How to Calm the Emotional Ups and Downs of Adult ADHD

by Larry Letich | Oct 20, 2022 | Art of Feeling, Emotional Awareness


Is it a new muscle-building protein supplement? A virus spreading in Africa? A social club for women who like wearing white gloves?

No. It stands for “Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation.”  And for me at least, it sounds like one more thing we ADD’ers can feel bad about ourselves about. (Along with using the word “about” twice in the same sentence.)

Generally speaking, we ADDers feel our feelings very strongly. When we feel good, we can feel on top of the world. We know how to enjoy the moment, and we can take absolute delight in the littlest things. We can be contagiously enthusiastic. 

But when we feel bad, we can feel very bad. Our negative emotions can get intense. This is especially true when we feel hurt or angry. Criticism, even if it’s mild, even if it isn’t intended as criticism, can hit us terribly hard. It can literally feel as though we’ve been physically attacked, or as though the criticizer has just told us we’re unforgivably flawed and worthless. (Yes, it’s that bad.) This reaction has a name: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, or RSD.

We also seem to have more difficulty than “neurotypical” people with holding back the expression of our emotions. This can be a wonderful quality when we’re feeling happy with ourselves and close to the ones we love. But it’s not so great (to say the least) when we’ve tumbled into the “you-have-mortally-wounded-me” zone – or even when we simply feel frustrated, stressed-out and overwhelmed, which are feelings we get a lot because of our other symptoms of ADHD – you know, the attentional ones. 

Which brings me back to DESR. Dr. Russell Barkley, a leading authority on ADHD, describes DESR as having a deficiency in the ability to calm yourself down from an intense emotion, inhibit responding inappropriately to that emotion, or substitute a better response that could make the triggering situation better instead of ten times worse.

These problems with our emotions often end up hurting our self-esteem. No wonder that many adults with ADHD feel that of all the difficulties ADHD causes, the emotional difficulties harm them the most.

Connection, Not Control

So what can you do about your overactive emotional system? You may have tried different ways over the years. Unfortunately they probably didn’t work very well, especially when you were feeling things very strongly. 

That’s because most of them involve saying to yourself some version of “Stop it! Control yourself! What you’re feeling is wrong!” 

If you have ADHD, you’ve probably had countless experiences, beginning in childhood, of people telling you that your feelings, actions and experiences are just bad or wrong. You heard that you were being willfully lazy, or careless, or that “you can do better if you would only ……” 

Getting feedback like that didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. Giving yourself a lecture about how you shouldn’t feel the way you do frequently has a bad tendency, not only of not working, but of backfiring. Because not only do you now find yourself still feeling exactly the way you already know you shouldn’t feel, you feel bad about yourself for not being able to change it. You may even feel it more. 

It’s true, you may be overreacting. Your feelings may be out of whack. But overreactions and mistaken reactions happen to everybody – they’re part of the human condition. Unfortunately, for a whole host of reasons they happen to ADD’ers more. (I like to say that “people with ADHD are just like everyone else, only more so.”) 

As bizarre as it may sound, our emotions are always acting in our best interest from their perspective. This is true whether you’re ADHD or neurotypical.  There are no deliberate “saboteurs” inside you. Though they may not be doing it in the most helpful way, your emotions, from their point of view, are just trying to protect you and take care of you. That’s why they dismiss your attempts to change them. To your feelings, you’re the clueless one. 

Instead of being controlled by or trying to control our emotions , we need to develop a good relationship with them.  We need to get to know and understand them more so we and they can work better together. 

To my fellow ADD’ers with strong, irrepressible emotions, I say: DON’T just try to control your emotions, although sometimes you may have to. CONNECT with them instead. 

How do you do that? One good way is by learning, practicing and applying the ABCs of Emotional Self-Connection: Acknowledging, Being With, and (Self-) Compassion.


