Taming Emotional Triggers with an ADHD Brain: How to understand big feelings and respond differently

ADHD teen holding his hand in frustration as he looks at his laptopWhen you live with ADHD, you live with the challenge of managing strong emotions. Whether you are a child, teen or adult, it can be tough to regulate how you process your feelings–psychologically, cognitively or behaviorally. The ADHD brain, with its ‘now/not now’ orientation, may not be attuned to feelings that are simmering under the surface until the pressure is too great, something brings them to awareness and the dam bursts. Flooding, a common experience for folks with ADHD, results from the combination of intense and usually overwhelming internal and external stimulation in a world that’s not designed for neurodivergent brains. Learning how to identify and respond to emotional triggers more intentionally will help you feel better about yourself, improve social relationships and increase productivity.

Big emotions are part of being human

Experiencing big emotions is a part of life. The oldest emotions—fear, anger, anxiety—developed to keep us safe by cueing us that there is something threatening our survival or social standing. Emotions help us create and store memories, build social networks and develop self-confidence. They are fundamentally integrated with memory, action and learning, and the brain attaches emotion to help us prioritize what’s needed to stay safe. Strong emotions highlight what’s important and cue us to pay attention to what’s happening in real time. They can also assist people with processing a painful past event.

The amgydala and the fight, flight or freeze response

Let’s look briefly at how the trigger system work in the brain and body. Reducing reactivity means understanding the “amygdala hijack” as a gateway for improving self-regulation (Goleman, D. (1995, 2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.” New York: Bantam Books).

Inside the emotional center of our brains (the limbic system) lies the amygdala. It acts as the brain’s alarm system, setting off the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. When the amygdala senses danger, real or imagined, it jumps into action and tells the rest of the brain and the body to run from danger or fight it. That’s when you feel a rush of adrenaline, a faster heartbeat and shorter breaths–a knee-jerk reaction within milliseconds of sensing a disturbance. When the amygdala becomes activated, the thinking brain (your prefrontal cortex) goes temporarily offline, and feelings rule the day.

Calming down emotional responses: Neurotypical brains vs. ADHD brains

In neurotypical brains, executive functioning skills help the amygdala calm down by engaging language to name the feelings instead of just experiencing them. This also helps people step back to more clearly assess the situation and find solutions. In ADHD brains, however, the executive functioning skills–that are already working hard to accomplish and maintain daily life tasks–struggle with the extra burden of effectively dealing with a rush of strong emotions. This means that you’ll often react more quickly and with volatility instead of responding with consideration.

Managing emotional triggers with ADHD

1. Learn to recognize emotional triggers with body awareness

woman holding her hand on her head, looking upset while on the phone outsideOne of the first steps toward improving emotional regulation and taming your triggers is to notice the physiological signs that the amygdala is gearing up. What are the physical symptoms that let you know something is askew? Increased heart rate, tense muscles, shallow breathing, perspiration or nausea are all signs that you are entering a fight, fight or freeze zone.

It’s really important to distinguish if what’s setting you off is a real emergency or a perceived but not imminent danger. You may feel the pressing need to act, but that urgency is usually a sign, a red flag that you are into an amygdala takeover. It’s a signal to address any actual dangers facing you or turn down the noise in your head related to discomfort, insecurity or agitation.

This is a huge task for many people, with and without ADHD. Anxiety, anger or hurt can seem like pressing dangers to our wellbeing and threaten our coping strategies. Practicing your ability to notice what’s going on in your body, in your mind and in your environment requires patience, insight and self-acceptance. These are skills which develop over time, sometimes a lifetime, for so many of us. Being compassionate with ourselves, our partners and our children is what’s called for–not the expectation of perfection. We want to foster a growth mindset, one that understands stumbling and focuses on regrouping instead of criticism or intolerance.

2. Pre-plan coping strategies for emotional triggers

When someone is triggered, they need to rely on a pre-planned strategy to help them get through those tough times. Try these tips:

1. Breathe:

Breathing sends a message to your amygdala to slow down and cools off the body’s alarm system. Try alternate nostril breathing, triangle breathing (inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 6, pause empty) or belly breathing. Do any of these breathing techniques about 5 times at a pace that feels best for you.

2. Change your environment:

Sometimes you need to leave a situation to compose yourself or assess what is going on. A quick trip to the bathroom, stepping outside for a breath of fresh air, opening a window, getting a glass of water, taking a quick walk or breaking out some stretches or yoga can assist you in recalibrating. Maybe even consider giving or asking for a hug.

3. Create some go-to phrases to say to other people:

two professional men sitting having an argument at a table

It’s much better to articulate that you are feeling distressed instead of blurting something out that you will later regret. As you’re reading this, what words come to mind that can summarize how you feel without oversharing or dumping?

Here are some suggestions:

    • I’m not comfortable with the direction this is headed. Can we start over? 
    • I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, let me get back to you.
    • Let’s pause for a moment and regroup.
    • I need to use the bathroom.
    • This is upsetting me. I’d like to settle for a minute before we continue.

4. Brainstorm soothing statements you can say to yourself:

When you talk back to the negative voices that perpetuate anger, anxiety or shame, you offer yourself compassion, reassurance and kindness. This both acknowledges your feelings and helps you settle down. Here are some examples:

woman sitting on the ground back to back with her partner, looking upset but thinking

    • It’s okay to feel unsure or uncomfortable.
    • I am rooting for me.
    • This feeling really hurts right now; it will pass if I can tolerate it instead of ignoring it.
    • I can notice my (anger, disappointment, concern or frustration) without acting on it.
    • I have been here before, and I have the skills and resources to manage this.
    • Being human means making mistakes, regrouping and learning from them.
    • I am calm; I am safe.
    • It’s okay to ask for help. 
    • I can feel my physical sensations, give them attention and allow them to change.

When you understand how strong emotions work in ADHD brains, see how big feelings influence thoughts and behaviors, and learn tools to comfort yourself, you don’t just tame your triggers; you learn to pivot from reacting to responding.

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