ADHD Meltdowns: What Causes Them and How to Minimize Their Impact

Regulating emotions can feel challenging for everyone at times. For people living with ADHD, differences in brain wiring combined with everyday symptoms can lead to emotional meltdowns that are often difficult to control and highly misunderstood. Although ADHD meltdowns are often assumed to be a childhood symptom, they can occur at any point in one’s life. Read on to learn what causes ADHD meltdowns, along with how to identify them, de-escalate them, and prevent them. 

Published: September 29, 2023

Table of contents

    What are ADHD meltdowns?

    Regulating emotions can feel challenging for everyone at times. For people living with ADHD, differences in brain wiring combined with everyday symptoms can lead to emotional meltdowns that are often difficult to control and highly misunderstood. Although ADHD meltdowns are often assumed to be a childhood symptom, they can occur at any point in one’s life. Read on to learn what causes ADHD meltdowns, along with how to identify them, de-escalate them, and prevent them. 

    An ADHD meltdown can look different for everyone. Some common presentations of an ADHD meltdown include:

    • crying

    • irritability

    • angry outbursts (yelling, throwing)

    • self-harm

    • binge eating

    • withdrawing

    How an ADHD meltdown presents itself depends on many factors, such as the individual’s background, severity of symptoms, learned coping skills, and other mental health disorders. Although the intensity and presentation of an ADHD meltdown varies, they are all characterized by a feeling of loss of emotional control. 

    What does an ADHD meltdown feel like?

    Meltdowns for people with ADHD can creep up or come on suddenly. When they creep up, you may find that everything and everyone around you is irritating or overwhelming. Although your day may be going on as normal, mundane events can feel like nails on a chalkboard. Whether it’s a cashier talking too slowly, someone skipping a line, or even just people around you conversing — harmless interactions that wouldn’t usually bother you become enraging. This type of meltdown is generally associated with overstimulation.

    Overstimulation often feels like every knob on your internal emotional radio is turned on blast. This type of meltdown can lead to behaviours such as snapping at people, sending curt digital communications, avoidance, using substances or overeating.

    When meltdowns come on suddenly, they can feel surprising for everyone involved, especially the person experiencing them. For many people, the meltdown may come in the form of sudden extreme emotions. This may feel like you are physically exploding from the inside with nowhere to place your feelings. The result is usually a physical outburst of some kind, such as sobbing, yelling, lashing out, or even self-harm. Surprisingly enough, these intense meltdowns are quite often caused by seemingly minor inconveniences such as misplacing a piece of clothing or missing an exit. 

    All types of meltdowns make it extremely challenging to use logic or patience and can have unwanted consequences. 

    What triggers ADHD meltdowns

    One of the more confusing things about ADHD is the inconsistency experienced when dealing with stressful events. A person with ADHD may thrive through an extremely difficult life period and then experience repeated meltdowns when things are going seemingly well. 

    Some common triggers for ADHD meltdowns include:

    • dealing with the consequences of ADHD symptoms, such as losing things, forgetting, or ADHD tax

    • feeling misunderstood or rejected

    • perceived injustices, such as breaking social rules or someone close to you falling back on their promises

    • perceived or actual failure

    • sensory overload

    • inconveniences (especially on days when you already feel on edge)

    • physical pain (especially when you hurt yourself doing another frustrating activity)

    • feeling unable to escape a situation 

    • hormonal changes or fluctuations

    Why are people with ADHD prone to meltdowns?

    ADHD meltdowns are rarely discussed as a symptom in adults, even though they can be one of the more challenging and even embarrassing symptoms. Even after years of therapy and with medication, people with ADHD may still experience meltdowns that lead to unwanted reactions. 

    There are several causes of meltdowns in ADHD, and they include:

    • Emotional dysregulation: Due to differences in brain areas responsible for regulating emotional responses, people with ADHD do not have the same level of control over emotions as a neurotypical person. This leads to more intense emotions in some cases and less emotions in other cases. 

    • Impulsivity: Impulsivity is a core symptom of ADHD, and it means impulsive behavior and impulsive emotions. Impulsive emotional reactions can feel intense and very difficult to control. For people with ADHD, it can feel like the emotional highway of your brain has direct access to your body, whereas neurotypical people have someone minding that highway with a little toll gate. 

