Emotional Dysregulation and ADHD: Why Feelings Overwhelm Us Sometimes

Julia Ovcharenko, CEO of Numo
May 22, 2024

When people talk about ADHD symptoms, they primarily bring up short attention spans, impulsivity, forgetfulness, fidgeting, difficulty organizing, and bad time management. Emotional dysregulation is rarely mentioned, though struggle with emotions is a constant companion of many folks with ADHD throughout their lives. 

Now, you might be wondering why emotional dysregulation often approaches ADHD. Can adults have it? And more importantly, what can you do to handle it? You’re lucky - unraveling the mysteries of emotional dysregulation is our specialty. So, let’s dive into the heart of it!

[What is emotional dysregulation?] What is emotional dysregulation, and how can ADHDers spot it? 

You may think that emotional dysregulation is something incredibly complicated. But if you ever had extreme mood swings, overblown reactions to minor challenges and setbacks, persistent anxiety - you know what emotional dysregulation is. Simply put, it's the struggle to keep your emotional responses in check when faced with external triggers.

Don't get this wrong: occasionally, being dramatic with your emotions is part of the human experience. But when your reactions decide to go rogue and take control of the ship all the time, it starts messing with your well-being.

Kids are more likely to struggle with emotional regulation(1) because they are not yet aware of the techniques to help them manage their emotions; sometimes, emotional regulation issues persist into adulthood. 

How can you recognize if you’re having emotional regulation issues?

  • You have blown out of proportion emotional reactions, or your reactions are incompatible with what caused them.
  • You know you’re overreacting but cannot dial down the emotional intensity.
  • Emotions come crashing like waves, and you can’t distract yourself from them.
  • Negative triggers that would usually warrant an eye roll become the source of intense frustration and annoyance.

[Impact of emotional dysregulation] How can emotional dysregulation impact your life? 

Emotional dysregulation can mess with people’s lives in many ways. While some of these repercussions may lurk beneath the surface, their disruptive potential is anything but subtle.

The delicate fabric of friendships and romantic relationships often finds itself strained under the weight of emotional dysregulation. Ditto for academic life

It’s challenging for ADHDer with emotional dysregulation to follow deadlines and meet professional demands, and they often struggle with managing their stress. 

But wait! There's more 🥴. 

Mental well-being can take a hit, as emotional dysregulation casts doubt on your emotional compass - you can start mistrusting your emotions, even those more in line with the situation. Folks with emotional dysregulation often feel guilt, self-hatred, and shame because of their intense emotions. And this extra dose of negative emotions can lead to depression, sleep disorders, and unhealthy coping mechanisms that exacerbate the regulation issues and can even cause problems with physical health.

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[Causes of emotional dysregulation] What can cause emotional dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is not a symptom-limited to only one condition. There are a few different reasons why someone may develop it.

Sometimes, emotional regulation issues take root in early childhood -  probably ​​the most critical developmental phase in a person's life. So, it is no wonder that psychological traumas that people suffer in this period can lead to long-lasting issues.

Neglect, manifesting in the absence of essential physical, emotional, social, educational, and safety-oriented care during childhood, is also a significant contributor to the development of emotional dysregulation.

Though emotional dysregulation can be a result of a traumatic brain injury, certain disorders often involve it as a symptom. Among them are post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, and, of course, ADHD. 

By the way, don’t forget that you can have several conditions that spark emotional dysregulation; for example, ADHD is often comorbid with anxiety or depression. If you’re struggling with several diagnoses, it may be much more complicated for you to regulate your emotions, especially if one of these conditions is a mood disorder that causes heightened emotions independently. 

[ADHD and emotional dysregulation connection] Why do ADHD and emotion dysregulation often go hand-in-hand?

“It’s all in the brain, right?” Absolutely. Emotional dysregulation in ADHD may arise from deficits at multiple levels. However, the leading causes of ADHD folk’s emotional regulation issues are an overactive amygdala and an underactive frontal cortex (2). 

The amygdala is a tiny structure in our brains responsible for all that is emotion, primarily fear, anger, pleasure, and anxiety. While amygdala responses can alert us when we are unsafe, when it’s overactive, we experience stronger emotions than they should be. Since the amygdala is connected to emotional memories and current feelings, when it’s overactive, it can also trigger vivid memories of similar emotions from our past and overwhelm us even more.

What about the frontal cortex? The frontal cortex plays a vital role in interpreting, expressing, and regulating the emotional reactions triggered by the amygdala(3). When a person’s frontal cortex is underactive, they are more likely to act impulsively and lash out when having an emotional reaction. 

We established the parts of the brain primarily responsible for emotional dysregulation, but it’s worth noting that the many aspects of the neuroscience behind it are still unknown. 

[Emotional dysregulation management] How to manage emotional dysregulation with ADHD?

No pill can make all your emotional regulation issues disappear into the ether. But there are ways to manage them and make them less intense. 

