Living Skillfully with Emotions

ADHD researchers and experts like Dr. Russell Barkley and Dr. Thomas Brown have suggested for years that emotion regulation problems are prevalent in adults with ADHD. Although they do not appear in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual) among the specific criteria for making the ADHD diagnosis, they are almost as prevalent as the inattentive symptoms of ADHD and more prevalent than the hyperactive/impulsive symptoms, according to Dr. Barkley. He says that most adults with ADHD report having problems with being easily annoyed, impatient, quick to anger, easily frustrated, overreacting, and easily excited.

Living well with ADHD does not mean”controlling” feelings, but learning to observe and tolerate them, and most importantly, knowing the difference between feelings and thoughts. When I have asked clients what they felt in situations that they have described to me, they almost always answer with a thought instead (e.g., “I felt like my husband was just refusing to listen to me,” rather than, “I felt angry.”). When we experience an abrupt shift in our emotional state, the physical sensations in our bodies deserve our respect and acceptance, but we often react from our story line—the meaning we make from those feelings. We are more likely to respond throughfully when we first pause to observe our mental activity.

You can only feel what you feel, no matter that your well-meaning parents may have tried to teach you otherwise (“Cheer up, you have no reason to be depressed…don’t be afraid…don’t be so angry.”). Unless you have an untreated mood disorder, feelings are not a problem; wishing not to have them is. When we wish not to have a particular feeling, we are likely to look outside our own minds for the assumed source of our mental anguish. We are at risk for an impulsive outburst.

No doubt, our feelings often serve us to assert ourselves or solve a real problem. But the stronger the feeling, the more we are at risk of reacting impulsively—from the feeling—rather than observing it without judgment and proceeding thoughtfully. When we simply observe the feeling first, with acceptance and curiosity, we are more likely to respond to situations with equanimity, which is a nice word for balance of emotions and thought.

In my support group last night, participants suggested a number of ways to respond skillfully to strong feelings:

Take a deep breath before speaking or acting.
Exhale consciously, exaggerating and extending it like a long sigh.
Practice meditation routinely (emphasis on practice).
Practice accepting and respecting your feelings.
Pay attention to the physical sensations of your feelings.
Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?”
Observe your reactions (e.g., observe that you are “white knuckling your steering wheel” in traffic).
Breathe deeply when stopped at a red light (They are supposed to turn red sometimes!).

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