By Renee Crook
Your coworker stares at you with mouth open and a shocked look. They are confused, dumbfounded and even a little hurt. You have no idea. In the silence on their end of the “conversation”…which was actually your runaway-train monologue diatribe about how you didn’t have all the information you needed, didn’t have time to do your best work, the computer kept glitching, you didn’t hear back from Victor on the questions you asked, how are you supposed to work under these conditions and more. Your volume rising, face getting redder and your words rushing faster and faster.
When you must pause… to take a breath… you realize your coworker has said nothing. You were ranting. You see their big eyes and open mouth. Oh $#*%… Then another flood comes… This time you are aware of your body and other thoughts and feelings begin… What just happened? You begin to feel sick to your stomach, your face goes pale. You might feel clammy. Or flushed. You want to snap at them again. You may want to walk away. You may just stand there silently… you don’t know what to do. How did I end up here… AGAIN?!?!
This is one example of emotional dysregulation with an externalized manifestation… an outburst, of sorts. Something triggers our brain (amygdala) into survival mode (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn). It is connected to our experiences, beliefs, fears, sensitivities and the imbalance of neurotransmitters in ADHD brains. And, for so many ADHDers, it happens so quickly and so intensely it is overwhelming. And often has significant consequences. You are feeling threatened.
The amygdala (primal brain) gets turned on and the prefrontal cortex (our evolved higher brain) shuts down. Your body releases adrenaline, norepinephrine, and glucose to prepare for the fight. Everyone looks like an enemy or threat. There is only “How do I make it end? not “Who gets hurt?” The empathy centers of the brain are turned off during the “flipped” or “amygdala hijack” state. This system has evolved to protect us. But we feel, sense, and experience threat intensely even when there may not be an actual threat. We also feel it more often than our neurotypical counterparts. This is exacerbated in those who have experienced traumas beyond those connected to ADHD. Treatment and management for those of us with co-existing conditions will need to be addressed with more intense and targeted support.
Did you relate to the story above? Did you recognize yourself or someone you know or love in the scenario?
What preceded the response in the situation described? What might have caused you or someone you know to respond that way? Has something like this happened to you?
You may find yourself instantly overwhelmed with anger, shame, sadness, fear, or frustration as you connect with the memory of it.
What can you do about all this?
First Step: Breathe
Stop. Slow your breathing. Practice “7-11 breathing.” Breathe in for the count of 7, hold for 7, and breathe out for 11. This pattern of breathing (holding the breath then breathing out for longer than the intake) helps to re-engage the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for getting back to basic functioning like resting and digestion. These are put on hold while in a triggered/flipped state when the sympathetic nervous system takes over. All resources go toward surviving the imminent threat. When the parasympathetic nervous system is back online you can begin to think, choose, and respond. Your brain and body “know” you are ok, you are safe. Repeat the breathing until you can begin to think again. Your heart rate begins to slow. You become aware of your surroundings, body sensations, and thoughts.
Second Step: Pause and Reflect on Self-Talk
What are you saying to yourself? What “story” have you created about the other person or people involved, the situation, or the event? Are you the victim in this scenario? Have you been wronged, misunderstood, criticized, disrespected, or made fun of? You may be pointing to those around you or the situation for the cause.
There is also self-directed talk. What are you saying about yourself, your reactions, your words, or your actions? Are you ashamed, embarrassed, or mortified? Are you thinking you are a horrible person who is reckless with other people’s emotions? Are you saying how mean, awful, inconsiderate, and thoughtless you are? Are you saying you are too emotional, too sensitive—TOO EVERYTHING? You are pointing to yourself as the cause of all the problems around you.
If you are externalizing your emotional dysregulation, you are negatively impacting those around you because of your behavior, actions, and words. If you are internalizing your emotional dysregulation, you are negatively impacting yourself because of your behavior, actions, words, and internal dialogue.
Either way… you are hurting!
Third Step: Challenge the Self-Talk and Reframe
Take a minute to pay attention to what you are saying. Ask yourself if there could be another possibility. What other alternatives could there be to the “story” you have been telling yourself? Could what they said or did mean something else? Ask yourself if what you are saying to yourself is true? What do you know of the people involved? Would they really be openly trying to embarrass or judge you? The worst-case scenario you created in your head in a nano-second or stewed over for hours probably isn’t true or real. You need to challenge them or as I say to myself and my clients, “Call B.S. on that nonsense!” When you can reframe those thoughts, it takes the power out of them. What other possibilities would be more gracious to yourself and the other people involved?
Fourth Step: Check Your Needs
Ask yourself “What do I need right now? Am I calmer, feeling more safe/less threatened? If not, do you need to leave the situation? Do you need to find a safe person to talk to? Who or what do you need?
Am I still unclear about what happened? Do I need to ask for something? Do I need to clarify understanding, meaning or intent? What do I need to take responsibility for? What impact did I have, no matter what the intention was?
If I determine that this was a situation where a boundary of mine was crossed, do I need to say something? Can you do that calmly and productively now or do you need to come back to this later?
When you reflect on the situation and discover what you were saying to yourself, you may be able to determine, at least in that moment, what happened and what you need. But many ADHDers struggle with self-awareness and metacognition (thinking about our own thinking). So, we often need help with this. When things are calm, you may need to ask your friends, partners, or family members to help you see, identify, and make sense of your patterns. You may also need extra support from a therapist or coach to find out what is at the bottom of the triggers.
The root for so many of us is rejection sensitivity. We are so used to not measuring up, feeling different or, on the outside. We may feel we’re weird or, at our worst, broken. We will need to uncover the deeper beliefs that are driving our “overreactions” and repeated patterns.
When your coworker asked when you might be done with the assignment, you HEARD… “You are so slow. You never finish anything. I can’t trust you to take care of this on your own.” These may be real things you have heard others say and that you say to yourself, but we often are overlaying those narratives into situations and conversations where they do not apply. This causes a reaction that blows the situation up because our physiology betrays us. Our bodies react instantly to that thought before we can challenge it, pause, question it or stop it. Your coworker was really only asking when you might be done with the assignment.
We can’t believe everything we think!
Renee Crook, ACG, is an ADHD Coach, Speaker, Facilitator and Consultant at ADDed Perspective Coaching. She also serves as an ADDA Board Member, Virtual Support Programs Chair and Beginner’s Peer Support Group Facilitator.
Renee is starting an 8 week group coaching program, “Transforming Perspectives”, on Emotional Dysregulation, Rejection Sensitivity, Self-Talk, Mindset and more starting Friday, October 23, 2020. Learn more on her website at http://addedperspectivecoaching.com/coaching-group/.