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The Beginners Guide to DBT with ADHD, Part 3: Emotional Regulation Skills

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Silhouetted man standing on the beach looking at the ocean.
Photo by Mei-lan Young

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

I had a full introduction to this article, but I decided to get rid of it because I think it's important to note that this part of the DBT series is the hardest for me to write. It took me almost a week to finish it. Emotional dysregulation has plagued me all my life. Prior to my ADHD diagnosis, doctors just told my mother that highly intelligent people think differently and often have emotional issues. So, my mother, not knowing any better, chalked my countless nuclear meltdowns and tantrums up to that. I didn't have many guy friends because I was too emotional, and most of the girls I liked just rejected me because I was "weird." This led to my emotions amplifying my rejection sensitivity 10-fold. So, as I was writing this article and trying to control my emotions at the same time, I started to wonder, "Am I even qualified to write about this subject?" Ultimately, when I posed this question to people close to me, the answers coming from both my amazing wife as well as my friends on my Discord server were a resounding "This is exactly WHY you should be writing this article." It is because of these amazing people in my life that I was eventually able to finish this article despite my reservations. So thank you to those who still believe in me.

I have quite honestly grown to hate my emotions on a deeply personal level because I can never predict them. I used to think I was the only one having all these emotions because everybody else seemed fine. But I have been learning that through my therapy and DBT skills training, in fact, everybody has these emotions. It is just much harder for me to rein them in because of my ADHD as well as some trauma to my brain when I was born. My hope is that in teaching about these skills, it will not only help others who have these same struggles but also help cement the skills for me so I am better able to manage my emotions.

Emotions Aren’t Bad

During therapy, I realized that I never knew how to properly describe my big emotions. I only knew that bad ones hurt and good ones felt great. This made it much harder for me to figure out when I was about to lose it. It's only when we lack understanding of our emotions and are unable to identify or understand why we are experiencing them that they become volatile and dangerous. After all, how can we solve a situation if we can't even express why we are upset in the first place?

My first big "homework assignment" from my therapist was to read about and label my emotions. She showed me handouts from Marsha M. Linehan's "DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets" that detailed each of the 10 key emotions, including other words for that emotion, its effects, and its causes. These 10 emotions are anger, disgust, envy, fear, happiness, jealousy, love, sadness, shame, and guilt. More descriptive emotions can be derived from these. A great example of this can be seen in the “Feelings Wheel."

Feelings Wheel
Feelings wheel to describe emotions.

I’m not going to go into detail about each of those emotions here. However, here are some key questions to ask when identifying and labeling your emotions:

1. What event prompted the emotion? 2. What are the interpretations of the event that prompted the emotion? 3. Was there anything that happened before the prompting event that made you more sensitive to it and prone to emotional outbursts? 4. What are the biological changes and experiences caused by the emotion? 5. How do the emotions' expressive behaviors manifest themselves? 6. What are the aftereffects of the emotion?

What Do Emotions Do for Us?

For many of us with ADHD, especially those that weren’t diagnosed until later on, emotions have become something that we try to mask because they become so overwhelming and we lose control of them. However, masking is not sustainable. I posed the question on Twitter recently, asking how some people have learned to rein in their emotions. Natalia Peña (@nataliaADHD) replied with a great analogy. She said that emotions are like having to pee. Your body tells you when you have to do it. We usually learn to control the feeling and hold it. But eventually, we do have to relieve ourselves. Masking is like holding your pee. It isn’t sustainable. Eventually, you are going to have to let it out. But, like peeing, there is a time and a place to do so. Creating these spaces and finding tools to release our emotions takes time and attention.

Our emotional behavior serves a purpose. In general, emotions serve as a means of communication and as a driving force behind behavior. Emotional behaviors can also serve two other crucial purposes for communication. The first is to influence and manage the behavior of others. Alerting ourselves serves as the second purpose. In the second case, our emotions serve as our own personal alarms, letting us know when something could be important. The first step toward change is to understand how emotions, especially ones you don't want, work.

Paying attention to our emotions is key here. After all, they really are there for a reason, and they really do a lot for us, even the bad ones. They are a part of our evolution. Fear, for example, helps us deal with threats to our health, safety, or well-being and keeps us focused on getting away from danger. It is what made us leap into action when we had a giant saber-tooth tiger chasing after us. Anger helps us focus on self-defense, mastery, and control when important goals or activities are blocked when we are about to be attacked, or when people important to us are being targeted. If we choose to stifle and ignore our emotions, we are effectively ignoring our alarm system and pretending that nothing is wrong when, in reality, we need to act.

What Makes It Hard to Regulate Your Emotions

There are many factors that make it hard to regulate emotions. One, which we already talked about in Part One of this guide, is that for many of us, emotional sensitivity is biological. Some of us are just naturally highly emotional people, especially those of us with ADHD. Because we are so sensitive to our emotions, we often act without thinking. And there is the possibility of negative consequences, both for our relationships and for ourselves.

Because all of our emotions serve a purpose, finding out what certain emotional behaviors are for and what reinforces them can be helpful because it can be hard to change bad emotional behaviors that are followed by positive results. When the environment we are in reacts to our behavior, such as when people just give us what we want whenever we get upset, it can be very hard to learn to control our temper.

