Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) features symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Another common symptom is emotional dysregulation.

If you or someone you know is living with ADHD, they may experience heightened emotions. It’s helpful to recognize that the two are connected so that you can understand the reasons behind the strong feelings.

Emotional dysregulation isn’t part of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the reference that diagnostic professionals use to identify and classify mental health conditions.

However, researchers estimate that about 70 percent of adults with ADHD experience difficulties with emotional regulation, some of whom don’t have any co-occurring conditions that could explain their heightened emotions.

Children can also feel the impact. A 2016 study including 61 children with ADHD suggested that there might be a pattern of emotional dysregulation specifically connected to ADHD symptoms.

Billy Roberts, a therapist and founder of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling, says, “ADHD and [emotional] dysregulation are deeply connected. This is because the wiring of the ADHD brain makes emotional regulation a challenge.”

Emotional dysregulation occurs when a person isn’t able to control their emotional responses, which is common in ADHD.

“Simply put, ADHD takes away the brain’s pause button,” Roberts explains. “For many adults with ADHD, it can feel like a roller coaster inside.

“It’s not that the person with ADHD’s emotions are wrong; it’s more so that when they feel, they do so quickly and deeply, and are more prone to express intense feelings publically than someone without ADHD.”

That public display of emotion can intensify the dysregulation that caused it in the first place.

“If an ADHD person expresses an emotion in the wrong context, they might then experience follow-up emotions of guilt or shame,” Roberts adds.

Emotional dysregulation in ADHD is often noticeable in behavioral patterns.

“Impulsivity is a symptom of ADHD, and emotional dysregulation can be a symptom of impulsivity, and vice versa,” says Kathy HoganBruen, PhD, founder of District Anxiety Center.

While signs like impulsivity tend to be obvious, there are others that are more subtle.

According to Beth Hanline, LCSW-C, director of outpatient services at Newport Healthcare, some of these less obvious signs may include:

  • lower resilience
  • inability to restore emotional balance
  • deep focus on conflict
  • persistent negative emotion

Label the emotions

Improving emotional regulation starts with becoming aware of emotions and labeling them, according to HoganBruen. Reining in your emotions and having greater control over them requires:

  1. slowing down
  2. becoming aware of the emotions and what caused them in the first place
  3. labeling the emotions

She adds, “This process often begins by feeling something in your body, such as having a physical manifestation of your emotional experience. So, somebody who’s ‘emotionally dysregulated’ might not be aware they’re even anxious or worried about something, but they will likely be aware that their head or stomach hurts.

“The process of becoming ‘emotionally regulated’ includes noticing where in your body you’re feeling something emotional, and then expressly labeling that emotion. That’s a great starting point to becoming more ‘regulated.’”

HoganBruen explains that labeling emotions make them easier to understand, which prepares you for the next step: creating distance between feelings and responses.

“That distance is where reflection, problem solving, insight, and wisdom can all be inserted. And those are the fix to emotional dysregulation,” she says.

Explore mindfulness

Research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions help to regulate emotions through the process of observing, followed by describing, and then acting with awareness.

These interventions refer to activities rooted in mindfulness that you can practice at home, such as meditation, as well as several types of psychotherapy that can be done in partnership with experienced professionals. Examples include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • dialectal behavioral therapy
  • acceptance and commitment therapy

“Mindfulness is a powerful tool in emotional regulation for both adults and children. Practicing mindfulness together will help both parents and children increase regulation as difficult emotions arise,” says Hanline.

She also stresses the importance that lifestyle has on emotions: “A holistic approach to emotional regulation starts with healthy routines, including getting adequate sleep, following a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise.”

Try taking inventory of your lifestyle to assess for any areas of improvement in your usual routines. Making these small changes over time could eventually lead to easier emotional management.

Try co-regulation with children

Children can benefit from calm support from caregivers, as well as learned coping strategies.

Hanline suggests that parents “use a warm and supportive approach to help children engage in coping strategies when dysregulated, such as deep breathing and helping them to identify and label their emotions. One of the most important tools parents can use is remaining calm and responding in a calm manner, promoting co-regulation.

“Having a plan in advance on how to help a child cope with difficult emotions or situations can help to prevent or resolve intense emotional responses,” she adds.

Intense emotions and ADHD are strongly connected, although it’s important to remember that this isn’t always the case. A person can live with ADHD and have typical levels of emotional regulation.

However, if you live with ADHD and experience emotional dysregulation, there are many people who share your experience.

There are effective strategies to use to promote emotional awareness and regulation, including lifestyle changes and mindfulness strategies like deep breathing. Therapy can also be an effective approach to improving emotional regulation.