Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Freedom from Frustration

by Terry M. Dickson, MD, ACG, CPCC
Ever have one of those ADHD moments when there is a lot of overwhelm? Those moments when, feeling intense emotion, tension, and helplessness, we are unable to remain calm and collected?

It can begin when we believe we need something and there doesn’t seem to be a way to fulfill that need. Of course, everything should run smoothly, but in reality, it doesn’t. And when we can’t seem to achieve what we want right away, if things are chaotic and we get into overwhelm mode, frustration and sometimes anger can set in. We don’t always get what we want, and we are often out of our routine. Frustration is a common emotional response to being out of sync with what we want or expect to happen.

What kinds of situations leave folks with ADHD vulnerable to frustration, anger, and overwhelm? There are so many: we’re sitting in traffic, our kids are out of control, our spouse criticizes us for something after we’ve had a difficult day at the office, we’re trying to do something that just doesn’t seem to work....

Frustration isn’t just external irritation. It goes beyond that. When needs, goals, or expectations are not met, we typically experience anger, disappointment, dissatisfaction, or discouragement.

Frustration saps our energy. It can make us tired, feeling helpless, or even resentful. If that stress continues, we may feel like we have nothing left to give and begin to push others away.

Often people with ADHD impulsively express their frustration inappropriately and may feel embarrassed or regretful afterwards. They often express anger or make rash, reactionary statements toward others. Even though these responses may help release a bunch of energy, other people can get very hurt, and a lot of misunderstanding can result.

It is well known that folks with ADHD often suffer overwhelm and that frustration is a normal consequence. But what is most important is how you handle that frustration.

Are there self-empowering ways of handling frustration? Sure. You can learn new coping strategies. You don’t have to take it out on others. Identify when you are being judgmental or having unrealistic expectations of others. Here are some tips.

1. Be aware of ADHD moments. Learn what situations tend to make you most vulnerable. When you notice you are getting frustrated, stop for minute. Take a deep breath. Closing your eyes and deep breathing are often helpful. Ask yourself, “What is it that I am frustrated about?”

2. Give yourself a time out. Go jogging, go for a walk, or exercise on the treadmill. Try to dissipate that stress. You may feel more relaxed and refreshed. It’s hard to be your beautiful, creative self when you are in survival mode. You may experience a new resourcefulness. Practice relaxation techniques.

3. Remember, you have choices. Try stepping back from what is frustrating you and look at it from a new perspective. Are you able to step back and look at the situation as an observer on the outside? Get a metaview of the situation from a curious perspective. When you are not in the thick of the problem, but looking at the whole picture as an outsider, you have a whole new vantage point to see other possibilities and solutions.

4. Avoid taking on a victim mentality. Don’t give up or quit. That victim mentality will leave you with poor self-esteem and even more anger or frustration. Frustration does not need to leave you collapsed with doom or feeling like a failure. Don’t go there! If things seem too difficult to handle, ask yourself, “Who do I need to be to accomplish ___________? What knowledge or skills do I need to accomplish_________?

5. Use this experience as an opportunity for new awareness and learning. What possibilities you might discover! Frustration and overload present opportunities for self-empowerment, discovery, and forward action. When you are able to be in control and redirect that energy, you are able to be more connected with others. You are free to be your wonderful, creative self.

6. Imagine a positive outcome. What did you learn from your frustration? What can you celebrate about the learning? Imagine yourself being successful and that others around you are winning, too.

7. Stick to a routine and work in an environment that is friendly to your style.

8. Make sure you get plenty of sleep.

To your success!


Terry M. Dickson, MD, ACG, CPCC, is the founder and director of The Behavioral Medicine Clinic of NW Michigan that has served and supported children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD for over eleven years. He has been a principal study investigator for several clinical ADHD medication trials. A Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, he is a graduate of the ADD Coach Academy and the Coaches Training Institute. Diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, Dr. Dickson speaks regularly on ADHD and has been interviewed locally and nationally on radio, television, and CHADD’s Ask the Expert online. Dr. Dickson and his wife of 32 years have two teenage children, both of whom have ADHD.


  1. The description was very accurate for me. The solution is not so simple. My biggest problem is not having that moment to reflect before reacting. I have just been diagnosed with ADHD. I am 57 and realized this recently. My son who is 7 was diagnosed with ADHD after first being identified as highly gifted a few months earlier. I started reading everything I could about ADHD to try to understand and help him. I have just started on Concerta and get those moments for the first time now. Time outs beat the alternative, but have there own problems. Routines help a lot, but can turn into a fierce rigidity that has its own problems too. I am hopeful that with my new awareness, meds, therapy, etc, that life will get better for me and I can repair some of the damage I have done. It is hard to make the solutions you identify work well with undiagnosed ADHD. I hope they work better now. Thanks.

