The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: emotional regulation

When you’re not yourself

During an emotional meltdown, part of us really does disappear. My two-year-old gave me a powerful reminder of this while we were staying with friends for the weekend.

R — exhausted from days of fun and social interaction — totally lost it getting ready for nap. We were in full meltdown mode. I just sat in the middle of the room and tried to remain calm as he sobbed, crawled in circles, and screamed incoherent sentences.

The crying eventually subsided. R opened his eyes, looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time, smiled, and said…

“Hi.”

Hi. As though he had just returned from Somewhere Else. In a way, he had.

When your rational brain checks out

It happens to grownups, too. I especially like how Dr. Mark Goulston describes this phenomenon in his book Just Listen.  He refers to our “three-part brain” as:

  • The lower reptilian brain (fight-or-flight),
  • The middle mammal brain (emotions), and
  • The higher primate brain (logic and rational thought)

These parts were added on sequentially as we evolved. For a real-life illustration, spend some time with babies and toddlers. In his classic Happiest Toddler on the BlockDr. Harvey Karp compares toddlers to “primitive little cavemen” living a “superfast rerun of ancient human development.”

As adults, Goulston says, these three parts of our brain can work as a team. However, add a little stress and our old reptile brain takes over.

“If you’re talking to [someone] whose lower brain or midbrain is in control,” explains Goulston, “you’re talking to a cornered snake or, at best, a hysterical rabbit.”

The biggest mistake we make in our ADHD household? Assuming someone is thinking rationally — with our primate brain — when we’re not.

not yourself pull quote

Your reptile brain deserves some space

When I’m feeling like that cornered snake or hysterical rabbit — not sure which is worse — the critical next step is telling myself, you’re not yourself right now. Or, more accurately, I’m the last person I want handling an important decision or conversation.

I’ve learned it’s best to honor where I am at the moment and give myself space to cool down. Naming feelings helps a lot. Try it next time you’re in emotional or fight-or-flight mode: say — aloud or to yourself — I’m feeling really out of control. That comment was really hurtful. Wow, I’m so angry. Listening to my child cry is sending my stress hormones through the roof.

It’s a hard skill to learn, and it requires practice. My brain loves to trick me into justifying extreme emotions or, even worse, sticking it out in an argument despite feeling hysterical.

This is almost always a terrible idea, especially given ADHD’s effects on emotional regulation. Emotional control is often lacking in ADHD adults. “Without well-developed verbal and nonverbal working memory,” explains Dr. Russell Barkley in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, “you have less capacity for the visual imagery and self-speech that can help you calm your emotions.”

If you’re in a relationship with an ADHD adult, this emotional reactivity may be all too familiar. In Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?Gina Pera describes “a tendency to become easily frustrated and growl or blow up, but react 10 minutes later with over-the-top excitement to something else.”

This describes me to a T. My rational brain can be a real diva. It’s ready to walk off the stage at any moment, leaving me to yell the exact wrong thing at my husband, boss, or kid. Once I’m entrenched in a conflict, I forget how I even got there.

It’s tough to counter this. The first step is noticing it’s happening. Intense emotions are, most of the time, an indication that I need to back off. It’s not the time to work through an important issue with my husband, make decisions, or provide my opinion on someone else’s behavior. A poor grasp of time makes it tough to defer these things. Right Now can be the only time that feels real.

But defer we must, if we want to maintain healthy relationships. It’s okay to be upset, and it never hurts to ask, “can we talk about this a little later?” It’s not okay to explode at someone, say a lot of really upsetting things to them, and later claim you have no memory of what happened. My life has been a lot of the former and not enough of the latter, but I’m working on it.

How about you? How do you minimize the damage when your rational brain shuts down?

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestGoogle GmailInstapaperBufferRedditTumblrStumbleUponShare

Use a signal for bad ADHD behavior…and don’t forget to laugh.

Sometimes — maybe even most times — we don’t realize we’re making a scene until it’s too late.

Many ADHD adults are plagued by emotional reactivity, impulsive outbursts, and overreactions. Dr. Michele Novotni, author of What does everybody else know that I don’t?: Social skills help for adults with ADHD, describes this behavior as “ready, fire, aim.” We progress so quickly from stimulus to response, we don’t understand the meaning of the phrase think before you speak.

This is a source of anger and embarrassment for our long-suffering spouses, especially in group social settings.

Angry outbursts at home leave our partners feeling hurt and confused. Paradoxically, these outbursts often lead to periods of calm, and we may not understand why our spouse is still hurting. “Your angry thoughts are like a flash flood,” writes Novotni, “rushing through gullies and then quickly drying up again.”

Granted, overreactions can be funny. I’ll never live down the time I placed my hands over my ears and wailed “I’m so confused!” in the middle of a discussion at the office. They can also propel a situation from mundane to catastrophic in a split second.

