How to Handle ADHD and Anger in Adults
ADHD and anger in adults is intimidating and difficult to deal with for the person with ADHD as well as others in his/her life. Adults with ADHD “can have a very short fuse—their anger can go from zero to sixty in a few seconds” (Weiss, 2005). Indeed, anger can seem to strike out of nowhere, a frightening experience for all involved.
Adult ADHD and anger involves extremely quick reactions, often to what appear to others to be insignificant little things. For someone with ADHD, when anger boils over, all perspective is lost. Attempts to de-escalate or to reason often make the situation worse.
Understanding Adult ADHD and Anger
Adults with ADHD frequently feel as though they have absolutely no control—neither of their own brain nor within their lives in the world. Surman and Bilkey (2013) report that studies of people with ADHD show that these adults have less emotional control, are quicker to anger, have a higher level of frustration, and feel a less stable sense of wellbeing than adults without ADHD.
Angry outbursts, the intensity of which can make them full-blown ADHD meltdowns, happen in large part because the inability to be still, pay attention, focus, concentrate, organize, plan, and follow through creates frustrations and misunderstandings that will suddenly boil over in an explosion of anger.
Further complicating matters is the fact that people with ADHD tend to be much more sensitive than others, interpreting even innocent remarks as criticism. Underlying this hypersensitivity to “personal attack” is often low self-esteem. The result is frequently anger.
The external expression of anger seems to instantly strike out of the blue. Yet beneath the surface, the seeds of anger are planted before the Venus fly trap unfurls. This is what can happen in the ADHD brain:
- Misperceptions of external events
- Strong feeling of hurt and embarrassment
- Inability to slow down and fully process and evaluate the situation
- Activation of triggers (past memories of failure, social problems)
- Loss of perspective due to a flood of negative thoughts and emotions
- Rushed judgment based on incorrect perspectives
- Mounting pressure to act
- Angry outbursts
Adults with ADHD and anger difficulties typically feel out of control and powerless to do anything about the anger. While this belief is legitimate, it isn’t accurate. ADHD and anger management can and do go well together.
ADHD and Anger Management in Adults
Strategies exist that have been proven, through research and clinical practice, to help people handle ADHD and anger in adults. Pick and choose from the list to find things that work well for you.
- Separate yourself from your ADHD-fueled anger; you aren’t a bad person but are dealing with ADHD symptoms.
- Rather than trying hard to eliminate your anger (it’s a normal human emotion), think instead of channeling it or handling it in less destructive ways.
- In advance, ask your partner to call a time out, blow a whistle, or otherwise do something to break you out of your rage.
- When interacting with people, whether you’re angry or calm, focus on the facts and avoid letting your thoughts impose judgment.
- Give yourself a time-out and leave a situation when you feel your emotions escalating.
- Practice mindfulness regularly to decrease impulsivity and increase your emotional control
- Practice deep breathing exercises when you feel stress increase, when you’re relaxed, during an angry outburst to calm down—pretty much any time.
- Eat healthy foods, drink water, and sleep.
- Exercise vigorously and regularly to reduce stress.
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs (Self-Medicating for Anxiety: An Addict's Perspective).
- Create a visual cue to keep with you, a symbol that reminds you to be calm.
- Pause before communicating so you don’t blurt whatever is on your mind; similarly, you don’t have to answer your phone or send a nasty e-mail but instead give yourself time and space to calm down.
- Identify your triggers and develop strategies to deal with them positively.
- Laugh regularly because humor defuses anger, reduces stress, and feels good.
Other Things for ADHD and Anger Management
In addition to creating a toolbox of strategies to use to reduce your anger, you can enlist outside support for adult ADHD as well.
- Work with a therapist.
- Take anger-management classes/trainings.
- Have an open, honest discussion with people in your life and ask them to help you control this anger that is part of ADHD.
- Talk to your doctor about medication; ADHD medication isn’t right or helpful for everyone, but it is available as an option.
You are not your ADHD, and you’re not a terrible, angry person. ADHD causes anger and angry outbursts. You can have control over this by working on strategies to handle adult ADHD and anger.
Last Updated: 01 November 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD