ADHD emotions are not only unstable and mercurial; they overlap, butt heads, and fight for our attention. Those of us with ADHD can feel a dozen emotions in an afternoon. We can also feel immature, out of control, and ashamed at the same time. The fight to rein in our emotions is emotionally and physically exhausting; it also chips away at our self-worth and overall well-being.
Over time, I have developed several tools to address this by reducing my restlessness, agitation, impatience, and explosive anger (to name a few emotional challenges). Along the way, my relationships, career, and friendships have benefited as well.
The next time your blood boils or your tears flow, try one (or all) of the following micro-techniques – which take just a few minutes — to calm down.
How to Calm Down: ADHD Emotional Dysregulation Strategies
1. Breathwork. A few moments of focused, deep breathing each day will calm the mind and body. Here are my favorite breathwork exercises, visualizations, and prompts.
- Breathe in like you are smelling a bouquet of fresh flowers and release as if you are blowing out candles.
- Imagine your breaths are like waves in the sea, ebbing and flowing.
- Picture yourself breathing in healing light and then blowing out that same light. Imagine that healing light overflowing past your lungs and through your whole body.
- Set a timer for four minutes. In that time, breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breath out through the nose for four counts, then repeat.
When we focus on our breathing, it shifts our train of thought, which may be feeding into a negative emotion. If you struggle to stay present and quiet your mind, try repeating simple phrases in your head while you are breathing, like “I am breathing in. I am breathing out.”
Breathwork exercises work best when they’re practiced every hour. Set alerts on your phone or clock to remind you.
2. Perform this five senses mindfulness exercise by naming…
- Five things you can see
- The farthest and closest sounds you can hear
- Something you can smell (A candle? Your deodorant? Clothes?)
- The taste in your mouth
- How your body feels
3. EFT tapping is the practice of using your fingers to tap across points of the body to decrease stress and negative emotions. (I find tapping easier than meditating because I don’t need to focus on quieting my mind.) I tap for a few minutes in the morning while repeating positive affirmations. I also tap in the shower, on a walk, and in the car. When I feel off, I set aside about 20 minutes to tap. Here’s a video of me doing a simple tapping and breathing exercise.
4. Give yourself a quick hand massage. Research on patients undergoing medical procedures shows that hand massages may help reduce anxiety. 1 2 Try applying pressure to the Heart 7 (HT7) point, the area just below the crease of your wrist on your outer hand, for relief. 3
5. Compile a binaural beats music playlist and keep it on your laptop or phone. Binaural beats may encourage relaxation and decrease anxiety, while also helping with focus and concentration.4
6. Reach out to someone. When anxious thoughts consume you, take a step back and think about someone who could use a loving phone call or text message. Even leaving a message is connecting. When we show compassion to others, it can help us do the same for ourselves.
7. List three things for which you are grateful. These can be as deep or as silly as you like. This exercise re-trains our brains to hunt for positives instead of scanning for negatives. The more we do it, the better we get at quickly locating moments of happiness, which will come in handy when we are feeling sad, stressed, or worried.
8. Create a vision board that showcases the good in your life, what you enjoy, and what you want to see more. (Mine consists of water, beaches, sunsets, and nature.) I look at my vision board for a few minutes daily.
9. Get up and move. Stretch, jump, go up and down the stairs, walk around the block – anything to release pent-up energy. Exercise produces feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, that help us destress and relax.5 To make moving a priority, schedule a walk with a friend whose conversation you enjoy and whose energy is uplifting.
10. Walk barefoot on grass. This practice, known as grounding or earthing, means the bare body is making contact with earth’s surface. Research suggests that grounding may help reduce stress, among other health benefits.6 You can practice breathing exercises and think about what you are grateful for as you ground.
12. Run yourself a bath, or, if pressed for time, fill up a bowl with warm water for a quick and relaxing foot soak.
13. Apply essential oils to specific body parts (wrist, behind the ears, etc.). Essential oils in varieties, such as lavender, orange, chamomile, and others. They may reduce stress and positively affect mood. 8 You can even blend oils for a calming yet uplifting pick-me-up.
14. Laugh. One of the most effective stress-busters, laughter makes us feel youthful, lighter, and more energized. If you don’t have a reason to do it, fake it. Even simulated laughter has benefits.9 Or find a reason to laugh – go back to a funny video you saw online, or watch your favorite comedy (“Friends” always does it for me.) In general, try not to take life too seriously – even when it feels dreadful.
I’m a firm believer of stacking micro-techniques a few times a day to reduce stress and increase emotional resilience in the long-term as opposed to one-off stress reduction sessions. Some of these micro-practices will speak to you one day and then not the next. Allow yourself the freedom to pick and choose what works for you at any given time.
How to Calm Down: Next Steps
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1 Demir, B., & Saritas, S. (2020). Effect of hand massage on pain and anxiety in patients after liver transplantation: A randomised controlled trial. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 39, 101152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2020.101152
2 Erzincanli, S., & Kasar, K. S. (2021). Effect of Hand Massage on Pain, Anxiety, and Vital Signs in Patients Before Venipuncture Procedure: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pain management nursing : official journal of the American Society of Pain Management Nurses, 22(3), 356–360. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmn.2020.12.005
3 Son C. G. (2019). Clinical application of single acupoint (HT7). Integrative medicine research, 8(4), 227–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.imr.2019.08.005
4 Garcia-Argibay, M., Santed, M. A., & Reales, J. M. (2019). Efficacy of binaural auditory beats in cognition, anxiety, and pain perception: a meta-analysis. Psychological Research, 83(2), 357–372. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1066-8
5 Anderson, E., & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 27. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
6 Oschman, J. L., Chevalier, G., & Brown, R. (2015). The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Journal of Inflammation Research, 8, 83–96. https://doi.org/10.2147/JIR.S69656
7 Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., & Yamaura, Y. (2016). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports, 5, 92–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.007
8 Fung, T., Lau, B., Ngai, S., & Tsang, H. (2021). Therapeutic Effect and Mechanisms of Essential Oils in Mood Disorders: Interaction between the Nervous and Respiratory Systems. International journal of molecular sciences, 22(9), 4844. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22094844
9 Van der Wal, C. N., Kok, R. N. (2019). Laughter-inducing therapies: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 232, 473–488. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.02.018