Cartoon of a pink-haired character with a troubled expression inside a purple bubble, with the text 'Mood Swings' at the bottom by @the_mini_ADHD_coach.

Understanding Mood Swings with ADHD: Triggers and Management

Mood swings in individuals with ADHD are often influenced by stress, hormonal fluctuations, and sleep patterns. Recognizing these triggers is crucial for effective management.

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Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

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A word form our expert

Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster: Mastering Mood Swings in ADHD

Ever feel like your emotions are on a never-ending rollercoaster? With ADHD, you can go from the excitement of discovering a new hyperfocus to the lows of rejection-sensitive dysphoria in just a few seconds. That’s why understanding the whys and hows of mood swings should be your first step toward emotional stability.

In this article, we'll discuss:

  • The impact of stress and how it uniquely affects the mood of those with ADHD. 
  • The connection between hormonal fluctuations and mood swings in the ADHD brain.
  • The role of sleep in managing mood swings and why a good night's sleep is more than just rest for those with ADHD.
  • When and how to seek professional guidance to manage mood swings effectively.
  • Practical tips for creating a lifestyle that supports emotional balance with ADHD.
  • How to differentiate between ADHD-induced mood swings and bipolar disorder.

Ready to take the reigns of the wild ride that is ADHD emotions? Let's dive into the world of ADHD and mood swings, and discover how to achieve greater emotional stability together.

Emotional Dysregulation & The Science Behind Rapid Changes in Mood

Unless you were born with superhuman emotional control, you’ve probably experienced occasional mood swings. Our teenage years are rife with them, and if you get a monthly cycle, it may even be a regular part of your life.  

But with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), our emotions love taking us on wild rides, often at the most inconvenient of times, swinging from joy to despair and even back again in no time at all. 🎡 

A big part of this is emotional dysregulation

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the growth and development of the brain. One area of the ADHD brain that’s particularly affected is our executive functions, located in the prefrontal cortex. These mental processes are responsible for working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. 🧠

Without full inhibitory control, we can struggle to react to situations and emotions in an appropriate way that matches the severity of the trigger. In other words, we can’t help but overreact.

Research has also shown that ADHD brains have an overactive amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers emotions, so it triggers emotions far stronger than necessary. ⛈️

With stronger emotions and difficulty controlling them, it’s no surprise that they can be overwhelming, and mean mood swings happen frequently. 

And if we lose control of our emotions (even alone), and experience outbursts or breakdowns, it can leave us feeling guilty and ashamed of being ‘overdramatic’ or ‘too sensitive’. These labels, whether given by ourselves or others, can have a huge impact on self-esteem.

Illustration of a pink-haired individual with eyes closed and a sad expression, with the words 'Losing control of our emotions...can leave us feeling guilty and ashamed' by @the_mini_ADHD_coach.

But while this is more common in people with ADHD, if you find your mood plummeting or soaring without warning, with no obvious triggers, it could signal something deeper than just a bad day. 

Frequent and intense mood changes might point toward a significant mental health concern or mood disorder. If so, consult a mental health professional who can guide and support you through these sudden mood swings. 

Mood swings can happen to anyone, but for many of us with ADHD, there may be a few likely culprits. Let’s take a look.

The Impact of Stress on ADHD

With ADHD’s emotional dysregulation and easily overwhelmed nervous system, even the slightest stress can quickly turn into anxiety or overwhelm.

The problem is that many of the common ADHD symptoms often result in stressful situations

I struggle with focus and procrastination daily, which is a nightmare when I have deadlines to meet. I get frustrated that I can’t just do the task, and stress builds as the deadline gets closer and closer. This happens more often than I care to admit.

I find myself feeling like I’m in a constant state of fight or flight, a response designed for actual human survival, not the modern-day reality of deadlines (especially ones where someone just chose that date at random). 

When I’m in this state, even the simplest of tasks, like making a phone call, can feel insurmountable, which leaves me feeling guilty and ashamed.