Let’s start with Acknowledging. Take a few moments, or a minute, to pause and acknowledge whatever feeling is going on inside you right now. To acknowledge a feeling, you identify it, name it, and take a moment to be sure the name fits. Then you accept it, without fixing, judging or trying to change it.

This can be tricky at first for many ADD’ers. To begin with, what is a feeling? It’s a sensation with meaning that you feel in your body, not your head. So it’s not a thought, nor a judgment of yourself or others. “Happy,” “sad,” “confused,” “angry,” “calm,” “frightened,” “excited,” “lonely” and “deeply moved” are all examples of feelings. “I’m totally worthless” and “he’s a jerk” are not. They’re thoughts. Take those thoughts and bring them down into your body and see if you can name the feeling. Just naming the feeling and checking to see if it fits will calm your feelings down.

Being With 

Now that you’ve identified a feeling inside you and acknowledged it, you’re going to do something truly radical: you’re going to simply be with it. You’re going to keep it company.

Instead of staying with “this is how I feel,” you’re now going to turn around and see your feeling as just a part of you. And then you’re going to relate to it like you would relate to a good friend.

Sound weird? Hear me out. 

We are not our emotions. We can have more than one feeling at a time. We can feel a strong feeling and at the same time know that we don’t want to feel that way. If we were our emotions—if there was no division between ourselves and our feelings—how could we do that? “We” and our emotions are clearly not one and the same thing.

But our very language, our way of talking about our feelings, makes this hard to recognize. When we say “I am angry,” we become fused, for that moment, with our angry feeling. Linguistically, “I am angry” is the same as “Angry is me.” It’s easy to see how from there the feeling can build, and you just get angrier and angrier…

Obviously we don’t want that to happen, so what do we do when we feel a feeling that we don’t like? Some of the time we’re able to correct a mistaken perception that’s causing the feeling. But most of the time, we simply start denying, minimizing or trying to talk ourselves out of it, almost automatically. We say to ourselves “I don’t feel angry” or “I’m not angry, I’m upset” or “I’m just a little angry” or “I shouldn’t be angry.” All of us engage in this kind of self-talk all day long, for all sorts of big and little “undesirable” feelings. 

Most of the time this works fairly well. But as you know, every once in a while (okay, more often than that). an undesirable feeling can’t be dealt with and dismissed that way. What can we do then?  

Listening to a Part of You

This brings me back to Being With: seeing your upsetting feeling as a part of you and keeping it company. “I’m feeling angry” is a little better than “I am angry,” but far better than that is to say “A part of me (or, if it’s more accurate, a really big part of me) is furious at my boss” or “something in me is terrified to make that phone call.”

Try it right now with some upsetting feeling you’ve been having lately. Say to yourself, “something in me” or “a part of me” is feeling that way. (Really, I know you want to just keep reading, but stop for a moment and try this. It won’t take long.)  Notice how just saying it’s something in you or a part of you makes it separate from you, and therefore a little easier to bear—and easier to admit how big it is!

Now go a little further. Picture the feeling as truly separate from you. You can imagine it sitting on a chair or couch in front of you. Really get a “feel” for it. Then start listening to it, like you would listen to a troubled friend. Don’t correct it, look for solutions, or fix what it’s saying. Invite it to tell you its whole story, and periodically let it know you hear it

How do you let it know you hear it? The same way you would with someone on the phone, except inwardly (and silently). You repeatedly acknowledge how it’s feeling, even when you don’t completely agree with it. When you are practicing Being With, you’re giving yourself (this part of you) the kind of accepting listening you’ve always wanted others to give to you!

Do this for just a few minutes. Some people find it easier to do this at first if they keep a hand on their chest while they do it.  You’ll be impressed with how much calmer and clearer you’ll feel at the end, and how much you’ll feel like you have a better handle on your feelings. 

Just make sure that while you’re doing it, you’re being with the feeling, keeping it company, and not either trying to fix it or falling back into becoming it. Your feeling needs you to understand it and make it feel less alone. That’s what makes the difference. 

