A theme that repeatedly comes up when researchers study ADHD is that people with ADHD aren’t all the same. There are subgroups of people with ADHD that appear to have different traits.
The most commonly known way of dividing up people with ADHD is to talk about people with “inattentive” ADHD, “hyperactive” ADHD, or “combined” ADHD with both types of symptoms. But there are plenty of other ways of splitting ADHDers into groups based on which symptoms you decide to look at.
One of these is by looking at what psychologists call emotion dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation is pretty much what it sounds like: an inability to manage, dial down, or put into context one’s emotions. As it turns out, a large subgroup of people with ADHD have serious difficulties in regulating their emotions.
According to a recent study from researchers in Germany, all ADHDers tend to have impaired emotion regulation abilities, but a subgroup of between one-third and two-thirds of ADHDers has more severe deficits in this regard. For those people, emotion regulation impairments come with a cost: higher rates of depression, more negative emotions, and more psychological distress.
The idea that ADHD can be a condition with emotional symptoms is worth highlighting because we often fixate on the cognitive symptoms of ADHD: distractibility, organizational problems, memory issues, and so on. These cognitive symptoms seem to arise partly because people with ADHD have a more general deficit in being able to regulate their own brains. What the high rate of emotional dysregulation among ADHDers suggests is that this inability to self-regulate carries over into self-regulating emotions as well.
That deficit in emotional regulation can translate into many different types of practical problems. Acting rashly, burning bridges with others unnecessarily, having trouble moving past negative events, and potentially other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
If around half of people with ADHD, give or take, have especially pronounced issues with emotional regulation, that’s a wake-up call that issues with managing emotions need to be considered as an ADHD symptom.
Both people coping with ADHD and mental health professionals treating ADHD should be aware of this link between ADHD and emotional dysregulation. Among other things, it confirms that psychotherapy is an important part of ADHD treatment, and that therapies addressing how people manage emotions might be especially helpful for ADHDers.
Image: Flickr/Chris Murray