Our sensitivity to stress (and sensory sensitivity) can amplify our reactions to everyday situations, turning them into overwhelming waves of anxiety or an inexplicable, lingering sadness. 🌊

Persistent stress can turn into anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which, in turn, can lead to sleepless nights and sleep disorders. And, as I’m sure you know, it’s much easier to get stressed when you’re tired

That’s exactly why stress management is so important. 🙌

Tips to Manage Stress

Managing stress is more than a good habit: it’s essential.

For the sake of our well-being, we need to be constantly exploring and experimenting with techniques to manage stress and calm our nervous systems, so we can offer our overstimulated minds a moment of peace. 

Here are a few ways you may find helpful:

  • Practice mindfulness (meditation, journaling, yoga, gratitude, etc.). While the idea of mental stillness and meditating can seem impossible with ADHD hyperactivity, you can find ways that work for you, either through practice, or adaptation. There’s no ‘right’ way.
  • Physical activity. Moving your body is scientifically proven to release stress. Plus, it helps relieve ADHD symptoms too, so it’s a win-win. If the idea of exercise sounds awful, just aim to move your body throughout the day, however feels good to you. 
  • Create a calm space. Having a calm, comforting space, physical or mental, that you can return to whenever you need a reset is a must for everyone, especially if you find it hard to take time for yourself.  
  • Find hobbies that bring you joy. The right hobby can restore your energy and balance your emotions, even if it’s not typically ‘restful’. Too often we get caught up in the chaos of our lives and forget to take time for the things we enjoy. 

The Increased Difficulty of Hormonal Changes with ADHD

When most people talk about mood swings, it has to do with hormones, whether that’s puberty or premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Our sex hormones have a lot to answer for when it comes to our emotional well-being, with even neurotypical people suddenly finding their emotions impossible to control

For people with a regular menstrual cycle, mood swings can happen monthly as part of PMS. Later in life, perimenopause can also increase the frequency of mood swings. 

Some women also experience Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), where hormonal fluctuations are far more intense. This causes its symptoms, including mood swings, to be far more severe and disruptive than typical PMS.

Men aren’t immune either. Beyond puberty, as they age, declining testosterone levels can cause mood swings.

On top of that, ADHD adds even more complexity. As certain hormones rise and fall, both PMS and ADHD symptoms can get more severe and intrusive, particularly during the luteal phase and menstruation phase. You may also experience a decreased sensitivity to ADHD medications. 📈

Personally, I really notice the difference between the first and second half of my cycle. My mood can be completely different throughout the month. 

If this is something you know you struggle with, it might be worth exploring cycle-syncing. 🌖

The Role of Sleep in Managing Mood Swings

Both the quality and quantity of our rest play crucial roles in how we feel during our waking hours. A night of insufficient or restless sleep doesn't just leave us reaching for an extra cup of coffee; it can send our emotions into a tailspin, leading to unpredictable mood shifts that can feel bewildering.

ADHD and sleep have a complicated relationship. For many of us, we’re constantly exhausted, and yet the second it’s time for bed, we have all the energy in the world. ⚡ 

The ADHD brain often struggles to turn off and shift into 'night mode', with racing thoughts and hyperactivity extending late into the night. Sleep disorders like insomnia are a relatively common comorbid mental health condition because of this. 

Sleep deprivation not only leads to daytime fatigue but can exacerbate the core symptoms of ADHD like lack of focus, distractibility, and mood instability.

For most, it also increases irritability and the chances of an outburst. 💥 

While everyone loves a good morning routine, your sleep schedule and wind-down routine are just as important. Good sleep habits are vital for your emotional stability, which means we need to take intentional steps to make sure we’re making high-quality sleep easier to achieve.

This can include:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule. Consistency, as always, is key. A fixed sleep routine lets your body know when it's time to wind down and sleep each day. There are apps (usually built into your phone) that can help with this.
  • Create a sleep sanctuary. Temperature, light, and noise levels can all affect your quality of sleep. The ideal temperature for sleep is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit/18.3 degrees Celsius. You should also try to avoid working or studying in your bedroom (if possible) so you only associate it with sleep.
  • Invest in your sleep. If you can, always do your research before buying bedding. Your pillows and mattress can have a massive impact on your sleep quality.  
  • No screens at least an hour (ideally more) before bed. If that’s unavoidable, try to use blue light glasses.
  • Use weighted blankets. I love a weighted blanket, it helps soothe my stress so I can drift off to sleep. I sleep worse in the summer months when it’s too warm for one.  
  • Read fiction. If you’re a book lover, stick to fiction before bed. Non-fiction will keep you thinking and learning, while fiction should (unless you’re a writer) help you relax. 
  • Warm shower or bath before bed. This helps lower your core body temperature and tells your body's circadian rhythm that it’s time to sleep.
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How Substance Use Can Affect Mood

Substance use (and, by extension, substance abuse) is one of the more obvious causes of mood swings or intense shifts in mood. 

The allure of alcohol and drugs often lies in their promise of a temporary escape, to just feel different. It’s a sudden mood change on demand (usually). 

People use substances to create intense emotions of happiness, pleasure, and relaxation, but they also run the risk of creating intense anger, sadness, or despair instead. 😡

The problem begins when you’re no longer in control. These substances, when used over time, create a dependence. This dependency not only chains an individual to a cycle of substance use but also puts them at risk of mental health issues or mood disorders.

People with ADHD are particularly susceptible to substance abuse, especially those with either the hyperactive-impulsive or combined types, due to increased impulsivity.  

Many turn to substances as a way to self-medicate, but many of these can inadvertently worsen ADHD symptoms, creating a complex web of challenges that demand attention and care.

If you suspect someone you know of substance abuse, or you fear you might have developed a dependency yourself, please seek help as soon as possible. 🙏 

Addressing substance abuse is not just about breaking free from the physical hold of substances but also about restoring emotional balance and reclaiming control over your mood, rather than living with the unpredictability that substances can bring.

ADHD or Bipolar Disorder: Mood Swings or Mood Episodes?

If you experience mood swings that last longer than a few hours or even days or feel like these mood changes are particularly extreme, this may be a sign of bipolar disorder, rather than the characteristic ADHD-induced mood swing. 

Bipolar disorder and ADHD are comorbid conditions. In fact, a recent study found that up to 35% of patients with bipolar disorders also meet the criteria for ADHD.

Bipolar is characterized by extreme mood episodes, switching from periods of extreme highs to periods of extreme lows. Rather than sudden shifts, these episodes usually last for several days or longer. 

For those navigating both ADHD and bipolar disorder, you can find yourself trying to juggle the fluctuating focus and energy levels of ADHD with the extreme emotional shifts of bipolar disorder. It's a delicate balancing act, requiring not just coping mechanisms for ADHD but also strategies to stabilize the intense mood variations of bipolar disorder.

Understanding and managing bipolar disorder involves recognizing these profound shifts in mood and finding ways to mitigate their impact on daily life. It's about seeking equilibrium in an often erratic emotional landscape, aiming for a sense of balance that allows for both productivity and peace. For individuals facing this dual diagnosis, crafting a life that accommodates the demands of both conditions is key to not just surviving but thriving.

Navigating Mood Swings with Professional Help

Mood swings may be more than just passing emotional states or another ‘quirk’ of ADHD. They can signal underlying mental health conditions or mood disorders that require attention and care

For example, if you’re experiencing profound mood shifts, cycling between manic highs and depressive lows, you may want to investigate the chance of bipolar disorder. 

If you find your mood tied to the weather or environment around you, you may be experiencing, seasonal affective disorder (SAD). ☔️

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is another comorbid condition that has overlapping symptoms with ADHD.   

Mood variability can also be caused by your ADHD medication, which influences neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. 

