Emotional Regulation in Adult ADD

Chapter on Emotional Regulation

Meet My Husband, the Tasmanian Devil – How ADD/ADHD Impacts Emotional Regulation

If wives “only” had to deal with their husband’s ADD/ADHD, life would be a lot easier. To be sure, much of the turmoil and chaos caused by this condition take place outside the realm of emotions. For example, he leaves his dirty clothes everywhere but the hamper, forgets appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, and a hundred other examples of misdirected behavior. However, these actions do not represent a personal slight or insult. When the faulty emotional regulation skills of an ADD/ADHD husband are added to the mix, it often creates a nearly intolerable challenge for the non-ADD/ADHD wife or girlfriend:

My husband is very selfish, often misreads my actions or words and doesn’t ever have empathy or sympathy for other people. Someone dies – he will laugh. He also is highly defensive and always looking to argue. He likes it…I think he’s comfortable being angry. – Barbara L., New London, Connecticut

He seems to have difficulty building depth and truth in relationships…he often thinks I’m the enemy. I’m often told I’m weak, too sensitive… It is always something and never calm and miscommunication is at the 90% level. Even when we try to talk something out, he can’t control himself from being angry, mean and blaming me. No matter how nice I try to speak and all the apologies I utter (to the point I don’t even know why I’m sorry)…there is no stepping outside himself. – Monique P., Richmond, Virginia

I can’t express the slightest concern over decisions without him blowing up. If I want to talk about the kids and their anger and coping problems, he gets defensive because he thinks I’m blaming him for our problems. If I want to talk about a household project like cleaning out the basement, he blows up that I’m always nagging him about stupid stuff. I’ve tried making less confrontational methods like emailing or texting him when I have a question for her or want to bounce an idea off him, but now he just screens all of my messages and ignores them. If I ask him if he got them, he’ll come right out and tell me that he doesn’t even always read them. When I express how I feel disrespected when he ignores my messages, he goes off like a time bomb. – Cheryl B., Charlotte, South Carolina

These are devastating comments. They speak to the ongoing turmoil many wives of ADD/ADHD husband’s face every day. In some cases, the non-ADD/ADHD partner finds herself taking anti-depressants to counter the ongoing effects of her husband’s inability to regulate his emotional life.
While to some women it may appear that there is no hope, recent research into ADD/ADHD and emotional regulation does offer a new perspective that can help both partners create better coping strategies.

One of the questions plaguing therapists, researchers and scientists – as well as the people with ADD/ADHD themselves – is the source of the problem. Are the emotional challenges faced by people with ADD/ADHD adisorder or a more psycho-physiological regulatory issue? In other words, are the emotions of these men inappropriate and disconnected from reality (a true disorder), or are their emotions appropriate but mismanaged?

Recent research, most notably by Dr. Russell Barkley, of the Department of Psychiatry at the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, indicates that rather than stemming from a disorder, emotional regulation problems among the ADD/ADHD population have to do with a flaw in the person’s executive functioning.

This means that the emotions they experience are in fact normal. However, their ability to regulate them – i.e. knowing when and when not to express them – is flawed.

Dr. Barkley explains it along the following lines: Take a common workplace event. For most people, getting reprimanded by a superior can cause a strong, even virulent emotional response. Who would not want to lash out in such a case? However, the difference between people with ADD/ADHD and others is in how they regulate themselves during that event. Those with ADD/ADHD are much more likely to lash out, create a scene, and generally express the emotions they are feeling. Other people, as they mature, learn to control themselves.

Without going too deeply into the brain science behind these differences, suffice to say that the reason for this lack of control, according to Dr. Barkley, has to do how the ADD/ADHD brain is wired. Someone with ADD/ADHD lacks a proper control mechanism between the frontal lobe of the brain (the executive in charge of our social behavior) and the much more primitive portions of our brain (where the raw emotions reside).

The upshot is that people with ADD/ADHD are in fact wired differently. Yet this is precisely where the hope comes from. If they are wired differently, there may be ways to consciously rework the wiring. In addition, wives can learn to interact with their ADD/ADHD husbands’ different internal makeup and acquire a measure of control that may not have existed before.