Even when they hurt or get you into trouble, your feelings can be very helpful. When this happens, it can be hard to change your emotions. You might not even realize that you can't change your emotions because they are doing too many good things for you. When this happens, your emotions are reinforced, even if you don’t want them to be.

Another obstacle to changing your emotional responses might be that you don't yet have the skills needed to do so. As such, you don't know how to change or control your emotions or the things you do because of them. You may also not know how to calm down enough to even want to make your feelings less intense.

Moodiness and a lack of energy can interfere with your willingness to do the work that emotion regulation requires. You might be able to, but your mood might make it hard for you to do so especially if you have gone into the "red zone," which Jessica McCabe discusses in her “How to ADHD” YouTube video about “Rejection Sensitivity” here.

How do we Learn to Regulate Our Emotions?

Now that we know why emotions are important and what the biggest obstacles to overcome will be as we learn to rein them in, we can start learning some techniques to get us back into our wise mind when all we want to do is flip tables and rage quit. Here are a few things we can practice when we start to feel ourselves slipping.

Practice Mindful Self Awareness:

This is a great chance to use the Observe and Describe skills you learned in the Mindfulness Post. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Observe what your feelings are telling you. Use the "describe" skill to define the specific emotions and how they are making you feel.

Check the Facts:

Ask yourself, “What story am I telling myself?” Then check the bare facts of the situation. Remember, you can’t observe someone else’s feelings or intentions. Now, without making any judgments, check in with yourself to see if what you're feeling is based on assumptions or reality. Are you assuming a threat? Identify and label the threat. Find out how likely it is that the threatening thing will happen. Let your ADHD shine and think of as many other possible outcomes as you can. Then ask, “What is the catastrophe here?” Then decide if your emotional reactions match the facts of the situation.

Remember that just because we have strong feelings about something does not make it true.

Opposite Action:

Sometimes, when we are at the peak of our emotional dysregulation but find that our emotions do not fit the facts, the best thing we can do is just do the exact opposite of what our emotional urges tell us to do. As the old adage says, “If you fall off the horse, get right back on it.” This is a perfect example of acting opposite to what our urges tell us to do. Sure, fear makes getting back on the horse the last thing you want to do, but the fact is, practice makes perfect, and chances are it won’t happen again.

This can be a great way to manage our anger as well. For example, someone might tell you that a co-worker said something mean about you. Your anger makes you want to confront that person right then and there and put them in their place. But instead, you check the facts and realize that this is just hearsay. Even though you still really want to yell at the person, you do the opposite and leave it alone. The next day you learn that the person who told you actually misunderstood what was said, and nobody said anything bad about you. This is an example of "opposite action" preventing conflict and even possibly damaging an otherwise good relationship.

Solve the Problem:

When an unwanted emotion matches the facts, the facts are the problem, and you need to figure out how to deal with it. Also, everyone needs to be able to solve problems in order to build a life that is worth living. It is one of the most important skills you need to better control your emotions or solve emotional problems.

First, use the mindfulness ‘what’ skill of describing to give just the facts of the situation. Next, describe just what about the situation is problematic. Include the consequences of the situation that make it a problem for you. Now describe the conflicts or other obstacles making it hard for you to solve this problem.

Next, check the facts, ALL THE FACTS, and make sure that you are trying to solve the right problem. Often, we respond to our interpretations of situations rather than to the situations themselves. Our interpretations may be correct; they may also be incorrect. In periods of emotional distress, it is easy to see many more obstacles than are really there. Interpersonal situations that feel like conflicts in one emotional state may feel like minor disagreements in another. If your interpretation of the facts is correct, move on to the next step. If not, then go back and describe the conflict again.

Next, decide on a goal that will help you change your emotions and feel okay with the situation. Keep it simple and something you can actually accomplish. Naturally, the ultimate goal is to reduce painful emotions. The major task for this step is to identify what has to happen for you to feel better.

Brainstorm as many solutions as you can. Ask for suggestions from people you trust if you need to because sometimes we’re too close to a situation to see any solutions. It is imperative that ideas not be judged during the brainstorming process. The aim is to generate as many ideas as possible without censuring any that come to mind—to let thoughts run free and wild.

Choose a solution that fits your goal. Write down the pros and cons if you are having trouble deciding if the solution is worth it.

The whole point of trying to solve a problem is to put into action an

effective way to deal with the problem. As the tire commercials say,

This is where "the rubber hits the road."

Finally, if the solution worked, yay! You’ve got 99 problems, but that ain’t one. If it didn’t work, go back and look at the other solutions you brainstormed and act on one of those. Rinse and repeat.

Keep Looking Inward

Learning emotional regulation skills is one of the hardest skills to learn because our emotions are so tightly woven into our own evolutionary instincts. It is something I still struggle with on a regular basis, but I continue to work on it and improve each and every day. I am slowly learning that small things are not really giant saber-tooth tigers trying to eat me and I don’t need to react as if my life was in danger.

My hope is that you all will also take something from this and continue looking inward and become masters of your emotions, or at the very least, better able to identify them in order to improve your lives.

See you all soon in Part 4 of this series!


If you find this article interesting and want to learn more or have a comment, feel free to leave a comment below. Or better yet, come talk to us about it on our Discord server! We have a lot of great people who love to talk about ADHD, neurodivergence, nerdy stuff, and all the other things. We've also got a lot of links to resources for further reading and personal growth.

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