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How Emotional Hyperarousal Causes People With ADHD Major Problems

5 Ways to help people with ADHD reign in their runaway emotions 

Emotional hyperarousal is one of the characteristics common in ADHD. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked in diagnosis because it does not present with hyperactivity. In children and adults, it is often misdiagnosed as a mood disorder, as in Dennis’s case.  

  Dennis and Gracie

Dennis and Gracie, a young couple who had been married a few years, found themselves in uncharted territory when Dennis’s behavior became even stranger than it had been. They had known each other during high school, but he had never treated her like he did now. It seemed like he interrupted just about every sentence she started with a very nasty attitude and comment.

Gracie had ordered a special vase from an online store. She had anxiously awaited the arrival, as it was like one her grandmother had when she was a kid. It finally arrived. She quickly opened the package only to find it had been broken during shipping.

Tears began to form in her eyes as she searched through the seller’s website unable to find where to report the damage.

She was going through the pages when Dennis demanded, “Get up. I’ll do it.”

She said, “Well, I’ve gone to the sales page, and the shipping…”

With a very nasty attitude, Dennis cut her off, “Just forget it. You know everything. I was just trying to help.”

“How can you go from being loving and kind to being so nasty in a split second? I just don’t get it,” Gracie said as she looked up at Dennis.


Understanding the runaway brain

Challenges with processing emotions start in the brain itself. Sometimes the working memory impairments of ADHD allow a momentary emotion to become too strong, flooding the brain with one intense emotion.”(Thomas Brown, Ph.D.,

Most ADHDers have emotional hyperarousal which presents with passionate and intense thoughts and emotions. Their highs are higher and their lows lower which makes them appear overly sensitive and off-putting to others. 

Very often a heightened emotion will hit an ADHDer without any warning. The intense emotion instantly manifests causing an extreme response such as anger, excitement, fear, etc., which is called “flooding.”

The focus on that one emotion then crowds out all other emotions and information that would otherwise help them regulate the flooding. In the midst of flooding, they are unable to shift their focus to other parts of the situation, often leading to misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

For example, in the above story, Dennis saw Gracie tense up when she couldn’t find where to report the damage. His wanting to help began to flood his emotions. He didn’t ask politely if she wanted help. He demanded. When she didn’t instantly respond the way he expected, he was unable to shift gears and process why she hesitated.

Instead, he became instantly offended. Assuming she didn’t want his help, he jumped into a deep self-defensive rage without asking any questions or thinking it through before responding.

Working memory 

By definition, “the working memory is the small amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks.” (Working Memory Capacity, Nelson Cowan.)

People with low working memory may appear to not be paying attention, as with inattentive ADHD. But in reality, they have lost track of the thought or what was in play around them at the moment, due to inadequate short-term working memory. 

It often appears that the ADHDer is lazy or doesn’t want to finish a project, when, in actuality, they are susceptible to distractions and their minds may switch tracks in the middle of a task or project. Also, they may not remember the complete task, especially if it is quite involved or requires more processing.


Childhood emotional hyperarousal

Dennis’s kindergarten teacher reported that she had problems keeping him engaged in group activities. When he went to the building blocks corner, he got so involved that the teacher couldn’t get him back into the class. 

At first, the doctor diagnosed Dennis with Borderline Personality Disorder. The medication that was prescribed did not seem to work at all. The doctor then gave his parents an ADD/ADHD quiz which he used in the diagnosis. The doctor then changed the diagnosis to Inattentive ADHD with Emotion Hyperarousal.

Even though his ADHD did not present with hyperactivity, he still had milder hyperactivity. He would tap his pencil on the desk to the rhythm he heard in his head during class, while watching tv, reading, or doing homework.

The kids began making fun of him because he seemed to be in his own world and did not hear when the teacher or anyone else spoke to him. He would also do things in what seemed like a weird way to the other kids, so they quit including him in games and activities.

Similar to other kids with ADHD, failing tests, poor grades, angry teachers, disappointed parents, and other kids’ teasing caused Dennis’s self-esteem to take a hit. As a result, he started lying to save face with his parents and the teacher, but that didn’t work well, so he began clowning in class. 

He discovered he liked making the other kids laugh. It seemed to ease some of his self-esteem issues. Most of the time, the other kids thought he was funny, which helped him save face and feel better about himself.

As with other ADHD kids, Dennis was exceptionally bright and creative, even though it didn’t show on tests in the classroom. 

