Anger is not a bad thing. But, if you are an ADHD adult your anger may last longer, being more intense and get in the way of having the kind of personal professional relationships you want. Learn how to express your anger in a way that works for you.
- Anger is not bad. It is a message you are in emotional pain.
- Learn techniques to help you interpret your anger, the emotional pain.
- Adopt techniques to both be proactive in minimizing the possibility of your anger erupting and managing it in the moment.
- Discover how to reflect on your anger and decide what to do with it.
- See how you can undo your frustration habit.
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie
- ADHD and Avoiding Negative Thinking Traps – Part 1
- ADHD and Avoiding Negative Thinking Traps – Part 2
Suddenly you explode in anger. You can’t take it back then. Then you might feel regret and maybe even shame. You can learn how to minimize the chances of this happening. 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 reimagining product with ADHD. So you can get what is important to you done without trying to do it like everyone else.
Anger usually feels pretty bad in and of itself. And the regret and shame we may feel later compounds how bad this can ultimately feel. But, though it may not feel good, anger isn’t all bad. Because it may drive you to make positive changes, get out of bad situations or hold other people accountable for their behavior. And that’s definitely a good thing. Yet, if you are frustrated by your tendency to explode in anger, you may just want to get rid of it. That’s not what this episode is going to be about, to be sure. Because, as you know, trying to shove down your anger is a sure recipe for disaster. These efforts will eventually backfire when your anger escalates and/or comes sideways. I’m sure you’ve experienced this on more than one occasion. So, rather than trying to temper down your anger, the better alternative is to acknowledge and accept your anger as information.
So you can better be able to pause in the moment when you are feeling angry. Then get curious about the message your anger is sending you. So you can eventually decide how you want to respond. That is, what do you want to do with your anger? Because it’s almost always best for you to strike when the iron is cool, rather than when it’s hot, right? Let’s start by looking at how you can figure out what your anger is trying to tell you. The first thing to know is that anger’s a secondary feeling. When you’re angry, you’re experiencing some sort of emotional pain, a primary feeling. That is, when you become angry it’s because you’re feeling hurt, disrespected, vulnerable, neglected, marginalized, judged, frustrated, etc. Then when you’re having any one of these feelings, your brain seeks out someone or something to blame. Here’s how it can happen.
Let’s say you’re already anxious because you’re late getting home. Then you get frustrated when somebody cuts you off in traffic. And all of a sudden you’re yelling at the person who cuts you off. Or in a meeting with clients your boss seems to shut you down when you try to give input. You’re feeling disrespected. And then you say something snarky to your boss. Oops. When your friend doesn’t respond to your overtures of text and calls, you may feel hurt. And then, yes, angry. So maybe you decide not to text back when they do respond. Or your colleague, Tia interrupts you while you’re talking. And again, you feel disrespected. So you shut down for the rest of the meeting. You get the idea. One of the keys then to manage your anger is to identify and address these primary feelings. More on how to do this in a bit.
But, as an adult with ADHD, it’s also important to know how your ADHD contributes to your tendency to explode. So then you can consider this information when you eventually devise your workarounds. Remember the primary challenge of ADHD is self-regulation. That is, regulating your attention, your energy, your efforts, your emotions and resources. These regulation skills are your executive functions. Stay with me for just a second for a little bit of jargon about emotional regulation. Here we go. Emotional regulation means a set of abilities that include your capacity to recognize your own and others emotions, adjust your emotional intensity to match the situation, and then modify your emotion reactivity in line with your goals, intentions, and social demands. Whew… That doesn’t always happen for you, right? And because of the struggle with regulating emotions as an ADHD adult, you can experience more frequent and/or more intense anger perhaps than your neurotypical peers.
It’s like the switch is either on or off, but there’s no dimmer switch to modulate your emotions. Let’s look for a second at what’s happening in your brain when you get angry. The Amygdala, which remember is the fight or flight part of your brain, gets activated. It takes over the running of the brain from the Prefrontal Cortex, which is the seat of your executive functions and the part of the brain, which when working can help keep your emotions under control. When the Amygdala takes over your Prefrontal Cortex is temporarily offline. To make this even worse because the Prefrontal Cortex doesn’t operate efficiently for ADHD adults, even under the best of circumstances, due to the lack of neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine and norepinephrine, when the amygdala hijacks the brain, it is even harder for ADHD adults to get their thinking brain, the Prefrontal Cortex back online to help manage emotions.
Obviously, this makes it even harder for you to deal with your anger. And again, makes it even more likely your anger will be, yes, more intense or last longer than your neurotypical peers. I know you’re waiting for the workarounds. We’re getting there. But first, a little bit about frustration, which is a particularly pernicious emotion for ADHD, adults, and the byproduct of not getting what you want or expect. Like when your colleague Tia continuously interrupts you in meetings. If you continue to try to mask your frustration, instead of addressing it, you will likely reach a tipping point. And this is when you can go from frustration to explosive anger, seemingly out of nowhere. But it didn’t really come out of nowhere, right? It builds and builds every time she interrupts you. This propensity for frustration is in part because your ADHD nervous system is always looking for stimulation. But because of the barrier to screen out extraneous stimuli like smells, sounds, sights, touches, taste, and thoughts is inefficient in the ADHD brain, you can become overwhelmed and frustrated easily.
But, while it’s true, your ADHD brain wiring contributes to this predisposition, it has also become a learned behavior. Because not having learned how to manage your frustration has led you to express it often when you don’t get what you want or expect. And this continual expression of your frustration has then cemented your frustration neural pathways. So frustration becomes your brain’s automatic response whenever you hit a roadblock. Because your frustration can turn into explosive anger, if you want to manage your anger, you’ll have to unlearn this frustration habit by replacing it with a new habit, a new way of responding to the daily roadblocks that you’ll inevitably find. Okay, finally, we’re getting to the part you’ve been waiting for. So what do you do to manage your anger? That’s what you really want to know. So let’s get on with it.
The first step you can take is to be proactive and not wait until your anger is welling up inside of you. One way to do this is to practice good self-care, such as eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, getting enough downtime, taking your medication, et cetera. Because you already know from experience that if you’re lacking in any of these or other self-care areas, it’ll be harder to manage your emotional responses, including your anger in any given situation. Another way to be proactive is to prepare in advance how you might respond to situations you know will likely trigger your anger. For example, remember Tia, the colleague who always interrupts you, you could decide the next time Tia and interrupts you you’ll say, “Hey, Tia, I do want to hear what’s on your mind. I just want to finish this thought so I don’t forget. Thanks. Addressing your frustration in this way has the added advantage of hopefully keeping your anger from erupting because you just let your frustration build and build and yes, build. But no matter how proactive you try to be stuff happens.
So, you also want to know how to manage your anger in the moment. To do this, the first step is to be able to recognize the cues that you’re getting angry. These cues could include physical cues, such as a racing, heart breathing fast, like you can’t catch your breath. Maybe it’s tight muscles or feeling hot, maybe even sweating or headache like your head is pounding or pulsating. It could be cognitive cues of revenge, put downs and more. Or maybe it’s behavioral cues, actions, including shutting down retreating, being sarcastic, not making eye contact, or maybe clenching your fist. And, of course, the emotional cues are primary feelings that arise alongside or underneath your anger, like feeling disrespected, humiliated, or rejected, etc. Knowing how to recognize the cues your anger is welling up inside of you is critical. So you can take the next step, which is to heed the warning and hit the pause button.
