What Is Emotional Dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is an impaired ability to control emotions. An individual with emotional dysregulation can have intense mood swings, and their emotional reactions may seem more extreme than what the situation calls for. Emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, and irritability can be especially triggering for someone with this impairment.

Some of the signs of emotional dysregulation include:

  • Low tolerance for irritating situations
  • Being prone to emotional outbursts
  • Significant mood swings 
  • Feeling overwhelmed by emotions
  • Trouble calming down after experiencing intense emotions

For someone with emotional dysregulation, it’s hard to get past what triggered their emotions in the first place. They may struggle to put the situation into perspective in order to modulate their emotions appropriately, and they can become fixated on the issue that caused a change in their mood.

Why Do People with ADHD Have Intense Emotions?

Emotional regulation doesn’t come easily for people with ADHD. This is due to a slight difference in ADHD brains compared to the brains of neurotypical folks. The amygdala is the part of the brain which manages emotional responses and decision making. When something causes anger or worry, the amygdala relays the message to the cerebral cortex, which helps to modulate an individual’s emotional reaction.

For most people, this is a pretty effective system. But for those with ADHD, the connection between these two areas of the brain is weak. As a result, an ADHD individual might have a reaction that is more unfiltered in the moment, and then struggle to regain their composure. In some cases, they may even go into shutdown mode and just freeze up.

To be clear, emotional dysregulation doesn’t only affect people with ADHD. However, because of the way an ADHD brain works, it tends to be relatively common among those with the condition. Various studies have estimated the rate of impairing emotional dysregulation among adults with ADHD to be as high as around 70%.

Effects of Emotional Dysregulation

Unfortunately, emotional dysregulation can create a lot of difficulty for people with ADHD. Intense emotional reactions have the potential to cause challenges in just about every area of life. For example, if you tend to have outbursts in situations most people find only mildly irritating or frustrating, it could make it harder to develop strong interpersonal relationships. It could put stress on your marriage or cause friends to pull away. At work, mood swings could impact your performance and create hostility among your coworkers.

On a personal level, intense emotions can also put a strain on your mental and physical wellbeing. Emotional reactivity could cause you to have trouble sleeping or increase the risk of developing a substance abuse problem. It also makes it harder to develop important skills, like conflict resolution and resiliency.

Tips for Managing Your Emotions with ADHD

While emotional dysregulation is difficult to deal with, the good news is that there are many strategies you can use to help modulate your emotions on a day-to-day basis. Use these tips to keep a cooler head in situations that might otherwise set you off.

Treat your ADHD

Finding the right treatment is the first step in managing your emotions more effectively. Studies have found that emotional dysregulation improves significantly in adults who take certain medications for ADHD. Attending therapy can also help you to learn important coping skills for managing your emotions in stressful situations.

Find an outlet

For some people with emotional dysregulation, it helps to have an outlet to turn to when emotions feel overwhelming. This may dissipate the intensity of their emotions and allow them to successfully refocus their attention so they’re not fixating on whatever triggered an outburst.

For example, listening to music or playing an instrument might help relieve tension and irritability. Perhaps you’ll feel better if you channel your energy into exercise, like lifting weights or going for a run. Think about what type of outlet might help you the most and try to apply it when you feel emotionally sensitive.

Write it down

Putting your feelings down on paper can be a great way to process your emotions and better understand your own emotional dysregulation. Try writing out the answers to the following questions during or after an emotional reaction:

  • What caused your mood to shift?
  • What kinds of emotions did it trigger?
  • How did you react to the situation?
  • What were the consequences of that reaction?
  • How do you wish you would have responded?

Journaling about each of these questions can help you to gain perspective on the situation and learn from past mistakes. With practice, you may become more aware of your feelings in the moments and better able to react in a measured way.