    1. This would be the same problem I have. I have been diagnosed as NOT having ADD - but my son and my four nephews all have it. I have a LOT of ADD responses regardless of the diagnosis.... and find frustration and my response to it, the hardest to manage.

  2. Richard, I can relate with your current situation. Although I'm on the verge of turning 29, I was diagnosed not too long ago with ADHD. I can reflect back on my childhood and recall times of being scolded in school or by my Father growing up. Always feeling like I was a nuisance to others. Still today, I struggle with balancing out my responsibilities at home and at work. Also, I attend night classes to finish my degree. Every day brings a new challenge that I must overcome. Whether it's defending my actions because I. Am mistakenly associated with being a cold person, or feeling attacked by those who have a negative attitude towards our diagnosis.
    What you're doing now by educating yourself as much as you can for your son will pay off in the end. Your son will benefit tremendously having you in his corner for support as he grows up. Another way that could benefit you is to learn to use your diagnosis to your advantage. After all, us ADHDers bring a unique perspective to the mix!
    Stay curious and I wish you well,
    Donna Faye

  3. I find that these difficult moments occur when I least expect, even when I consider myself prepared for the situation, or when it’s something I’ve done many times before. No matter how confident I feel in a particular situation, I never know when my brain is going to play tricks on me! I find myself trying to snap out of some remote place my mind has taken me.
    Job interviews are particularly fraught with stress. I have had a lot of experience interviewing and know what to do/not to do, yet I often find that, unless I have the opportunity for a “do-over” (which is rare), it doesn’t matter how well prepared I think I am or how much sleep I’ve gotten – I most often just mess it up. This has happened to me twice in the past year. However, in one of those cases, I did have the opportunity for another interview for a similar job about a week later, and I was able to avoid the pitfalls of the first one (which became a sort of “dress rehearsal” for the second, more successful, interview). That interview went very well and I got the job!
    Richard is right – it is hard to make the above solutions work when you have undiagnosed ADHD – or I would add UNTREATED ADHD. I am getting treatment, but since I cannot take stimulants, which are the most effective treatment for ADD, my mind is very inconsistent! However, I am taking these solutions into account, to draw upon when I can. Thanks for the article!

  4. I will be 57 soon and am just learning about adult ADD. I haven't been formally diagnosed, but will be going through evaluation sometime in the next month or so. These "ADHD moments" have plagued me my whole life and have caused so many problems and so much lost potential for me. I've been through Dialectical Behavior Training and it was extremely helpful, but in those moments, it's still really hard to pause and think about what's happening. I'm excited at the possibility of being able to stop sabotaging myself, I just wish I (or someone) could have figured it out 40 years ago.

  5. I am 59 years old and was diagnosed about 10 years ago with ADHD. I identify with everything everyone is saying! I have been on every ADHD medicine imaginable, done biofeedback, had a Spec scan of my brain at the Amen Center, etc, etc. About 2 years ago I eliminated GLUTEN from my diet because of it's connection to Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which I have. It has been of the HUGEST benefit to my life as far as my ADHD, behavior, focus, and the cycle of anxiety and depression. It is a lifestyle change and the benefits for me have been the single best thing I have done for my health and my life. It has changed my life! I truly believe that with all the modified grains, packaged foods, genetically engineered foods, food additives, flavorings and coloring that we have a population that is physically and mentally sicker than in past generations. I believe that if most children and adults diagnosed with ADHD were to eliminate gluten from their diet, they would feel that they finally have a "normal" brain and life. I know that is how I now feel. I feel like I am finally starting to live!!! vs hanging on by my fingernails, just trying to survive. If I could go back and save myself all those years of going from doctor to doctor, med to med (they all had side effects I was not willing to live with), the highs and lows, ups and downs .....I would first change my diet by eliminating gluten (and cutting way back on sugar). Had I done that first, I could have saved myself YEARS of misery.

  6. I am 29 years old and have been diagnosed with both add and adjustment disorder with depression and anxiety. I can relate to "7". At work I have been being treated very unfairly. I am beyond frustrated with the situation and last week the frustration of not being able to do anything about it, I became paralysed from it. After speaking with my main counselor and supportive emoyment counselor, I have made the difficult decision to start applying elsewhere. Hopevully I will be able to find an environment that is healthy to my style since the current one has become toxic to my mental health. I also hope that my new boss and coworkers will treat me with kindness and respect.

  7. I am a 67 yo Quality manager for a large pharma company. I have had to learn to both overcome my ADHD and to make it work for me. I multitask extremely well.When i was 11 I started using ritalin, low dosage. I quit using it when I finished graduate school. Part of dealing with my ADHD has been using medical marijuana for the last 40 years. I find that using the med in the evening makes me more centered and focused the next day. I am careful not to mix the meds and work. While this may not work for everybody, it really helps me.