Executive function coaching. You may wonder why an executive functioning coach? Aren’t they working with organization and time-management issues? Surprise - emotional regulation is one of the most crucial executive functions. Also, the lack of self-management skills is often at the root of challenges with self-regulation. So, finding a coach who specializes in these issues can be effective.

Ever heard of CBT or DBT? Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can also be extremely helpful in learning how to cope with and regulate emotions. These schools of treatment are created to teach people to recognize and change negative thought patterns exacerbating emotional reactions.

Mindfulness practices are becoming increasingly popular, which happens for a reason. One of the most essential mindfulness practices is developing awareness of emotions. And it’s a big step in learning to manage them.

In some more intense cases of emotional dysregulation, antidepressant medications can make a big difference. It’s a more heavyweight division of the treatment, but if you’ve been struggling with controlling your emotions, contact your doctor - maybe antidepressants can be a game-changer in your situation.

Don’t forget about diet and exercise. Stop rolling your eyes; they work! Of course, you can’t fix all your problems with diet and exercise, but supporting your physical health can be super beneficial for maintaining a healthy mood and self-care routines. 

You can also start learning to manage your emotions independently by implementing simple but effective practices into your life.

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[ADHD specific steps] How to better regulate emotions with ADHD: 4 easy tips

Not being able to do something, while seemingly everyone around does it naturally and without a thought, can be a bit of a bummer. Especially if this is a very crucial skill. But don’t worry; we have several tricks up our sleeve that you may use to regulate your emotions better.

Pause and get to know your emotions.

Intense emotions can make us more impulsive and prone to lashing out at people. But it’s important to remember that we can take some space and time to regain our composure and observe ourselves.

Learning to step away from the situation and identify your feelings is a significant first step to forming better mental health habits and improving emotional regulation (4). You don’t need to analyze your feelings and judge their validity; you only need to be aware of the different emotions controlling your mind.

Listen to your body and list all of the physical manifestations of your emotions - like trembling hands or racing heartbeat. Try to name the feelings you’re feeling - is it disappointment, shame, anxiety, or something completely different? Pretend you’re studying your emotions like a scientist does with some curious species of bugs. This detachment can reduce the intensity of your feelings and bring you back some control over your mind.

Look at your emotions from another angle.

Emotional dysregulation messes with our ability to adapt to life challenges. When every little change can spark emotional turmoil within you, you start avoiding these changes and get stuck in your ways. And it sucks. 

One of the things you can do to make it a bit easier to deal with is to change your perspective and evaluate the situation in a detached way. Imagine that it’s not you who has been struggling with stressful emotions, but your friend, for example. Think about the advice you can give your friend to help them deal with their issue - you can write down the steps and then try using this advice yourself. It sounds obvious, but sometimes the most obvious solutions escape us.

Be kinder to yourself.

It’s hard not to judge yourself when you’re dealing with emotional dysregulation. But practicing self-compassion instead of self-criticism can immensely change how we feel and react to our emotions. How can you do this?

Set some time for yourself daily to remind yourself that there’s more to you than these emotions. 

You can practice breathing techniques, meditate, or write down some positive self-affirmations. Simple self-care tricks such as a hot bath, a relaxing massage, and cooking for yourself can also enhance your emotional stability.

Make a list of things that can help.

Try to observe yourself for some time and list things that help you calm down when you feel overwhelmed by your emotions. Every situation and emotion needs a unique approach, and some techniques that are helpful for other people may need to work more effectively for you. So, keeping track of practices and tricks that make you feel better and more emotionally stable is necessary. 

It’s essential to write this list down somewhere - you can use the notes app on your phone or write it down in your notebook if you’re used to carrying it. Why? When flooded by emotions, you may not remember some coping mechanisms you can use, and having them handy at all times can bring you a feeling of control.

[Conclusion] Conclusion

To say that emotional dysregulation can be a bit of a bother is not to say anything. Building relationships, maintaining a productive work life, and enjoying living can make it challenging, as every emotion can destabilize and fully engross you. Embracing coping strategies, prioritizing your physical well-being, and diving into therapy can empower you to seize the reins on your emotional rollercoaster, paving the way to a better understanding and appreciation of yourself. 

We hope our explanation has shed light on the basics of emotional dysregulation. For a dive into more entertaining and educational content about the myriad challenges of navigating life with ADHD, consider joining our fantastic app. Enjoy personalized tips from our ADHD gurus, become part of a welcoming community of fellow ADHDers, and much more!


1 Front Psychiatry. Emotional Dysregulation in Children and Adolescents With Psychiatric Disorders. A  Narrative Review
2 American Journal of Psychiatry. Emotional dysregulation and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
3 Iran Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Emotional Intelligence and Prefrontal Cortex: a Comparative Study Based on Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST)
4 Cognition and Emotion. Affect labelling increases the intensity of positive emotions: Cognition and Emotion: Vol 35, No 7
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