For many adults with ADHD, one of the symptoms most reported isn’t the inability to stay still or to listen to members of authority - but rather the intrusive and unpleasant feelings of irritability that can arise even at the smallest and most trivial of moments.
Take the case of Derek, a 45-year-old homebuilder. Diagnosed with ADHD in his late 30s, he struggles every day to regulate his emotions, which he admits can get the better of him.
“I work in an industry where people generally speak their minds, so I never really found the need to contain myself,” he admits. Derek doesn’t get violent, but he does have a hard time controlling his words when he’s angry. He says that in his line of work, or at the very least, with the company he keeps, he’s felt free to showcase his irritability and believes he’s done so without truly offending anyone.
That said, he understands that may not be entirely truthful. His irritability and prickliness have caused tension at home and in his personal relationships.
“My wife is the complete opposite of me,” says Derek. “Where I jump on people right away, she’s calm and patient. I have road rage, and she figures we’re stuck in traffic for a reason.
“You’d think she’d be a calming presence for someone like me, but most days she’s too calm and that irritates me.”
Derek goes on to describe how he’s the same way with his fishing buddies, his teenage son, and even cashiers at the grocery store. It’s an emotion he struggles to control, and he’s now seeking therapy to learn how to examine why he reacts the way he does, and how to reel it in.
If you have ADHD and are constantly irritable, don’t consider it a character flaw. It’s actually a very common symptom reported by adults and kids with ADHD, although adults might better be able to recognize that they’re being irritable for considerably insignificant or trivial reasons. The good news is that feeling miserable and irritated isn’t a life sentence – there are actually some very helpful, practical and focused tips for getting rid of ADHD-induced irritability.
1. Sleep is a must. Even for those without ADHD, a good, restful sleep is imperative – it sheds away the previous day and sets us up for a successful day ahead.
However, sleep is challenging for those with ADHD. People with this disorder often report issues with sleep, more so than those in the general population. The symptoms of ADHD are typically the same as what one would experience without a good night’s rest: moodiness, hyperactivity, an inability to focus or concentrate on tasks more menial and major. Because these symptoms overlap, sometimes insomnia can be mistaken for ADHD, or vice versa.
But recent studies are actually proving that sleeplessness and ADHD are even more closely tied together than previous reports have shown. For one, those with ADHD may experience delayed release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which rise and fall in a normal, routine manner for those without ADHD. When melatonin release is delayed, it makes it difficult to fall asleep. Because of this, kids and adults with ADHD are generally more “wired” in the evening hours than others are.
It’s also been reported that those with ADHD are more likely to suffer from other sleep-related disorders, like restless leg syndrome (an uncomfortable sensation in the legs that usually occurs at night when the body should be at rest); periodic limb movements in sleep (or PLMS), which is a twitching movement in the arms, legs and feet at night; or sleep-disordered breathing, like snoring. All of these make sleep particularly challenging for many people with ADHD.
Knowing this, you can arm yourself with skills and tools to improve your quality of sleep.
Consider turning off all electronics in your bedroom and shut off all screens at least an hour and a half before bed.
Maintain a schedule – go to bed at the same time every night and rise at the same time every morning.
Exercise every day, whether it’s a walk, a jog, an hour in an organized sport, or yoga. Anything that gets you moving, sweating, and rejuvenated throughout the daytime hours.
Get lots of sunshine. Light therapy is proven to help encourage the regulation of circadian rhythms (your sleep/wake cycle, or your internal cycle).
Ditch the stimulants. Avoid caffeine or alcohol, which encourage restlessness and anxiety.
2. Be kind. It’s been scientifically proven that when we set a goal to be kind to others, it improves our outlook on life. That “rush” of joy or happiness that we feel is a huge benefit and tends to knock out any bad feelings we may be harboring – including irritability.
One certainly doesn’t need a reason to be kind, but it helps to know that doing great things for others will also be good for our bodies and our mental health. Here are some ideas for random acts of kindness that you can practice in your household and in your community:
Smile at everyone you meet. Smiling is contagious, and it will be rare to smile at someone and not have them smile back. You never know what a person is going through, and your smile may turn around their entire day.
Send out a kind email or letter. Did you get great service at a restaurant the week before? Are you happy with your child’s progress at school? When’s the last time you sent your postal delivery service person a thank you card for getting your packages to you in every kind of weather? Writing down positive reviews about a person’s hard work causes a ripple effect – not only will you feel good about thanking that person, but he or she will feel uplifted the minute they read your letter and will be motivated to keep working hard, inspiring others to do the same. Before you know it, that kind of service, as well as your gratitude, will have spread and have a wider reach than you’ll ever know.