These moments don’t need to be a runaway train. You can install an emergency brake: a signal that communicates hey, you’re doing it again instantly and wordlessly.

Words can put an already volatile ADHD’er on the defensive, especially if you’re tempted to say exactly what you’re thinking. Look for a discreet hand sign or gesture. Make sure it’s something you both feel okay about and, ideally, will smirk at even if you’re angry. “Instead of criticism and belittlement, try humor,” suggests Gina Pera in Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

Our outburst signal was born years ago, at the dinner table. I don’t remember what provoked me. Maybe I’d had a long day at work. Maybe the salt shaker fell over. It doesn’t matter. What matters is I pounded my fist on the table so hard, several months’ worth of crumbs ejected from the crack where the leaves join together.

A tense silence stretched between us as we stared at the line of food bits bisecting the otherwise smooth surface.

Then we laughed until our sides hurt.

Now, when my husband sees me start to tumble into meltdown mode, he makes a tabletop with one hand, looks me in the eye, and lowers his other fist onto it.

Signs are objective, general, and can remind us of a funny moment — even if it’s a dark comedy.

Have you and your partner tried signals to help derail bad behavior? How do you send a message without making things worse?

What you need to know about ADHD, impulsivity, and self-harm

We’ve all made jokes about our ADHD. A little gallows humor can keep us from getting too down on ourselves.

But be careful. Impulsivity, time-blindness, and low self-esteem can create the perfect storm — and a potentially life-threatening situation.

ADHD suicide risk

ADHD has a dark side, and several studies suggest it increases suicide risk as much as five-fold.

Relentless emotional volatility and feelings of failure can lead to a lot of negative self-talk: “I’m such a screw-up,” “my family is embarrassed by me,” “I’m a burden,” “I’ll never accomplish anything meaningful,” “my hopes and dreams are worthless because I’ll never come close to any of it,” “everyone would be better off without me.”

For ADHD adults and teens, these thoughts feel like more than a blip, a dark mood that will lift tomorrow.

Time-blindness means we can’t (not just dont — often, we truly can’t) see outside the moment. This moment of weakness becomes all there is. The good times, or even the days when we can see and acknowledge our strengths in spite of it all, don’t feel real. Our perceptions of ourselves lock in on right now, and right now feels like past, present, and future all rolled into one.

It’s at this moment that ADHD-fueled impulsivity — the part of us that fails to consider the longl-term consequences of our actions — crosses from childish and annoying to tragic and potentially fatal.

What to do when it becomes too much

If you’re feeling out of control and frightened, ask for help. Reach out to a friend, go hang out in a public place, take a break. If all else fails, get yourself to the emergency room. As a teenager, I escorted a friend to our local ER’s crisis intervention center and learned firsthand what a lifesaver it can be — even in the middle of the night.

Whatever you do, don’t let yourself believe your problems aren’t real, that it’s “just ADHD,” not a “real” mental health issue. Comorbid disorders are common, and ADHD’s impulsivity and impaired perception of time and consequences can fuel risky behavior.

Unsurprisingly, women and girls with ADHD suffer from high rates of self-harming behavior. Many slip through the cracks and remain undiagnosed until their teens or even adulthood. Girls tend to internalize their struggles more than boys, and ADHD symptoms can manifest differently.

Parents beware: as children mature into their teens and early adulthood, hyperactive ADHD symptoms may fade, but don’t let that fool you. Just because you can’t see symptoms on the outside doesn’t mean your kids don’t need you. In fact, they may need you now more than ever.

Have your or your child had an experience with self-harming behavior? How did you cope, and what would you recommend for someone in a similar situation?

The power of right now

right now

“Wait,” my friend said, “did I just hear you say you sweep the floor every day?”

Never mind that I sweep the floor every day because I won’t devote the time or energy to doing it right. Sweeping every day enables me to do a spectacularly half-assed job and still keep a pretty clean house.

What I should have told her, though, is I sweep the floor every day right now.

When it comes to ADHD, we can append right now to pretty much anything we call  habit or routine.

I’m emptying my email inbox regularly…right now.

I’m eating well and cutting back on mindless snacking…right now.

I’m really struggling…right now.

And there’s the key. Sometimes I find it demoralizing, the knowledge that nothing is permanent, ever. The knowledge that a bad ADHD day (or week, or month) can roll back all the progress, all the good habits I’ve made over the course of months or years.

It’s all so fragile.

But if the good feels fragile, we should remember that the bad is fragile, too. No mood, no collosal screw-up, no period of total disorganization lasts forever. We can — and do — dig ourselves out eventually. Even if it’s just by forgetting what we were so upset about in the first place.

Or finding something shiny, fun, and new to get excited about.