Deep and Powerful Self-Compassion 

Now for the “C” of self-Compassion. 

Be honest. Do you ever feel overstressed, overtired and overwhelmed by all the demands your life places on you? What do you do when that happens? If you’re like most adult ADD’ers, you probably get pretty hard on yourself. You may tell yourself to “buck up,” stop being a baby, and “handle it” because everyone else does, so why can’t you? 

I know I’ve done this. But there’s a better way. When you practice the following method of self-compassion, you not only lend your presence to the part of yourself that’s stressed out and hurting, you give it lots of compassion and empathy. You hear its pain and distress and let it know that what it feels is understandable. You take away the shame of feeling bad and replace it with love. 

Since compassion requires both a giver and a receiver, as you do this, notice if the hurting part of you feels like it’s being heard and understood, and see if it needs anything more from you. If it does, give it. 

Being both the giver and the receiver of compassion at the same time is very empowering. Doing this can feel like you’re giving yourself an internal massage. It can even be incredibly healing.

Just make sure that the messages you’re reflecting from your inner self help it. Again, reflecting feelings usually helps, while thoughts, judgments and statements of fact typically don’t. Empathically saying “I hear you feel really lonely at your new job” to the sad inner “you” can ease the hurt, but reflecting back a thought like “You feel bad because people don’t like you” can make it worse.

I suggest that you start applying the ABCs to easier, everyday, run-of-the-mill feelings at first. Handling bigger and more upsetting feelings by connecting with them takes more time and practice.  It can be more effective–and more fun–if you partner with someone (not necessarily an ADD’er) who’d like to try this as well, and take turns practicing it together.

By practicing Acknowledging, Being With and Self-Compassion, you can grow more and more emotionally connected to yourself. When you’re emotionally connected to yourself, you don’t ever have to fear your powerful emotions or think you’re inferior to others for having them. You can listen to them, understand them and appreciate them. And when they feel heard, understood and truly listened to, they won’t feel so desperate to take control when they get intense. You may start to love the gift of living so passionately.

And you can get something more: the gift of being a calmer, more empathic and easier-to-live-with person, who accepts themselves–and the people they love–just as they are

About Larry Letich, LCSW-C & Dr. Helene Brenner

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.


  1. Felizinho

    Dear Larry and Helen,

    I’m very profoundly ADHD and life isn’t easy. I used to feel that focusing was some kind of answer but more and more I fear that focusing makes me even more volatile, erratic and unmotivateable. Still, I’m happy to hear that you are still making the case for bringing focusing into the lives of ADHD people. Perhaps I’m missing something.

    With all good wishes,


    • Larry Letich

      Thank you for writing, Felizinho, and sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I really appreciate what you’re saying: Life with adult ADHD isn’t easy! It takes a lot of courage, and work, and energy! I think that, if you’re feeling that Focusing is making you even more volatile, erratic, and unmotivateable, consider getting a refresher course in it. If you haven’t learned Ann Weiser Cornell’s Inner Relationship Focusing method, I strongly recommend it, and if you have, I suggest you consider doing a couple or a few one-on-one sessions with a good IRF trainer, and tell them before the sessions about the problems you are having after Focusing. Focusing should be able to help you get the right “distance” from your feelings and felt senses so as to help you work through them, not end up feeling worse!
      I’m also a big proponent of finding the right ADHD medication, and the optimal dose, to help you. Personally, they’ve helped me as much as if not more than Focusing. I need both. I also know that most of my adult ADHD clients are helped very substantially — their minds and their lives are easier to manage — with medication. An ADHD brain is a hard thing to tame. We need all the help we can get!
      Good luck!

  2. Barbara Dickinson

    This is brilliant! The connection it makes between ADHD and big feelings is so helpful. But the practical advice WHAT TO DO is priceless! More like this please!


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About Us

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.

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