    • Lower frustration tolerance: Due to emotional regulation challenges, people with ADHD can experience enhanced reactions to stressors, leading to intense and often unbearable emotions. People with ADHD are also prone to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated when their senses are too activated. 

    • ADHD symptoms: ADHD can be an incredibly frustrating disorder to live with as an adult. The aftermath and exhaustion that occurs from dealing with issues like forgetfulness, disorganization, procrastination and other symptoms can absolutely lead to emotional exhaustion and meltdowns. Feelings of failure, low self-confidence and negative self-talk all contribute to symptoms-related ADHD meltdowns. 

    • Other disorders: Many people with ADHD live with other disorders such as depression, anxiety and autism, which can all contribute to emotional meltdowns. 

    Dealing with meltdowns in the moment

    Finding ways to prevent or lessen ADHD meltdowns is a helpful long-term strategy, but you should also be prepared as they occur. Here are some emergency go-to strategies to deal with ADHD meltdowns in the moment that don’t require much logic or forethought. 

    • Take a break: Emotional meltdowns in ADHD are similar to physical pain and can be treated in the same way. For instance, if your arm is injured and using it is causing a great deal of pain, you should give it a rest. Likewise, if you are engaged in a situation that’s increasing your emotional pain, the best immediate response is to give your brain and body a rest. This may look like escaping to a quiet room, going for a walk, or even calling someone who gets it. The important thing is that you give yourself a few emergency escape options to use when you feel things getting out of control to give your mind and body a break.

    • Name it: Awareness is power, especially when it comes to mental health. Labeling your ADHD meltdown as an ADHD meltdown gives you back a sense of control. Rather than assuming you have some personal flaw, you are able to show up with a bit of compassion and empathy for yourself. It may not take away the emotions, but you’ll feel better equipped to implement strategies to minimize the damage. 

    • Communicate: Do your best to communicate what is happening when you are experiencing a meltdown and what you need to do. People can be incredibly understanding, and there are a lot of resources you can share with them to help them gain even more knowledge (i.e. this article). Simply saying a sentence like “I’m overwhelmed and need a break” or “I’m sorry I can’t be rational right now” is short and to the point. Having more people in your circle who understand ADHD can also be a huge game changer; even if they can’t be there in the moment, they can lend a friendly ear during the aftermath. 

    • Breathe deeply: Taking deep breaths might not be the first thing to come to your mind when you feel overwhelmed, but they are scientifically proven to help reduce the body’s stress response. Try practicing a few deep breaths whenever you feel stressed, and after a while, your mind will begin to offer it as an option for you when you start to feel overwhelmed. 

    • Be kind to yourself: Try to resist the urge to be hard on yourself after a meltdown. Beating yourself up after you’ve experienced a meltdown is akin to shooting yourself with another arrow after you’ve already been hit with one. You deserve kindness and love as you do your best to navigate life alongside a particular set of challenges. Try to decompress and do something you enjoy after a meltdown to find a sense of peace. 

    Take care of yourself

    ADHD is a complicated disorder that is associated with significant challenges in regulating emotions. ADHD meltdowns can be disruptive and hurtful to yourself and others. The toll they take on your personal life may range from minor to major. Learning more about why they occur, how they feel for you, and what triggers them are all excellent strategies for feeling prepared and even avoiding ADHD meltdowns. When meltdowns do occur, be sure to lean into your emergency strategies to minimize the damage an ADHD meltdown can cause. 

    Experiencing meltdowns? ADHD treatment can help.

    Getting treatment for your ADHD can significantly reduce your overall symptoms and help prevent or minimize future meltdowns. If you have ADHD and need treatment, or suspect you have ADHD but don’t know what to do next, Frida makes it easy for Canadians to get assessed for ADHD and prescribed treatment fully from the comfort of home. To find out if Frida can help you, take our 1-minute self-assessment!

    Lisa Batten, PhD, CPT, PN1

    Lisa Batten is a clinical scientist, therapist, and writer specializing in neuroscience and clinical pharmacology. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.