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ADHD and Emotions: Why Do I Overreact?

A question for anyone with ADHD: Do you really hate when things change?  Are you like me, emotionally sensitive?  Oversensitive?  Prone to overreact?  Outbursts of panic or anger?   Once you finally figure something out, are you hugely upset when it gets changed, discontinued, or is only available in the New & Improved version?

Sorry, that was six questions.  I get upset.

ADHD Triggers Intense Emotions

The things we get upset about are not the end of civilization, but at the time they feel like it.

“Ugh, I have to learn how to use the newest version of this software!” 
“Oh no!  There’s a line up… and a 20 minute wait!”
Or, “Theyre adding chocolate to rice crispy squares?  Why?!”

Instantly I’m a crabby two-year old, or a miserable old coot.   “I just want the software to do what it used to do.”  And then I want to be able to comfort myself with a nice rice crispy square!  Or three. 

When there is change, my instant and automatic reaction is “Why?!”  Even if it is an improvement, which it almost always is.  Of course I only realize how much better this updated version is after I calm down and dedicate three whole minutes to poking around a bit.

Easily Frustrated, Easily Upset, Easily Triggered

Even just hearing about a change that I didn’t ask for can be disheartening.  And to be honest, I never ask for anything to change.  Which is why my wardrobe is ‘timeless’.  Timeless being “Iowa Hardware Store Clerk circa 1978.”

Just to be clear, like most adults with ADHD, I do love new things, novelty, experimenting… but only if I choose it.  And I never want software updates.  Did I mention that?

Our energy and enthusiasm, which can be mercurial at the best of times, wilts.  “Oh great, another mystery I have to unravel?!”  My mom would have said I was in a snit, or a tizzy.   Sweet, but it doesn’t do justice to the sudden riptide of negative emotion sucking me under.  Sometimes for an hour, often much longer. 

My wife, following prompts from the computer maker, recently updated her system software on the promise of the new version being a big improvement. Alas, now some of the older apps on her laptop don’t work.  She’s going to have to pay for the latest versions.  Boy, a FREE update sure got a lot more expensive.  She is taking it much better than I would.

That’s the problem with being “hyper-sensitive” and “overreacting”.  It’s healthy and valuable to feel emotions, good or bad, but when my reaction is way out of proportion, and takes me out of the game of life, it’s a problem.  To the point where I decided it was something I should I should address.  And not suppress. 

Taming Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Step one for me?  Find out if anything can be done to make me less jumpy, touchy, and quick to react, without resorting to tranquilizers, or becoming a hermit. (That second one being my natural inclination.) 

Since I was interviewing so many ADHD specialists for our videos, it was the perfect opportunity to ask about Emotional Sensitivity and Hyper-sensitivity.  More recently Dr. William W. Dodson has come up with a term for what what he thinks is a universal ADHD challenge.  He calls it Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria.  Some experts are unsure about this label, but I suspect they don’t want to hurt his feelings by rejecting it. (LOL!)

Among adults with ADHD, the term has really resonated, and I don’t think this is yet another over-reaction on our part.  (Ha!)  Time will tell.  

The biggest surprise has been that there are many ways to minimize the tendency to dive into despondent despair at a temporary setback.  One has been the discovery that yes, I can tone down my emotional reactions.   Sure, that first nano-second of “No!  No! Danger!  Red Alert!” is impossible to avoid.  Adults with ADHD can be especially prone to anger, it’s how our brains are wired.  My go-to response tends to be deflated and defeated.  Woe is me.

A Natural Reaction?  Or Overreaction?

You’ve probably heard of the “Flight or Fight” response?  It’s a survival tool.  Long before incoming information from our five senses reaches the logical part of the brain, the Pre-Frontal Cortex, it goes through an automatic, hair-trigger alarm system called the Amygdala.  (By the way, these are both areas of the brain implicated in ADHD.) 

It’s the moments after my initial, subconscious, or pre-conscious reaction, that shock and alarm, “What?!  Seriously?!” which lasts a second or two, when I can catch myself and notice that my body is reacting.  Not always.  But more and more often with practice.  I’m getting better noticing that I’m flushing, upset, my heart rate rising, starting to panic, the first flush of panic… these few seconds are the key. 

The moment part of my mind becomes aware of my budding overreaction, I have a chance to nip it in the bud.   That’s the moment to take a deep breath.  Or three. 