One day, at age 14, as he was looking out the window into their backyard, he saw an old, broken, motorized reel-type lawn mower, the back of a clothes dryer with a v-belt pulley, and his 3-speed English racer bicycle. He got the idea of turning his English racer into a motorized bike. Thus began his summer project. By the end of the summer, he was riding his motorized bike all over town, with the 3-speed transmission intact.


Dennis and Gracie 

As he got older he became very impulsive, acting or talking before thinking often interrupting when he thought someone was going to say something negative about him or if he thought they were wrong. His interruptions were often jokes, which derailed the negative comments or thoughts. But, his clowning didn’t work as well in adulthood as it had in childhood.

His impulsive interruptions continued to increase in adulthood without the clowning.

Dennis had times when he wouldn’t allow Gracie to finish any sentence. Four words and he would very rudely interrupt her. He seemed to assume he knew what she was going to say, always putting a very derogatory spin on it. And most of the time his assumptions were wrong.

Also, if he thought he heard a negative tone in Gracie’s voice or saw what he interpreted as a negative expression or physical reaction, he would take it as a personal criticism and jump to intense self-defense without listening to what Gracie had to say or asking a question to understand, as in the story above.


Reigning in runaway emotions

Dennis began to realize that he needed to change some of his behaviors. He had read about how parents of ADHD children were helping them establish new habits. He and Gracie began their search for how to establish new behavior protocols to lessen Dennis’s runaway emotions.

5 ways of curbing runaway emotions:

  1. Manage stress

One of the first things Dennis tried in managing his emotions, was to take several deep long breaths when he began to feel his emotions spin up. As he slowly exhaled, his emotions began to dissipate. 

At first, Gracie would remind him to breathe. But he soon learned to recognize his emotions as they began to build and was able to defuse them with breathing.

2. Limiting commitments

Dennis and Gracie created a simple “Task List” using an online app. They added no more than 5 items, with start times, to the list. Each item had an alarm set to tell him when it was time to complete one item and move to the next.

Since Gracie went to bed before Dennis, once the schedule was set, it was up to Dennis to “follow through.” It took commitment for Dennis because, as with many ADHDers, he was used to getting into a project and staying up until it was finished, even if it meant no sleep. It eventually became easier.


3. Getting enough sleep

After reading scientific reports on sleep, about how the brain needed sleep, and his susceptibility to Alzheimer’s without it, he agreed to get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night. 

This was one of the most difficult commitments for Dennis because he was used to his quiet, “do as I please,” time. But after a couple of months of getting 7 hours of sleep, he admitted he felt better. He also noticed an improvement in his ability to think and remember.

4. Create an emotional response plan

In planning how to respond to different emotional situations, Dennis discovered that avoiding emotionally charged situations was easier than trying to calm his emotions. He learned that some situations, like arguing, weren’t worth the emotional cost.

Dennis began journaling different things and situations and memories that have caused him to become emotional or defensive. This was part of a Mind Renewal protocol to renew his mind to God’s Word as mentioned in Romans. 

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:2 (NKJV)

As he journaled, he first wrote about the situations that were toxic or caused him to be emotional in some way. 

He would then write how to replace the toxic emotions and memories with good healthy thoughts using God’s Word. He also wrote about how he would handle emotional situations differently. He was also learning how to “do” the Word.

He also asked Gracie to help him if a subject, like politics, triggered him. She would help “talk him down,” by looking at the big picture or a different perspective.

Shortly after Dennis began his mind renewal project, Gracie began to notice changes in Dennis’s attitude and behavior.

5. Remember the other person’s perspective

As with most ADHDers, Dennis was always very quick to justify his thoughts and feelings. Even if the other person was not putting him down in some way, he felt he needed to explain his point of view. During his explanation, his emotions would often become more intense and excitable.

As he worked on his mind renewal, he began to see that very often the other person’s reactions or comments really didn’t have anything to do with him.

For example, in the story above, Gracie did not have a derogatory opinion of him or his ability. She was lost in her own thoughts and problems. 

Dennis began to see that not everything was about him. He didn’t need to take so many things personally.


Dennis and Gracie both began to see steady improvement in Dennis’s ability to control and monitor his emotions. 

It wasn’t easy at first because he had lived with and developed patterns of dealing with different situations and emotions as far back as he could remember. He also cultivated some of the ideas and behaviors thinking it made him smarter or funnier.

But as he began renewing his mind he discovered that he didn’t need to clown to get approval or to build up his self-esteem.

Dennis realized how abrupt and dismissive he had been with Gracie. He also realized how he had not acknowledged her feelings about the vase that had gotten broken during shipping.

“Grace,” he said, “Please forgive me for being so mean the other night. I didn’t even ask any questions about why the vase was so important to you. Please forgive me.”

“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”


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