The emotional aspect of ADHD is often overlooked when speaking with health care professionals - even though for many ADHD'ers it is actually their most bothersome symptom! Emotional turmoil was what ultimately led to my own diagnosis and emotional regulation is still a constant struggle in my life.
Many people know that ADHD can affect a person’s behavior, temperament, and ability to function well in certain aspects of modern day society. But did you also know how the disorder affects a person emotionally? Some estimate that at least one-third of individuals with ADHD report the emotional aspects of the disorder to be the most impairing of all the symptoms. Wowsa! And yet, clinicians continue to ignore these side effects when conducting ADHD research. In fact, the 18 diagnostic criteria used in diagnosing ADHD does not even mention emotional dysregulation – emotional dysregulation, in case you’re wondering, is just a fancy term for saying your emotional responses are all out of sorts.
This oversight is likely due to the fact that emotional symptoms are not always seen, and cannot be easily measured – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Trust me.
The most common emotional response that afflicts those with ADHD is intense emotional responses, especially those brought on by rejection, loss of love or approval. Sound familiar?
In my case, the emotional toll of ADHD was actually what caused me to seek help, and ultimately led to my diagnosis. I had been struggling to control and understand my complicated and hyper-sensitive emotions for years. Once I got diagnosed, a lot of things started making sense. I realized how important a role emotional dysregulation plays in ADHD and how vital it is that we start having conversations about this!
The fact that doctors and researchers aren’t properly acknowledging the emotional effects of ADHD means that we need to start the conversation. I know what you’re thinking – but how? How do I even begin to find the right words to describe to someone all the chaotic and confusing twists and turns that make up my personal emotional rollercoaster? I get it. I really do. That being said, it gets easier over time, and once you learn to express your feelings, you can then start to understand and treat them.
Here, watch. I’ll go first. A map of my emotional rollercoaster:
This last one is the worst. My ADHD makes me hypersensitive and anxious – because of this, my emotional responses do not always match the trigger. I tend to hyperfocus and ruminate on situations that often aren’t even that bad. Basically, I sweat the small stuff.
Unfortunately, my overreactions have caused a lot of drama in my social life, and my hypersensitivity often leads me to imagine danger where there isn’t any. Sometimes I’ll even be too busy obsessing over a situation I’ve deemed dangerous, that I’ll completely miss the actually dangerous situation I am about to walk into. I’m too busy fiddling with my safety bar, worried it isn’t clicked in right, that I don’t even realize there’s a giant hole in the roller coaster track, and I’m headed straight for it!
It isn’t true that having ADHD automatically makes you a bad partner, but my struggle with emotional regulation has affected my relationships in the past.
A few years back, I had a boyfriend who was a complete narcissist. He was entirely self-absorbed, but, for some reason, on some unhealthy level, I looked up to him. I needed his affection, his validation. Not having it made me feel like I could not go on. When the relationship ended, I obviously lost all of that which I so eagerly sought, and it put me in a terrible state of mind. Even though I knew the relationship was terrible, and he wasn’t even that great of a person, I still wanted his approval. I needed it. I started obsessing over the whole situation and began spiraling down a dangerous path. I was completely out of balance with the world, myself, and with reality in general. Got fired from my job. Started abusing sleeping pills because when I was awake, I was in a constant state of anguish. I would get totally fucked up on the weekends, and act crazy, leading to excruciating moral hangovers come Monday morning. My demise was evident but as bad as things got, they eventually forced me to seek help, and, thankfully, led to my eventual ADHD diagnosis.
This is not to say that my entire emotional state and my unhealthy obsession with approval is solely caused by my ADHD. I was bullied a lot as a kid, which has made me, in my adult years, hungry for attention, support, and love. So hungry, in fact, that I seem to always be seeking it out. There is always a voice in the back of my head, instructing me as to how I might win the approval of those surrounding me. And that same voice turns on me when it appears I have been unsuccessful in winning someone’s much-needed approval. Honestly, I never know any peace.
But wait, here’s the fun part: it’s actually a condition and this condition has a name – rejection-sensitive dysphoria – and it is very common in people with ADHD. According to ADDitude Magazine, rejection-sensitive dysphoria is “an extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain triggered by the perception – not necessarily the reality – that a person has been rejected, teased, or criticized by important people in their life.” The onset of RSD is often very sudden, and it can be completely debilitating.
But don’t worry, there’s hope! There are two potential treatments for RSD. In combination with these medicinal treatments, most people find it incredibly helpful to approach the problem therapeutically as well.
The emotional aspects of my ADHD still remain the most disruptive, however, this is the area of my journey in which I have also made the most progress. (Having the most loving and adoring fiance in the world definitely helps a lot) But I have also learned to talk about my emotions with those I trust – knowing that if I bring my thoughts and feelings out into the open and discuss them with someone, I can often stop the intense feelings before they begin to take on a life of their own. Because of my hypersensitivity, I am usually very in tune with other people’s state of mind, but I am working on finding a balance between being intuitive and putting others’ emotional woes on my own shoulders. I just have to remember not to take everything so damn personally and continue to value myself, so that one day, hopefully, I won’t have to look to anyone else to give me the approval, love, and acceptance that I know I deserve. Hopefully, one day, my own self-love will be enough. Corny, I know – but so true.