raj’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, both to remember what you want to do an external cues for motivation to help you follow through in managing your emotions better in your professional and personal life?
Taking back control from your ADHD brain when it comes to emotional self-regulation, is not easy. But you might decide it’s worth the effort if you can operate more in alignment with your values. And, while not an exhaustive list, I’ve shared some strategies you can try. What are you going to try this week?
That’s it for now. I’m really glad you joined me and stayed until the very end. If you’re interested in learning more about my work with adults, with ADHD, please do check out my website, marlacummins.com. Of course, if you’ve learned a thing or two, which I hope you have from today’s podcast, please pass along the link to anyone else in your circles you think might benefit. And until next time, this has been Scattered, Focused, Done. And I’m Marla Cummins wishing you all the very best on your journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD.