Emotional Regulation for Adults

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

Do you need a plan?

If you are an adult ADHDer who has trouble with regulating emotions or holding back feelings when you want to be overly expressive, then I'm sure you've already experienced the embarrassment or guilt that can come from outwardly overreacting to something in front of the wrong people. This particular symptom tends to cost ADHDers their jobs, relationships, and credibility. This is one of the most devastating symptoms of ADHD, but there is hope.

What is the plan?

As adults, we must be tackling our emotions both before the explosion and after. Emotions eat up our executive fuel tanks faster than any other executive function, and when that tank runs out whoever is in closest proximity, regardless of that person's importance, is going to get the brunt of our anger. It could be a lover, a friend, a boss, or a store clerk. That person is going to get hurt, and if we are constantly putting our friends and family on the firing squad, it's emotional abuse.

If you struggle with other strong emotions like excitement or anxiety, these tips can help you come down from these, too.

Pre-blowout Plan

We as ADHDers must be keeping our executive function tank full. When our blood sugar or neurotransmitters start to run low, that can spell disaster. So we need to plan accordingly.

1) Before you go to bed, make sure you plan for the next day and set anything you need the next day in a box or where you get dressed. This will save you time, energy, and frustration before you head out the door. If there are certain daily actions that you need to do, make a morning checklist, and set that on top of your items for the next day. If you use a bullet journal, it can be one of the pages in there, but it needs to be accessible.

    2) Plan for transitions between your tasks. If you don't always get to choose how long you work on something, but if you need to switch from one project to another, or you need to take a break, get up and go to the bathroom or get a drink. This will help you start to put your mind in the right place and let you come back to your chair without forcing yourself to switch over before you're ready. It will also help you refuel the tank a bit before jumping into another mentally taxing task.

    3) For long meetings, plan on having a sweet drink with you. Studies have shown that more blood glucose in the brain can boost executive function and keep you from zoning out as much. Try keeping individual drink mix pouches at your desk for a boost when getting up isn't an option.

    4) Use your break time to refuel your break with mindfulness or stretching. Studies have shown that exercise and mindfulness can help to boost dopamine, one of the chemicals that causes problems in ADHD brains. You don't need to run around the block, but going for a walk around your building or sitting on a bench and listening to a guided meditation will help you come back to work with less stress.

    5) Set a timer that buzzes periodically to remind you to check your emotional temperature (below) and make sure that you're staying in an optimal place for work.

When You Feel the Tank Running Out

If you can't walk away from whatever is causing intense feelings on any part of the spectrum, it's important to have a way to deal with those feelings. So, I've modified something that my son uses to help with his emotions to make it a bit more... well, adult. It ranks the energy behind your emotions and lets you find a strategy that works for you.

  • Hot means that you have a very high emotional energy level. You are unable to listen (process what someone else is saying). Some emotions that you might feel when you're hot are anger, ecstasy, aggression, afraid, or tense. When you're feeling hot a few things you can do to lower your temperature are: walk away, take a break, exercise, take deep breaths, or do Butterfly Hugs.

  • Warm means you have a high emotional energy level. You are only partially able to listen.  Distracted, excited, overwhelmed, playful, frustrated, and annoyed are all feelings associated with being warm. Deep breaths, seated Cat/Cows (Small Yoga), mental pep-talks, sweet drinks, fidget tools are a great way to take the edge off when you're feeling warm.

  • Cool is the optimal temperature for working. In this state you are fully listening, calm, content, and focused. Work, listen to others, and think productively while it lasts!

  • Cold is when you have a low energy level. In this state, you have impaired listening. You might feel tired, sad, sick, bored, or hurt. To bring up your energy levels you can stretch, write down your feelings, take some deep breaths, give yourself a mental pep-talk, or have a sweet drink.

You can pick your own strategies, but keep a copy of your own temperature strategies either near your desk or in your pocket so you can reference it throughout the day. The goal is to stay as close to "Cool" as possible.

How Your Feelings Affect Others

I want you to imagine that you and the people physically around you are rocks in a pot of water. If everyone in the pot is cool, the temperature doesn't change. If someone is cold, it lowers the temperature in the pot and makes everyone a little colder. If someone is warm or hot, that raises the temperature of the pot. When your emotions are uncontrolled, everyone else is involuntarily moved to whatever temperature you are at. That's not to say that they will have the same emotion, but if you are distracted (warm) and chatting with your neighbor who is trying to work they will become annoyed (warm). If you are sad (cold) then they may come over to comfort you and become sad themselves. The further someone is away from you physically, the less they change, but if it doesn't change over time it can affect the entire workplace.

Take Away

It's unlikely that an entire workplace will stay entirely "cool", but it's up to each individual to moderate their own temperature as best as they can. If you encounter someone whose emotional temperature isn't optimal, you can talk to them to try and help, or disengage if you feel your temperature moving too far in any direction. Check-in with yourself throughout the day and see where you're at, and whether it's the place you want to be in that moment. Use strategies to make sure your executive function fuel tank stays full before your temperature changes.

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