This can feel like a character flaw. Often, it is a character flaw.

But we can draw strength from it, too. We can smile at a new day, even though yesterday was a train wreck. We can try again with a new personal organization system, even though the last three didn’t work for us.

Unfortunately, our time-blind minds can’t often see beyond the horizon. Right now feels too much like forever. When right now feels good, that’s okay. It’s great.

When right now feels overwhelming and hopeless, we can’t imagine it ever getting better.

Write yourself a note. Remind yourself that right now is just that: right now. It’s not tomorrow. It’s not even later today.

If you’re having a good day, use this as inspiration to keep up the good work. Don’t let complacency sneak in. Don’t let yourself believe you’ve finally gotten your act together “for good this time.”

If you’re struggling, write yourself another note. Reinforce the idea of right now — relentlessly. Even if you can’t see outside the moment — right now — keep reminding yourself you’ll come out the other side eventually. Probably sooner than you think.

And then — watch out.

How are you feeling right now? What has helped you most when you needed a balanced perspective?

Drown your ADHD in a hot shower

Do your emotions tend to run away with you?

It’s okay, you can answer silently, but if you often find yourself overwhelmed, embarrassed, confused, or even frightened by your emotions, you’re not alone. At least half of all ADHD adults suffer from deficient emotional self-regulation, defined for the lay person as “excessive emotional reactions to everyday occurences.”

There’s a lot to talk about here, especially in light of the high correlation between ADHD and self-harm.

But before we do, I want you to go take a hot shower.

Yes, I’m serious.

When you’re feeling out of control, stuck, or about to say something you shouldn’t, here are three reasons to climb into the shower and stay there until you feel better — or until the hot water runs out.

  1. Dopamine
    That’s right — your old friend. The safe, relaxing environment of a hot shower triggers a release of dopamine in your brain. One of the “neurochemicals of happiness,” it won’t just make you feel good. It’ll help regulate those wild emotions and calm your impulsive reactions.
  2. Quarantine
    If you just can’t resist the urge to keep crying, complaining, or yelling at your spouse (or whoever happens to be in the room), get away. If you don’t want your spouse to know how much he or she just upset you, take some private time in the shower. Work out your emotions — alone. Once you’re calm, you’ll be better equipped to discuss your feelings productively — or just let them go.
  3. Time
    While you’re out of the fray, everyone has a chance to settle down and change gears. In addition to providing an influx of dopamine, the shower is a great place for productive distraction. You can safely switch out of intense problem-solving mode and get into the right frame of mind for a new insight on the situation.

Do you struggle with out-of-control emotions? What self-soothing techniques can you recommend?

Time blindness & ADHD

Are you (or someone you love) always late?

I don’t just mean running 10 minutes late for a meeting, I mean persistently late. For everything.

Are you time blind?

Late getting out of bed. Late getting into bed (sometimes to the point of never getting into bed). Late sitting down for dinner with your family. Late leaving the office, putting down the video game controller, or getting the baby from her nap.

Or maybe you do okay in these areas. Maybe you’re exhausted by larger-than-life emotions that, while quickly forgotten after the fact, feel all-consuming in the moment.

There’s a name for this: time blindness.

And while you might not believe me yet, there’s hope.

The truth about time blindness.

clock photoPhoto by nicksarebi

Time blindness isn’t just a matter of ‘feeling like’ time is moving quickly or slowly. It’s a failure to view time as linear, concrete, or even finite.

This means most traditional time management strategies won’t work for most ADHD’ers. It doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for how we manage and deal with our ADHD — including our distorted perception of time.

Learning to manage time is one of the best investments you can make in your relationship with yourself and others.

Time blindness & you.

Time blindness manifests differently in everyone, just like ADHD itself. In other words, it’s more complicated than “she always gets out the door late” or “he’s unreliable.”

After my first week on stimulant medication, I wrote the following revelation in my journal: “a week is only a week long.” Obvious? Hardly. I’d never perceived an emotional state, a rough day, or even being unbearably hungry as something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you suffer from wild, all-consuming emotions — positive or negative — training your brain to perceive time more accurately can provide significant relief.

Time blindness often causes time to ‘get away’ from people with ADHD. As one ADHD’er put it in an ADDitude discussion thread: ‘I have helpful friends who say, “just look at your watch and leave when it is 3:00 p.m.’ But when I look at my watch, it is 4:30 p.m.!”

For my husband, time blindness shows up in the form of marathon work days, late bedtimes, and plenty of household projects that he “didn’t intend to take all day.”

Time blindness can hurt. It can make those on the receiving end feel confused, disrespected, angry, unimportant, and betrayed. But before you lash out at someone who has broken a social contract (again) by mismanaging their time, remember: it’s not about you. It doesn’t reflect on how important the obligation actually was to them. When a loved one says, “I have no idea why I keep doing this,” they’re telling the truth. They feel every bit as let down as you do.

