ADHD and anger sometimes go together. Knowing how anger affects your ADHD symptoms can help you respond vs. react. Read to learn five key strategies to help you deal with your anger before it ruins you.
How to Work with ADHD Reactivity and More Effectively Manage Your Anger (Before it Ruins You)
Someone cuts in front of you in Starbucks and you cause a scene. A colleague makes an offhand comment you take offense to and you get in their face. Your spouse forgot to stop at the grocery store on their way home from work and you snap at them because now it’s late and there’s nothing for dinner.
Right or wrong, we all get angry sometimes. But those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tend to get mad quicker and much more frequently than those without the condition, and they often blow small annoyances completely out of proportion.
The problem stems from emotional dysregulation. Seventy percent of adults and 80 percent of children with ADHD suffer from emotional dysregulation, which causes irritability, frequent mood swings, an inability to notice and react appropriately to other people’s emotions, and increased intensity leading them to feel things more deeply and take things more personally than their peers.
Where a neurotypical person might shrug an annoyance off, turn the other cheek, or use healthy coping skills to resolve the situation, those with ADHD have a tendency to go off the rails. ADHDers tend to yell, scream, tantrum, argue, and assign blame. They might kick a door or punch a wall. Or, an ADHD child or adult may even physically react, displaying violence toward others. When you find yourself in a state of constant reactivity, you may become entangled in personal, professional, and legal problems.
The good news is that it’s possible to learn strategies to control anger and sometimes even stop it in its tracks.
The Science of Anger
Let’s get down to the science of anger. You see, the emotion of anger is not an isolated feeling. Brain scans show that when people experience their own anger, it actually causes physiological changes in their brain and body.
When you experience an angry feeling, it affects your cardiovascular, immune, and digestive systems. Over time, repressed or repeated anger can even cause your bone density to decrease.
There are some very alarming statistics about anger. Check out this list of physiological responses according to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine:
- anger raises your heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and increases arterial tension
- it spikes your blood glucose, and raises your fatty acid blood levels
- increases intraocular pressure (eye)
- unresolved anger leads to higher cancer rates
- escalates the number of virus-infected cells in your body
- decreases your thyroid function
- lowers the number of natural killer white cells (known as NK cell and NK-LGL)
- restricts your arteries and constricts your blood flow
- and anger boosts your cortisol which in turn negatively slows your metabolism (chemical reactions in the body’s cells that change food into energy.)
That list alone is shocking, which makes it even more important to take your ADHD and anger responses seriously. Therefore anger does not just affect your mental health and relationships, but can clearly negatively impact your physical health. All these facts make it essential to begin to work on a plan to mitigate your anger and reactivity as soon as you can.
Where Does Anger Come From?
Anger often begins when someone experiences a triggering event. This may include when you feel interrupted, annoyed, disappointed, frustrated, judged, rejected, or afraid.
Before you even recognize what you’re feeling, the amygdala has activated, which alerts the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary glands by discharging corticotropin-releasing hormones, the pituitary activates the adrenal glands by discharging adrenocorticotropin hormones, and the adrenal glands flood the system with cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline – stress hormones.
Congratulations – you’re officially angry.
With all the cortisol streaming through your body, your brain begins to experience changes, especially in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus.
Cortisol kills off the neurons in the prefrontal cortex, making it difficult for you to reason, make good choices, and see the consequences of your actions.
In the hippocampus, your elevated cortisol level is killing off neurons while also affecting its ability to make new ones. This messes with your short-term memory and makes it hard for you to form new memories correctly. (If you’ve ever said something in the heat of the moment and promptly forgotten about it, this is why.)
As if cortisol hasn’t wreaked enough havoc, it’s also chipping away at your serotonin levels – the “happy” hormone. And since people with ADHD already have a serotonin deficit, making an already-low level even lower isn’t doing your brain any favors.
Anger-Busting Coping Strategies for People with ADHD
Now that you know what happens in your body when you get angry, you can start learning ways to keep that anger in check. These 5 strategies will help.
Use Willing Hands.
Place your hands face up in an open/receiving position. Then, rest them by your sides or on your knees as you engage with someone in dialogue. This ancient yogic pose puts you in a place of receiving, and it makes it VERY difficult to stay angry.
Take a Plunge.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can’t effectively problem solve, so you need a way to shift out of the emotional lock you’re in. The solution? Fill the sink with cold water and plunge your face into it. The cold water will immediately reduce your heightened state of arousal and allow you to beak the emotional paralysis. The cold will bring your anger down and help your problem-solving brain show up and provide you with different options.
Use Your Breathing Techniques.
EXHALE SLOWER. Exhaling autonomically triggers the parasympathetic nervous system response. Extend the duration of your phrases. Instead of short, staccato attacks where you’re gasping for breath every couple of words, try extending your sentences. This tricks your anger-Mobilized Sympathetic Response. Longer sentences will let you exhale longer, which changes your physiological state. When you become aware of your physiological state (for example I’m gasping and drawing in shallow breaths), you can find strategies and behaviors to compensate. Try exaggerated prosody (speaking in a sing-song tone of voice). Instead of being behind critical and aggressive, you can trigger inhibitory responses that foster positive social engagement and interaction.
Pay More Attention to the Eyes than the Mouth.
Help yourself by managing what you tend to focus on. Eyes convey presence, helpfulness, and openness, while mouths are associated with biting, it’s important to
Recognize Reactive Response and Rewire.
Anger often drives a coupled impulsive action we learned as children to self-protect or defend. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. We feel the need to vent, lash out, have a drink, buy something we don’t need, end the relationship, walk out, shut down – any number of negative emotions. It’s important to learn that this ‘coupled action’ is based on an ‘assumption’ that we’re powerless, which is inaccurate. If we continue to engage in anger-reaction without considering the consequences, we’ll end up losing a lot of friends and relationships. Instead, learn to recognize that the coupled impulse (the need to take action or react) is actually a learned reaction to a feeling, which at one time may have been adaptive, but has become socially maladaptive. Then, practice breathing so you can actually INHIBIT that reaction. Feel it, name it, BREATHE through the impulse and ride it out. Know that it will pass and use your breath to stabilize your state. Over time, you’ll rewire the impulse and decouple it.
Can You Recognize Your ADHD Anger Warning Signs?
Knowing how to overcome anger when it’s already taken hold is great – but what if you could keep it from sinking its claws in, therefore preventing the over-the-top action from occurring in the first place?
When you begin to recognize how your body reacts to anger, it’s possible to recognize your anger warning signs and intervene early with helpful strategies.
So next time you enter the ADHD and anger – ‘warm under the collar zone’ – STOP and THINK.
Remember, it isn’t the first time you’ve felt your heart race, your palms get sweaty, or your jaw clench. When you can recognize physical signs you can instantly understand what they mean. Tell yourself, “I’m getting angry. What now?” Use the tools at your disposal to mitigate your reaction to anger and any potential fallout that comes with it.
No one is immune to anger, but people with ADHD struggle much harder than others with their reactions to it. By knowing how anger affects your brain, how you can deal with it in the moment, and how to keep it from taking over, you’re in a much better position to control your anger before it has the chance to control you!
Are you struggling with managing your adult ADHD? As a Certified ADHD Coach, I can help! Book your FREE Discovery Call today and let’s work together to take your life back!