What is ADHD? What are the symptoms?
ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting approximately 1.2–7.3% of adults worldwide. The condition is characterized by a lack of attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, which may cause one to be easily distracted and struggle to prioritize tasks or manage their time effectively. These symptoms often result in behaviors that may lead to adverse outcomes in day-to-day life. For example, an inability to meet deadlines or poor general work performance.
While ADHD remains a persistent and disturbing reality in the mental health realm despite the development of effective interventions anchored on managing the condition, evidence shows that people with ADHD are very creative as they often think of new, out-of-the-box approaches. When placed in the right working environment, they can use their strength of hyper-focus to deliver results that offset the costs of their accommodation.
However, the complex nature of ADHD and its impact on an individual’s life cannot be overlooked. For instance, scholars note that ADHD manifests during childhood but can continue into adulthood, adversely affecting an individual’s personal, social, academic, and occupational functioning and development (Cabral & Soares, 2020).
Fortunately, the availability of pharmacological therapy and increased focus on inter-professional collaboration to provide well-coordinated care has enhanced outcomes for ADHD patients. Improved attention has also been directed towards the relationship between ADHD and emotional intelligence (EI).
How can emotional intelligence help manage ADHD?
Emotional intelligence is defined by our ability to understand and manage our thoughts and emotions and better understand the feelings of others. And the ability to utilize these feelings to cope with the demands of daily life, adapt to change, manage stress, self-motivate, empathize, and establish successful relationships.
Because individuals with ADHD frequently struggle to recognize their emotions, have a lower frustration tolerance, and impaired self-control — which can lead to aggressive behaviors — therapy anchored on improving and developing EI-related abilities has been on the rise.
Self-esteem also becomes adversely impacted due to an inability to recognize the difference between a minor vs. major problem, creating a downward spiral of emotions that impact daily functioning.
That said, self-awareness and self-regulation are the most crucial EI elements for managing the symptoms of ADHD.
Self-awareness helps us better understand what we are feeling and how those feelings manifest in our bodies and direct future thoughts and actions. For individuals with ADHD, this may involve a more conscious effort and practice.
If you are someone who struggles with ADHD, here are a few EI strategies and practices that may help alleviate your symptoms and assist you in becoming aware of and regulating your emotions and impulses:
Write down your thoughts, feelings, and the intensity of your emotions.
If you feel frustrated due to an inability to focus, you may impulsively react as a result of feeling helpless to control the situation. This can snowball into a flooding of negative thoughts and feelings that engulf you in an emotional cyclone that may seem impossible to escape.
Writing down your thoughts or journaling naturally helps you develop awareness because it requires you to think about your state of being, thoughts, or intentions and enables you to process your emotions instead of reacting to them.
If you struggle to find the word for a specific emotion, focus on writing down how that emotion is showing up in your body or makes you feel. Regardless of the thoughts that enter your mind, remember that your thoughts are an internal narrative of reality and not necessarily an accurate representation of reality.
Focus on your breath.
One of the most effective self-regulation strategies to help you overcome a stress response state is intentional breathing exercises. Taking long, deep, and steady breaths communicates to our body and mind that we are safe and calms our nervous system. You can learn more about breathwork and different techniques here.
Practice Mindfulness techniques.
There are a number of mindfulness methods that can help ground us in the present moment and alleviate anxiety. Each works to direct our attention away from thoughts of the past or future concerns and encourages us to concentrate on elements of the here and now.
Examples of mindfulness methods:
Focusing on your senses: What can you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste?
Placing your attention on a specific object or color: Find an object in your environment to focus on, noticing its texture, color, shape, and details. Or select a color and find things in your environment that are of that color.
Meditation: Sitting in a calm space and ‘quieting your mind’ may be challenging with ADHD as you find your mind and body becoming anxious. However, extending your time in a distraction-free and quiet space, and limiting external stimulants, may aid in rewiring your brain and reduce distraction over time. It’s critical not to judge yourself if you find your mind wandering. This is normal.
Mindful movement: Yoga, tai chi, and balancing are a few examples of mindful movement because they require concentration and focus on your body.
Evaluate and reframe your thoughts: A common symptom of ADHD is feeling big emotions for minor situations. It helps to inquire about the situation and reframe it with a solution-focused mindset. You might do this by asking yourself questions like:
What specifically am I concerned about?
Is this something I will be concerned about tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now…?
What is the worst-case scenario, and is that something I can realistically manage or overcome either by myself or with the help of others?
What advice might I give someone if they were in my situation?
While emotional dysregulation — estimated to affect between 24-50% of children and approximately 70% of adults — continues to be problematic among people with ADHD, emotional intelligence can play a pivotal role in managing its impact.
It’s important to note that developing emotional intelligence takes time, regardless of whether you suffer from ADHD, because it requires a rewiring of the brain, developing new habits and thought processes, and consistent practice.