Strategies for Navigating the Emotional Rollercoaster of ADHD
🎭 Intense emotions spark intense reactions
I’ve been reworking parts of my book this week, specifically spending some time on a chapter about how ADHD affects emotional regulation.
People with ADHD feel emotions intensely, and we react to those feelings with an equal intensity. Maybe anger sends you to a boiling point, or a moment of sadness causes you to immediately burst into tears.
You might even get so excited by moments of joy that others tell you to calm down.
First of all, rude.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with experiencing emotion this way—emotions themselves aren’t inherently good or bad—the reactions they provoke can often get us into trouble or lead to regret.
So what can we do to better manage our intense reactions?
Stanford professor James Gross identifies five strategies for managing emotions: situation selection, situation modification, attention deployment, cognitive change or reappraisal, and response modification.
I think of these strategies kind of like planning a vacation. While you can’t control every aspect of how a vacation will go, there are some things we can do to better ensure a successful and memorable time no matter what happens.
(Is it weird to apply a theme of travel to managing emotions? Maybe, but it makes it more memorable for me, and hopefully for you as well. I just have a hard time getting excited about “attention deployment” or “response modification.” But a good road trip I can get behind!)
Alright, buckle up. Let’s dive in.
1. Choose your destination (situation selection)
If you despise cold weather, vacationing in the Alps might not be ideal. In the same way, you should pay attention to the situations you choose to put yourself in, avoiding those you know are likely to trigger a negative emotional reaction.
It’s all about choosing to control the things you actually can control.
Maybe large crowds make you feel overwhelmed. If so, stick to small gatherings with close friends instead. If talking politics with coworkers has set you off in the past, try to avoid bringing up those topics yourself.
Certain people might be best avoided as well… 😬
2. Adjust your route (situation modification)
Sometimes a situation can’t be entirely avoided, but small tweaks can make it a lot more comfortable—like choosing longer but less crowded routes to avoid frustrating traffic, or taking a detour when you need a break.
If your work environment is noisy and stressful, consider noise-canceling headphones. If you’re feeling anxious in a meeting or conversation, excuse yourself to go to the restroom or refill your water. The goal is to change the structure of a negative situation, to help keep you from immediately reacting to a situation in a way you may later regret.
I’ve had situations where a coworker or boss said something that offended me, and when I respond in the heat of that moment, I end up saying things I later regret. Rather than respond immediately when the emotion has that intense energy, taking a break would help me gain perspective and lower the chance of saying something I wish I hadn’t.
It might also be worth looking into workplace accommodations that could benefit you, helping modify your work environment for better focus and less frustration. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has a great resource for ADHD-related work accommodations:
And for those in school, here are a couple additional resources for classroom accommodations:
3. Shift your view (attention deployment)
Rather than focusing on the drudgery of a long drive, you can choose to focus instead on appreciating the beauty of scenery along the way. What we choose to pay attention to often leads to how we emotionally respond to a situation.
Though saying that we “choose” to pay attention may not be the best way to describe it.
It usually doesn’t feel like a choice, which is partly why this gets us into trouble.
That decision often seems to have been made for us, and we’re drawn to the most interesting or exciting thing happening in the room, good or bad. Making a choice to pay attention to something different is the hard part. But it’s not impossible.
This is where mindfulness exercises can help a lot.
If you groaned at the mention of mindfulness—believe me, I get it! I’ve often rolled my eyes when I heard mindfulness suggested in the past. It never seemed to be something that was compatible with my brain.
But mindfulness doesn’t need to look the same way for everyone. My friend Stephen Scott is a meditation teacher and we talked about finding what works for your brain in an episode of the ADHD Nerds podcast:
At its core, being mindful just means taking the time to be aware of what you’re sensing or feeling. Pause and assess what is happening, rather than just reacting.
The more we practice something like being mindful—however that looks for us—the more likely it is that we’ll be able to access that calmer approach when needed.
When we actively consider what we’re paying attention to, we can become familiar with the feeling of directing our attention, and making the choice to focus on something more positive becomes much more possible.
4. Enjoy the journey (cognitive change or reappraisal)
Another approach, rather than shifting your attention to something else, is finding to find a positive appreciation of the situation and enjoying the journey even when the details don’t work out as you’d hoped.
Again, this isn’t meant to be an easy fix. Trying to change your appraisal of a situation is hard work. Especially once we’ve developed habits of seeing things a certain way.
But it’s not just always being positive about everything or embracing some sort of toxic positivity.
It’s more about choosing to frame things in a way that highlights the positive and allows you to enjoy the journey and change the narrative. This narrative shift can change our emotional response to a situation.
5. Weathering the storms (response modification)
While enjoying the journey is about changing how we think about a situation, weathering the storms is about how we react and respond when a situation is hit by stormy weather.
When it starts pouring rain in the middle of your trip—ruining your plans for the day—it might be difficult to just “enjoy the journey.”
I’ll be honest, this strategy isn’t great.
It’s basically a last-ditch effort to avoid saying or doing something you’ll regret.
You’re effectively trying to change or suppress your emotional response once that emotion has been activated: holding in tears when you’re upset, trying to keep a straight face when you’re seething, etc.
This is a place where breathing exercises and mindfulness could play a part. I’ve also heard good things about CBT therapy (though I can’t speak from personal experience).
Specifically for rejection sensitivity—an extremely common form of emotional dysregulation for people with ADHD—I cover a lot of what that looks like and strategies you can use when it strikes in this video:
All of this said, I think it’s important to mention that emotions are incredibly complex and show up differently for everyone. Examples I’ve suggested here might not make sense to you, and that’s alright.
I’m hoping to help suggest ideas so you can explore what will work for you—and if you have something great, please share!
Jesse J. Anderson
P.S. I have some friends doing incredible things, and a couple of them have been hard at work developing some really cool technical courses. These aren’t ADHD-related at all, but for the more technically-curious, my friends Geo and Mike are both excellent teachers and will help make you a pro in their respective areas!
Build it with Phoenix (by Geoffrey Lessel) is an in-depth video course teaching you Elixir and the Phoenix framework by creating an actual application from start to feature-rich. He literally wrote the book on Phoenix (Phoenix in Action) and you can sign up for his course now to get an early-access discount.
Obsidian University (by Mike Schmitz) is a cohort-based 4-week PKM training program to help you hit the ground running with Obsidian and make the most of your notes and ideas.
P.P.S. It’s my birthday today! If you want to get me a gift, you can gift an Extra Focus subscription to a friend or family member you think could benefit from it. 😅 Thanks for reading! 🎂
Things that grabbed my attention this week. A bit of 🎶 🕺 and a bit of 💤 🛌.