When we think of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), certain characteristics easily come to mind: boundless energy, short focus, distractibility, disorganization, or maybe difficulty managing multiple tasks or being on time. But do you ever think of anger as a common experience in ADHD?
Well, anger is often part of the picture, too. And if we think about it for a moment this makes sense. You see, one stubborn component of ADHD that often remains from childhood all the way into adulthood involves problems with impulsivity. That is, difficult managing one’s impulses by not acting on them rapidly. This lack of impulse control creates an opportunity for strong emotions, such as anger, to take over. These feelings can often direct a person’s behaviors and thoughts without much time to consider the consequences. It just feels right in the moment, even if there is a big cost to it later. As one of my patients perfectly describes it, there is “no filter” to buffer what comes out, and once it’s out there, well then it’s often too late, and clean-up mode begins.
In the book, The Distracted Couple: The Impact of ADHD on Adult Relationships (edited by myself and Dr. Jon Carlson; Crown House, 2013), ADHD expert and contributor Dr. Ari Tuckman explains some possible concerns about anger and ADHD. As he describes it, adults with ADHD frequently have problems with emotional self-control. Dr. Tuckman also suggests that individuals with ADHD might tend to experience emotions quite intensely. And so, when their impulsivity is combined with these emotional challenges, problems arise in several ways. It might involve saying hurtful or extreme comments that the individual regrets later; reacting immediately on one’s anger without really thinking about the big picture or the consequences of taking these actions; and/or damaging close relationships over time with several episodes of angry outbursts. The latter can be particularly poisonous. As Dr. Tuckman explains, “It only takes a couple of strong outbursts…to undermine a lot of good interactions” (p. 73). The damage of strong emotional outbursts is pretty immediate, and it is not just limited to an individual’s primary romantic relationship. It can undermine a good relationship with a coworker, friend, family member, classmate, teacher, or boss.
ADHD is of course not the only condition associated with impulsivity and anger. And because of the ways that ADHD tends to strain relationships and negatively alters the dynamics of a relationship, a close friend or partner without ADHD can also lash out in anger toward the individual in the relationship who does have ADHD. But our focus for today is really on the relationship between ADHD symptoms and anger.
Tools for Managing Anger
So what about anger? What can be done with it?
Well, first anger by itself is usually not the issue. Often the feeling is quite justified. But it is what happens as a result of this anger that becomes a concern. In other words, how it is handled becomes the real issue.
Problems related to anger, resentment, and frustration are amenable to change. The truth is that individuals with ADHD have a range of options when it comes to curbing angry reactions and altering behaviors related to anger. A few of these are mentioned below:
Checking Stress: A frequent (but often rather silent) culprit related to anger is the level of stress the person experiences in his or her life, specifically related to job and family. A reduction in stress and more efficient management of stressors by incorporating meditation, regular exercise, and effective time management strategies can greatly reduce the propensity toward emotional outbursts.
Know Your Triggers: Often intense emotional reactions and outbursts have a historic root to them. An angry response may have been encouraged and valued in an individual’s family growing up, or as a way to gain respect at school among peers. A certain supervisory style at work or way of interacting among friends may be particularly grating for someone, or remind them of the years of bullying they endured. Knowing the historic roots of your emotional responses is essential to not automatically reacting to them, and to recognizing them in time to let you really choose how you wish to respond.
Functions Served: Sometimes, despite the negative collateral damage involved, angry outbursts serve a function for someone. It may be a socially acceptable way for a man to express his feelings, or it may provide someone a (temporary) sense of power and being taken seriously in his/her life. It might be used as a vehicle to be assertive for someone who otherwise has problems doing so. The difficulty of course is the steep cost of these angry outbursts, and the undesirable consequences of the behavior, even if it does attempt to serve a positive function as well. Knowing the intended functions that angry reactions try to serve will help you see why these behaviors stay in place, and provide you with a chance to get these needs met in less destructive ways.
Ask the Experts: Whether you address anger issues by reading self-help books, attending anger management workshops, developing communication and emotional regulation skills in individual cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, or attending couples counseling sessions, a significant amount of support and skill-building can be acquired by working with professionals who are acquainted with anger management and anger reduction. Often these skills can be developed fairly rapidly and in a rather effective manner.
Anger is a common attribute associated with ADHD, but there is help available for it. As with many other challenges in life, the trick to managing one’s anger is to regularly use a range of tools that help keep it in check across a variety of situations.