Pay for someone’s coffee at the drive-thru. Some coffee and fast food chains have reported hours of this giving behavior. One person pays for the person behind him, who pays for the next person, and on and on. Imagine the hundreds of people who feel good about being given an unexpected gift, and who feel even better about giving a gift to someone they don’t know and will likely never meet.
Stop complaining for one whole week. Try this. Every time you feel discouraged or angry or some other negative emotion, stop. Turn around the feeling by not vocalizing it, and by trying to find a silver lining. Often, when we feel bad about something and then say it out loud, it just makes it worse. It could be that we feel worse about it all by our lonesome, or we talk about it with someone else, who complains along with us and multiplies the bad feeling. Try not complaining for an entire week and see how you feel at the end of seven days.
Give. It could be donating blood. It could be bringing a few of your favorite childhood books to the pediatric department of the local hospital. It could be giving someone who’s having a hard time a much-needed hug. Whatever you have to give, give it. And see how you feel.
If you're ADHD is getting in the way of your relationships, read this.
3. Exercise. There’s little out there that doesn’t get fixed with a little exercise. Some of the most popular ADHD activities in therapy include physical exercise, and for good reason. Exercise has been praised as “nature’s antidepressant.”
It’s been said that ADHD is related to a dysfunction of dopamine, known as the “feel-good” hormone. Exercise is responsible for increasing the levels of dopamine, as well as other happy hormones like serotonin and norepinephrine, and scientists have actually reported that exercise has the same effect as some popular stimulants (although it’s important to note that the effects of exercise last for only a few hours, while stimulants have stronger lasting power). The increase in these hormones not only help things like focus, attention and concentration, they also help you feel good – emotionally and physically.
If the idea of exercise intimidates you, start off slow. You can do 30 minutes of walking outside or on a treadmill, or find a beginner’s yoga class on YouTube. If you like solitary activities, you can bike, jog, do Tai Chi, or even dance in your living room. If you prefer group activities, you can reach out to a local recreation center to see if they offer league sports for adults. It doesn’t matter what the activity is – you just have to move.
4. Change the channel. In other words, change your perspective. When we focus on something that’s upsetting, a natural instinct might be to stay there, ruminating and worrying or just being angry. And as annoying as this age-old advice may be, it’s true: worrying about it isn’t going to change anything.
Whether or not you’re spiritual, you may find comfort in the Serenity Prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Many people choose to use this as a daily mantra regardless of religious belief. You may opt to omit the reference to God and just remind yourself that there are things you can’t change, and things that you can – you just have to be able to differentiate between the two. If you’re worrying over something you have absolutely no power to change, consider taking that energy and moving it somewhere you’ll feel more useful and in control.
Think of it this way: if you’re watching a TV show that’s irritating you, would you keep watching it? Not likely. So change the channel, and think of other, more pleasant things. This isn’t to encourage you to sweep problems under the rug, but to challenge yourself to change your perspective about certain things. After all, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
5. It’s okay to vent. This tip seems counterintuitive to some of our previous suggestions, but we’re not encouraging venting for the sake of venting. There’s a healthy way to do it.
If it helps to talk things out, do so with a trusted friend or family member, preferably one who is a positive and uplifting person. Give yourself a time limit. Take 10 or 20 minutes to get things out, and allow your friend to help you see things in a different light, or just listen without contributing anything. Alternatively, you can journal your feelings instead of saying it out loud, but again, give yourself a time limit.
There’s a fine line. You can choose to keep your upset or anger to yourself, but you might feel you’re bottled up and that you’ll explode if you don’t say something soon. We’re not recommending being dishonest about your feelings or being restrained from sharing. It’s about choosing a time, a place, and a healthy way to explore what’s going on inside, because after all, there’s a difference between being upset about waiting in line at the store for half an hour and dealing with serious financial trouble. Some things are definitely harder to shake than others, and having a good support system is important and necessary to get through. If you don’t have a person in your immediate circle you can talk to, you can certainly book an appointment with a licensed mental health professional with whom you can share your feelings – good and bad.
If you have ADHD and are struggling with irritability, you may find comfort talking to one of our friendly, knowledgeable and helpful therapists. For more information, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.