As you can see, there’s no way you can know all the symptoms and signs of every mood and mental health disorder, so if you find your mood swings are concerning or seriously affecting your life and mental health, please reach out to a mental health professional. 🤝

By seeking professional help, you can receive the support and care needed to maintain emotional equilibrium and good mental and physical health.

Lifestyle Changes for Emotional Stability

By making certain lifestyle changes and developing healthy habits, you can support your emotional stability and live a more balanced life. Remember, what works for someone else, may not work for you and vice versa, so it’s important to try things out and note down how they make you feel

You mainly want tools and activities that 1) regulate your emotions and 2) help you process difficult emotions. 

Here are a few practical suggestions, from traditional, science-backed approaches to more creative tactics:

  • Identify your triggers. Knowing what sets off your emotional rollercoaster is crucial for achieving stability. Keep a journal or make a note on your phone whenever you’re triggered. Eventually, you should start to see patterns.
  • Energize and nourish your brain with a healthy diet rich in essential nutrients and whole ingredients, laying the groundwork for emotional equilibrium. 
  • Physical activity is a powerful stress buster and mood regulator. Find an activity you enjoy and make it a part of your routine. Any kind of movement counts! 🏃‍♀️
  • Therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), offers valuable insights and coping mechanisms for managing the emotional ups and downs characteristic of ADHD.
  • Consider a digital detox to reduce sensory overload, improve sleep, and reduce stress. 📱
  • Incorporate nature therapy into your daily life, whether a stroll in the park or gardening, to harness the calming effects of the natural world. 🌲
  • Use artistic expression as an emotional outlet, channeling feelings into creative endeavors.
  • Explore mindful movement practices like yoga or tai chi, blending physical wellness with mental focus.
  • Use apps and digital tools designed for mental health support, from mood tracking to guided relaxation.
  • If possible, spend time with pets; their companionship can be incredibly soothing.
  • A consistent daily routine, including a regular sleep schedule, is key to maintaining emotional stability and minimizing the impact of mood swings.

By embracing both proven and unconventional strategies, you can create a comprehensive plan tailored to your unique needs. This holistic approach aims to manage mood swings and foster a sense of balance and well-being in every aspect of life. ☀️

Key Takeaways

  • Mood swings can be triggered by stress, hormonal fluctuations, and disrupted sleep patterns. Recognizing these triggers is essential for effective mood swing management.
  • Emotional dysregulation is common in ADHD due to an overactive amygdala and underdeveloped executive functions, leading to exaggerated emotional responses.
  • Hormones can significantly affect emotions, especially in individuals with ADHD and PMS symptoms. Techniques such as cycle-syncing may help.
  • Poor sleep can worsen ADHD symptoms and mood swings. Strategies for better sleep include sticking to a sleep schedule, creating a conducive sleep environment, and avoiding screens before bed. 💤
  • Seeking professional help is advised for managing mood swings, especially if they signal deeper mental health concerns or are coexisting with other conditions like bipolar disorder.
  • Lifestyle changes such as identifying triggers, maintaining a healthy diet, incorporating physical activity, and following a consistent daily routine can support emotional stability. 

The whirlwind of emotions and ever-changing moods can be difficult to navigate, but by understanding your triggers (hormones, stress, poor sleep, etc.) you can learn to manage and regulate your emotions and be less reactive. Experiment to find what works for you, and remember to reach out to the community for advice. 💬

What’s Next?

If you’ve been feeling a lot of different emotions lately, these articles may help:

ADHD and Anxiety: Understanding Their Coexistence

5 Problems You Might Experience If You Have ADHD

The Impact of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder on People with ADHD

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the meaning of mood swings?

Mood swings are rapid changes in emotional state, varying from happiness to sadness or anger, often without a clear cause.

Are mood swings a mental illness?

Mood swings can be a symptom of mental illnesses like bipolar disorder but aren't a mental illness on their own. Professional assessment is recommended.

How to get rid of mood swings?

Managing mood swings involves identifying triggers, practicing stress reduction techniques, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and seeking professional help if needed.

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