Updated: Apr 17, 2022
Most adults with ADHD still have impulsive meltdowns (reference), because most of us have problems with impulsivity and impulse control. We get overwhelmed (often by something seemingly minor), overstimulated, and feel rejected (thank you, rejection sensitivity). Our "limbic system" (that's a bit of a simplification) takes over, and we go into fight, flight, or freeze.
Not able to think straight, we may hurt our relationships.
The following top tips are specifically geared toward adults with ADHD. Recognizing we're about to have a meltdown before our impulsivity takes over is a huge win. We can give ourselves a time-out to regroup, settle, and soothe ourselves. Simple, but not easy. Yet every time we manage, it gets easier. And this skill may keep our meltwons from ruining our relationships.
Remember to check your emotional temperature - do you need a time-out?
Yes, I know, it's hard to remember anything. Let alone to check in with oneself at regular intervals. But it's genuinely worth the effort to pause and check your emotional temperature. This gives you the chance to work on your impulse control. And that's truly worth it.
Are you feeling about as calm as an ADHDer can, or is there something beginning to bug you? Are you stimulated in a good way, or is it starting to be too much input? Where are you on the overwhelm scale? Is there a negative thought stuck in your head, for example, about what somebody said to you? Or are you already freaking out?
Are you in:
the green zone (connected to self and others if you're with other people)
the yellow zone (beginning to feel overwhelmed, anxious, angry, disconnected from self and / or others -> beginning dysregulation)
or already in the red zone (high arousal or collapse, anywhere in the fight / flight / freeze response, disconnected from your full self and others -> full dysregulation)?
When do you need a time-out? The goal is to be able to act before your impulsivity has taken over and your impulse control is shot.
Learn to recognize your signs of dysregulation - is an ADHD meltdown coming on?
The earlier and better you can catch your starting dysregulation, the easier it is to take a time-out when you need it and not be overpowered by your impulsivity.
My very wise colleague Jim recommends checking your pulse rate - for most of us, our pulse spikes with dysregulation (if we're leaning more towards the fight / flight response). For some of us, it doesn't (those leaning more towards the freeze response), but their blood pressure may spike instead, or they may have other bodily reactions such as a sudden headache, stomachache, backache, or rapid onset of fatigue.
Is there tension in your body, are your hands suddenly cold and clammy, or are you getting inexplicably hot and flushed? Are you able to feel your feet? Do you feel the pressure building up like you're about to explode (or implode, if you've been shamed out of showing outward signs of anger, which is often the case for women)? Are your thoughts getting fuzzy, and does everything feel far away?
Our signs of beginning, building, and full dysregulation are very individual, so every one of us needs to be a detective and figure out what ours are. Our natural curiosity helps, but it takes some practice and effort. Believe me, it's well worth it.
Regularly check in with yourself and ask yourself if you need a time-out.
if you're dysregulated, give yourself a time-out - before you lose it completely!
When we're dysregulated, we're stuck in our "limbic response" (that's a bit of a simplification, but a helpful one) of "fight, flight, or freeze" and cannot think straight, stay connected to those around us, or even to ourselves.
There is a high chance that any interaction will be damaging because your impulse control will be impaired (unless you're blessed with a truly calm and currently well-regulated human who can co-regulate your nervous system - but this is very rare and honestly often not their job, and those of us with developmental trauma can often not even accept this co-regulation).
So give yourself a time-out and do whatever it takes to safely and constructively settle and soothe yourself. This is how you keep your ADHD meltdowns from ruining your relationships.
Possible helpful activities could be:
taking a walk
being in nature
interacting with a pet
doing calming housework
listening to music
taking a shower or bath
seeking social support (for one's feelings, not to vent about what got you dysregulated, that is counterproductive)
playing a solitary game or a partner game online
Reconnect in your relationship as soon as you're regulated again
If you left a situation with another person, for example, your partner, make sure you reconnect with them as soon as you're regulated again.
It's best to tell them beforehand that you're practicing better recognizing when you get dysregulated and then soothing yourself so that they don't feel rejected when you leave a situation and know for sure that you'll reconnect.
Self-care to regulate yourself is never an excuse to flee from the important people in your life and to shut them out. That could do even more damage to the relationship than your meltdowns.
Be courageous and reconnect - avoidance isn't helpful and can be detrimental over time.
Know your ADHD kryptonite, know your ADHD Patronus
The better you know the triggers that make you prone to impulsivity and dysregulation - which can be a plethora of things, such as lack of sleep, hunger, dehydration, your monthly cycle, certain situations, interactions with certain people, or anything basically - the better you can avoid them or arm yourself against them so that they don't derail you.
Also, focus on what supports you to stay regulated, for example, amping up your self-care, regularly checking in with your body, and learning to calm yourself down in the moment.
For many of us, this is advanced magic, requiring lots of practice, just like invoking your Patronus. And just like the wizards in Harry Potter, we're tenacious people and have lots of practice with falling and getting back up. So I believe we can, at any age, learn to manage our meltdowns better and eventually reduce them.
Even if we never learned when we were young, we can learn to manage our impulsive ADHD meltdowns as adults and to save our relationships.
Write yourself your book of spells
If you truly make an effort to follow the steps outlined in this post, you will discover so much about how you tick. The problem is - how will you remember what you discovered? How can we rest assured that we will remember to practice, so we can prevent our impulsivity and ADHD meltdowns from doing damage to our relationships?
So start your own book of spells so that you can refer to it when you invariably forget again what you discovered. And if you need help implementing all this, consider coaching.
Check out this post for more on emotional regulation with ADHD in general and how to deal with complex and sometimes conflicting feelings.
Two Facets of Emotion Dysregulation Are Core Symptomatic Domains in Adult ADHD: Results from the SR-WRAADDS, a Broad Symptom Self-Report Questionnaire. Weibel S, Bicego F, Muller S, Martz E, Costache ME, Kraemer C, Bertschy G, Lopez R, Weiner L.J Atten Disord. 2022 doi: 10.1177/10870547211027647 Link to publication about emotional dysregulation in adults with ADHD