You just can’t think your way out of anger. You’ve tried to do this. You know, it usually doesn’t work. You need time. So, when you feel the cue your anger is building, pause and 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. I’ve provided a link to a description of how to do this in the resource section with the podcast on my website. If taking a beat and breathing is just not enough to help you feel grounded and able to respond the way you want, you might decide to remove yourself from the situation. You could go to the bathroom, always a socially acceptable excuse, right? Walk or exercise in some other way, if you can. Ask to change the conversation. Alternatively, if you’re in a meeting, maybe taking notes or just observing for a bit, rather than participating in the conversation.
But, whatever you do, give yourself as much time as you need and is possible to think clearly in any way that works for you. So you can cool down. Then, once you feel more grounded and your frontal lobe is back online, get curious about what precipitated the anger. Again, remember, anger is a secondary emotion. So ask yourself what was going on for me. What triggered that? If you need help unpacking this talk to a friend member, coach, or therapist. You may not have the perspective to do it on your own. But maybe after reflecting you discover when Tia interrupts you in the meeting, the first thought that goes through your head is she doesn’t respect me. That is, you personalize it, which is a form of faulty thinking. You might also discover that your next thought is, “she’s a jerk.” This black and white thinking can certainly fuel the fire for your anger, right? I’ve included a link with the podcast on my website to a couple of articles, outlining different types of faulty thinking.
The bottom line is there’s some story you’re telling yourself, maybe because of faulty thinking or not, that leads to the feeling that eventually amps up your anger. And remember, once you’re caught up in these feelings, your brain is on the lookout for someone or something to blame. So you blame Tia for these uncomfortable emotions and that results in your anger, maybe even explosive anger. You get the idea. Once you’ve explored the stories you’re telling yourself that prompted your anger, you can then consider whether there’s an alternative more helpful story that could be true. For example. while certainly ironic, is it possible Tia has ADHD and just blurts out without really thinking. And it really has nothing to do with you? Huh? Could be, huh? As you practice reframing your stories and seeing that there are alternative ones, you’ll be in a better place to respond, rather than exploding with anger.
One way to do this, to be curious about your thoughts is to use a very simple but powerful method of questioning created by Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. There’s a link also to her book in the resource section of the podcast on my website. Let’s go back to the example of Tia, again. Remember the reason you exploded is because you decided she’s interrupting you because she doesn’t respect you. And then you decided she’s a jerk. Using the four questions, you can examine your thoughts and perhaps arrive at an alternative perspective. So the first question is, is it true that Tia doesn’t respect you and she’s a jerk? Well, I guess, yes, it could be true. Second question. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Well, no, maybe she doesn’t have a very good filter. Maybe she’s just excited about her ideas.
Maybe she has ADHD. Third question. How do you react? What happens when you believe the thought that Tia’s disrespecting you and she’s a jerk? Well, you could say to yourself, “I get frustrated that she interrupts me and then I let that simmer until my anger at her comes sideways, which is damaging our working relationship.” The fourth question. Who would you be without those thoughts? Well, I might be more at ease with the interruptions and not jump to conclusions and be better able to think about how to talk to Tia about my concerns with her interruptions. Try using those four questions sometime. And once you’ve explored your thoughts that lead to the primary, including frustration, and then end with anger, you can decide the next step. Maybe all you need to do is reframe your thoughts and there’s nothing left to do. But it’s also possible you want something to change and maybe need to figure out how to request that change, including setting boundaries.
That is, if you’re continually frustrated by Tia’s interruptions and you’re not addressing this with her, then it’s on you. She may not even know it’s a problem for you. It’s certainly not a problem for her, right? So think about whether there’s anything you can and want to do to be more proactive and minimize the chances of exploding in anger. 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 way, this new way over time. And, as you practice this new response, you’ll weaken the neural pathway of automatic frustration and anger by not using it. And will strengthen the new neural pathway for whatever behavior you’re replacing it with every time you practice this new response. So then over time it may become more automatic.
Nice. Right? What are you going to try this week to temper your frustration and/or anger? 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 from today’s podcast, please pass along the link to anyone else in your circles you think might also 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 reimagining productivity with ADHD.