The following tips can help wives help themselves and their ADD/ADHD husbands take steps to “rewire” their husbands’ emotional regulation processes:

For the husband:

1. Learn Impulse Control. If you have a tendency get angry at others, seemingly at the drop of a hat, or interrupt without permission, you can manage your impulses by learning to count to ten. Instead of acting out, breath out slowly. In this case, the ADD/ADHD may prove helpful, because the shift of attention to counting and breathing may help the impulse pass as quickly as it appeared.
2. Find an outlet for all that energy. One thing you don’t lack is nervous energy. Instead of allowing this excess to find expression in emotional interactions, channel it into a hobby. In one case, a man who struggled with ADD/ADHD his whole life became a mountain biking enthusiast. He eventually opened a bike shop and organized biking races and outings for his city. It worked wonders for his marriage, because he had somewhere to put his energy.

For the wife:

1. Look to your actions. While it may be a question of the chicken or the egg, it is possible that some of your husband’s rude, uncaring, and emotionally inappropriate behavior is a reaction to your reaction to his symptoms. Still, taking a gut check on the amount of nagging as opposed to positive reinforcement may help mitigate much of the tension in the household.

2. Don’t make assumptions about your husband’s motives. Remember, if your husband’s actions stem from a lack of executive functioning, do not assume he is trying to hurt your feelings. If you feel hurt by something he said or did, call attention to it in as neutral a manner as possible.

3. Look for practical solutions. Put some of your emotional responses into the realm of logistics. For example, if you feel ignored, take that feeling and make a concrete response – such as scheduling a date night on the calendar – that addresses the issues. This will most likely be more effective than talking about your feelings and hoping he will respond the way you want him to. Direct the response by creating the practical solution.

For Both:

1. Use humor and fun to defuse issues. Make up a light-hearted “miscommunication” song – or some similar strategy – that you can use when something he says or does rubs you the wrong way. Or simply agree that you will both learn to laugh at certain situations – and then correct them in a pleasant atmosphere.

In addition, some men with ADD/ADHD have come up with innovative approaches of their own. These ideas may also help wives help their husbands re-orient their emotional regulation strategies in more productive ways:

“Just wanted to pass on a trick that I was taught to deal with strong emotions. It works well when I’m boiling over “in the moment” and can get by myself for a minute.I close my eyes and let myself feel how I’m feeling. It’s not relaxation exactly, just acknowledging that the feeling is there. Then I visualize it. I ask myself what color it is, what shape, what size, what texture? Is it close or far away (usually very close)? Then I imagine draining all the color out of it. I shrink it down to something tiny and throw it as far away as I can. Then I relax for a few seconds and open my eyes. At that point the feeling is still there intellectually (i.e. I know why I was mad / frustrated, etc.), but it no longer has any power over me and I can decide what to do in a cool, rational manner.” – Bruce C. Rochester, New York

“I’ve learned through therapy to recognize the physical signs I get right before I get worked up. When I feel my face heat up and I start to sweat a little I know it’s time to take a time out. I just need a few minutes to calm down and collect my thoughts.There’s also a breathing exercise I like to do to calm down, hold one of your nostrils closed and take a deep breath in through your nose, now before you breathe take your finger off of the closed nostril and put it on the other one, then breath out. I find it clears my head a little, I’m able to look at the situation clear headed without all the distorted thoughts.” – Rob Z, Portland, Oregon

“One thing that has helped is to meditate three times a day, just take that time out to be alone. Another thing that helps is to eat protein in the morning, which keeps my energy more even and my moods more balanced. For me, noise in my environment puts me on edge, so I’m much more likely to lash out if I already feel irritated. Ear plugs are good for that. Being interrupted when I’m working tends to annoy me, but I think that could be helped with a lock on my office door. Theoretically aerobic exercise every day would also help, although I don’t usually do it.” – Mike S. Boca Raton, Florida

“My next experiment will be to post around my house various wise and inspirational sayings which might inspire me to cool my jets. It’s hard to scream at someone when Buddha or somebody like that is advising kindness, compassion, or letting go. The stuff doesn’t stay in my head, no matter how many times at the end of the day I tell myself I wish I hadn’t been so caustic. If it’s in my face in every room of my house, maybe I’ll see it and put on the brakes.” – Henry H. – San Francisco, California.

Post by David Ordan