Our emotional landscape dictates how we experience the world. For most people, this landscape is composed of gently rolling hills and valleys. Moods go up and down in relation to the world around us.

Yet, for ADHD people, our landscape is often a scene of mountains reaching towards the sky and canyons torn deep into the earth. Our emotions can soar to the top of the world or plummet through the center of the earth. Our moods shift and change in relation to the world around us, but these shifts carry us further. Happy things send us flying. Bad things cast us into the darkest pit. These emotions are based on real things and are likely the emotions that many others would feel in the same situation, except, ours go so much further.

Does this feel familiar? If you’re someone with ADHD (or autism or bipolar or borderline or (c)PTSD or narcissistic personality disorder), then you likely relate to an emotional landscape full of deep pits and soaring mountains.

But, why? As we’ve covered in previous posts in this series, the symptoms used for diagnosis revolve around inattention and hyperactivity. After all, it’s called Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Nothing there suggests a tie to emotions.

Yet, emotions are a huge part of ADHD, one that has gone unrecognized for far too long. ADHD people tend to experience the world in extremes. We aren’t just happy, we’re ecstatic. We aren’t just sad, we fall down into the darkness so that light is but a distant memory. Our emotions are a rollercoaster most people would be afraid to ride.

While many, including those diagnosed with ADHD, are unaware of a connection between the condition and emotions, this has become a growing area of research. Many researchers are now looking at the links between ADHD and emotional dysregulation as well as how to treat it.

What is emotional dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is the inability to properly modulate and regulate emotions [source]. This often presents as excessive emotional expression and experience, rapid shifts in emotion, and over-attention to emotional stimuli. [source]

So, now that we’ve got the more clinical definition out of the way, let’s take a look at what emotional dysregulation really is.

In simple terms, emotional dysregulation is the inability to control our emotions. Basically, most people are able to regulate themselves to keep their emotions within a reasonable range for a given situation, but for those of use with emotional dysregulation, we lack the tools to manage this which often results in emotions that may seem extreme for a situation.

Emotional control is usually managed through self-regulation, which is something ADHD people tend to struggle with. The steps of emotional self-regulation are as follows:

  1. Inhibition
  2. Self-soothing
  3. Refocusing attention
  4. Taking action in line with goals.

These are all things that ADHD brains tend to struggle with. Inhibition is the process of countering impulses which is kind of that whole thing we struggle with due to impulsivity. Many of us have methods of self-soothing, however, these methods aren’t very good for us and may be ineffective, particularly if we’re using methods aimed at neurotypicals which is like putting a band aid on a gaping wound as these methods are aimed at self-soothing typical levels of emotion. Then we get to refocusing attention which is that thing we struggle with that is literally part of the definition of ADHD. Finally, in order to take action in line with our goals, we need to remember what our goals are, remember similar situations and how we reacted, remember how people responded to our reaction, and more. Basically, it’s a whole bunch of stuff ADHD brains tend to not be so good at.

With all this in mind, it begins to make sense that ADHD involves extreme emotions. The same symptoms that got us diagnosed with ADHD play into how we are able to control our emotions, i.e. we generally can’t.

So, it’s all hopeless? There’s nothing I can do to control my emotions?

Not at all! While we naturally struggle with emotional regulation (or just have none), there are definitely things we can do to help. From medications to therapy to work you can do on your own, there are a lot of ways we can work with our emotions to help avoid such extremes. We’ll be discussing these methods in the next installment of Adulting With ADHD.

Ok, but how do I know if the emotional extremes I experience are related to ADHD or a mood disorder?

Many ADHD people have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, or a personality disorder either in addition to ADHD or instead of ADHD. This makes sense when we consider that, until recently, many were unaware of the emotional aspects of ADHD.

So, how do we know if it’s ADHD, bipolar, or both?

Let’s look at bipolar a bit. To be diagnosed with bipolar, a person must experience depressive episodes and manic or hypomanic episodes. To count towards diagnosis, a depressive episode must last at least two weeks and a manic or hypomanic episode must last at least four days.

This is drastically different than the emotional instability that typically accompanies ADHD. With ADHD, emotions tend to fluctuate within a day rather than lasting long enough to count as a mood episode for bipolar disorder.

In this regard, it can be easy to distinguish between ADHD’s emotional dysregulation and the mood swings of bipolar.

However, it can get complicated for those who actually are both bipolar and ADHD. Personally, I am schizoaffective bipolar type and I experience all sorts of emotional difficulties. Typically, throughout a single day, I’ll have multiple intense mood swings, going from laughing with friends to sobbing within minutes. These short-lived emotional swings are an aspect of my ADHD. However, I also experience depression that will last for weeks or even months. I’ve had manic and hypomanic episodes that have lasted for over a week. Yet, even within the midst of a mood episode, I’ll often still experience intense fluctuations in my emotions as the bipolar and ADHD interact.

For more information on the differences and similarities between ADHD and bipolar, check out Where ADHD and Bipolar Disorder Overlap.


That’s all for now folks! Tune in next time to learn how to deal with the emotional bullshit.

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