The only answer is education (for all parties involved), forgiveness, and a lot of patience and compassion.

Finding information and advice.

The Time Timer can help combat ADHD's "time blindness"

The Time Timer can help combat ADHD’s “time blindness”

I’m pleased to have found — and to be able to share with you — this free podcast with Dr. Ari Tuckman, author of More Attention, Less Deficit and Understand Your Brain, Get More DoneDr. Tuckman is approachable and to the point, giving some much-needed information and advice about one of ADHD’s more confounding facets.

Don’t skip the listener comments and questions, either. I found their stories of success and defeat very therapeutic and I suspect many others will, too.

Before you run off and listen to the podcast, here’s a tip from our home to yours: do everything you can to represent time visually. My husband insists he actually reads analog clocks more quickly and easily than digital, and that’s not surprising. Analog clocks quantify time — especially for visually-oriented people — in a way digital cannot.

Likewise, timer apps like Ovo Timer (free, Android-only) or Time Timer ($0.99 Android, $2.99 iOS) start with a chunk of color that gradually disappears. You can also buy standalone Time Timer clocks to keep around the house.

I’m already teaching my two-year-old about time with the Time Timer when we clean up his toys at night. We don’t talk much about numbers, but he understands that when the red wedge disappears, he’s supposed to be ready to move on to the next task.

Do you struggle with lateness or with time ‘getting away from you?’ What are some strategies you’ve tried?

The power of split-second mindfulness

While writing my cool ADHD mom post last week, I found several pages of tips for us ADHD parents.

However, as I opened tab after tab in my browser, I noticed a gaping hole. Enough with the cleaning and organizing tips. What about those larger-than-life emotions?

Some people go so far as to claim ADHD helps us create a loving, nurturing, exciting home life for our children. No parent needs ADHD to do that. I worry about subjecting my kid to the less romantic side of my ADHD: inconsistency, unpredictability, impatience, and a tendency to lose my temper.

And let’s be honest: nobody knows how to push our buttons like our kids, even if they don’t mean to (most of the time). Even the most put-together, mild-mannered parents will confess to all kinds of temper tantrums in their moments of weakness.

Often we feel our self-control slipping moments before a meltdown, yet we feel powerless to stop it.

I won’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve had my share of emotional outbursts. Reigning them in has been a pet project since I started the sixth grade.

Today I want to share one quick, tiny, simple trick to help get yourself under control.

It’s called mindfulness.

I’ve mentioned mindfulness meditation as a critical brain-training practice before, but don’t assume the benefits start and end with a a five-minute-a-day habit. Even if you never sit down to meditate, you can stop emotional outbursts in their tracks with mindfulness.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Pause. Use your five senses to identify one thing in the room to focus on. Examples: your computer’s fan sound, the feel of a cool glass of water in your hand, a nice whiff from a jar of coffee beans. I’m most sensitive to sound, so I find something to listen to.
  2. Focus on that sensory input for 15 seconds, or as long as you can manage depending on the crisis. I like to close my eyes.
  3. If you notice your mind wandering to anything else — how angry you are at your kid for using permanent marker on the wall, the laundry you forgot to put in the dryer, a funny text you received from a friend, etc. — don’t give up and don’t judge yourself. Just return your full attention to that sound, smell, or sensation. Try your best to keep your mind empty.
  4. Open your eyes. Lower your voice. Try to deal.

That’s it. Try it now, while you have a moment and the stakes are low. What do you notice? Does it feel a bit like you’re in the eye of a hurricane?

Sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.

Shifting from your brain’s narrative circuitry to a state of mindfulness — a heightened awareness of sensory input from the outside world — forces your brain to change gears. Different brain regions become active and your prefrontal cortex takes a rest. You become more aware of your own inner state, which in turn gives you more control over your thoughts and actions. If you want to learn more about this without getting bogged down in too much science talk, check out David Rock’s Your Brain at Work.

Don’t forget to practice mindfulness with your kids, too! While sitting with my son during a recent emotional meltdown — being two isn’t easy, you know — I started talking to him about the sounds in the room. I took advantage of a short break in his tears to ask him, “can you hear the clock ticking? Tock, tock, tock, tock…” He met my eye and whimpered, “yeah.” I brought his attention to the wind who-whooo-ing outside his window. We sat together in lovely silence, just listening.

Quelling tantrums helps you in the moment, but teaching your kids to be mindful gives them tools to observe and regulate their own emotions later in life.

Next time you feel your self-control checking out, try a few seconds of mindfulness to step away from your mental noise. Then, share your experience in the comments so we can learn from one another.

© 2017 The ADHD Homestead

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