While I’m taking those deep breaths, I tell myself things like, ‘It’s never as bad as it seems.  Listen.  Wait and see.  It’s not the end of the world.  It never is.  This may actually be a good thing.  And someone else can deal with it.”  

Maybe the new version of the software is actually much better.  The company didn’t spend millions updating it to make it harder to use.

Maybe chocolate chips will improve the rice crispy squares.

Graduates throw their caps in the air

Yes, Feel Things Deeply.  When It’s Appropriate

To be clear, I am not striving to be insensitive, unfeeling, or a coldly, disengaged robot.  I’m just tired of “overreacting.”  It inevitably costs me energy, motivation, and even my credibility, both personal and professional.

How about you?  Do you tend to overreact?  Do folks complain, You’re way to sensitive.  And how does overreacting affect your life?  And have you found tactics or practices that help?  Let us all know in the comments. 

Emotional sensitivity is such a hot-button topic, let’s take a break, calm down, take a few deep breaths and enjoy some rice crispy squares.  In my next blog, I’ll get into how to manage emotions and feelings without suppressing, denying, or becoming numb. 

Sorry?  What?  You don’t like rice crispy squares?

My brain: OH MY GAAAAWDDD!  ARE YOU KIDDING ME!  I CAN’T EVEN, I MEAN, SERIOUSLY!  WHAT THE…  Deep breath, Rick…. And another… And one more… Better.  Okay… Smile…

Ahem, So, what snacks do you prefer?



P.S.: In a recent webinar Dr. Lydia Zylowska, the pioneer in researching the power of mindful meditation to transform ADHD, said that “Flight or Fight” has been expanded to “Flight or Fight or Faint/Feign or Freeze or Fawn.”  Freezing is what the wild rabbits do when I open the drapes to see if they are eating the scraps I put out for them. 

Some animals will Faint, going limp when caught by a predator, Feigning death, then bolting the moment the cougar or eagle relaxes it.  And what is Fawning or Folding?  That’s something we may do may when confronted by extreme anger, “Okay, yes.  If you say so.  You know best, Boss. I am so sorry….”  A topic for yet another Blog.  

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  1. pdreywood September 8, 2019 at 6:24 am

    Understanding that this aversion to change is part of ADD’s territory is half the battle won. Anger isn’t obvious when you direct it at yourself. Pre-diagnosis, I recall going long periods with what I dubbed a ‘negative charge’ and arguing with myself that there was no reason to feel this way but, of course, that did no good at all. Neither did a few rounds of anti-depressants through those years but once this little beastie had a name put to it, we could start to move forward. I learned to ‘de-personalize’ the emotion so I could look at the event that caused it and tell myself “What’s the big deal? No lives are at stake”. That was pretty successful at calming the beast until I got a job where lives were at stake. This is tougher, but once you figure out there’s a valid reason for the anger, or panic, you’re in a good position to address it. The way I figure, anger is energy. You can either dissipate it, turn it inward (not so great), or use it. The next challenge is whether you are using this power for good or for evil but if you’ve managed to steer it to this point, you can likely see what the outcome to your actions will be. I haven’t mastered this strategy-far from it-but just having a plan of action to turn to is a tremendous relief and has given me the feeling of having a bit more control over how I live my life. But chocolate chips in rice krispie treats? That’s just wrong.

  2. Such a great share, Pdreywood!
    It is amazing to depersonalize it, as you say, to understand there is a reason the other person is upset, angry, suspicious, or acting prickly. People do things for a reason, and the standard, “Oh, he must be crazy…” or “She’s just nuts…” or “Those people are idiots…” doesn’t serve them or you. It’s just easier than taking a moment to find out what’s going on for the other person. It feels safer and simpler to just write people off, but you learn nothing, develop no insight, and, if it goes on long enough, becomes your default position on everyone and everything that rankles. Which leaves you friendless.
    I wrote ‘alone and friendless’ but you probably won’t be alone. You’ll be surrounded by a small circle of people who do the same thing. And then minute you’re not there, guess who is being dismissed and demolished.
    You mention being in a job where lives are at stake. That’s common with ADHD. I’m giving a talk soon to Paramedic Association’s annual conference, after a Paramedic heard me talk about “Invisible Disabilities” at the Invictus Games in Toronto, and came up afterwards to talk about his own ADHD and how common it is among First Responders.
    At some point I’d love to talk to Fire Fighters, Police groups, the military, and groups who work in “high-stimulation” fields.
    And I agree, chocolate chips are for cookies. For krispie treats, I’d be willing to consider some bits of pretzel.

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