The Emotional Distress of Living With ADHD

I like knowing it's out there. I thought you might, too. You can find your own North Star inside of you. Better yet, you can look ahead, chart a course and move toward a future of your own design.
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Previously, I introduced you to Focused Forward: Navigating the Storms of Adult ADHD, also the title of my new book. Moving on, in this article I'll be describing something we don't hear much about in ADHD news--until now. I'll be talking about Emotional Stress Syndrome (EDS)- specifially as it affects those of us living with Adult ADHD.

We'll start here, and this may sound familiar to you. It usually does to my clients. Here's a striking comment from a man who'd read one of my articles but hadn't yet seen me in person for therapy:

"Failures in life cause EDS. I feel I know what the outcome is going to be and I don't want to take a chance. I venture nothing and I gain nothing (as they say). Actions as simple as balancing a checkbook may expose the fact that I'm insolvent."

Here's another thought, from another new client, also before our first meeting:

"I would very much like to repair the seeming mental short-circuit that has led to being perennially late my whole life; I want to reverse the increase of absentmindedness; improve concentration at work; reduce my anxiety. I'm afraid, given how damaged my family of origin is, of discovering that I am broken and/or 'crazy' in some fashion."

Of course, these people didn't turn out to be broken or crazy, just depleted from years of emotional distress.

Emotional distress--it sounds so commonplace, so non-particular to any psychological condition. But it's as specific as it is unsettling. If you're an adult with ADHD, you might recognize parts of yourself.

You know you're smart, you know you know what to do, but you're inconsistent. Consistently inconsistent! Whatever you do works for a while, but then it's less interesting; it falls off your schedule or routine. Or there's something about your otherwise not-too-shabby brain that doesn't remember that schedule--or really, any schedule. Your system was working yesterday, but now everyone's looking at you and you're at a loss for words and you say I don't know, the battery ran out in my timer, the alarm didn't go off again this morning, I didn't do this on purpose. But if it wasn't your fault, why are the accusatory voices coming from your own head so very nasty?

You're in the sea again, in the storm, wondering how you got there. The people around you can't really see what you're experiencing. And if they can't see it, why should they believe it? Or if they know you--if, say, they live with you--they might just be tired of all these storms. After a while, you find it easier to lose consideration for those other people, the people who don't seem to understand.

It's hard to predict what might set off a storm--an innocuous or curious question that zeroes in on your sense of failure, your missed expectations, your unresolved answers, that kick the chair out from under you. Whoever's asking doesn't even know how they're affecting you. And once again, you're spiraling in the Emotional Distress Syndrome.

If you don't know how to reset yourself, who knows where it ends? I've seen tiny, supposedly inconsequential triggers send someone into a two-year spiral, during which they lose themselves. That gap, that chasm, is the very essence of the Emotional Distress Syndrome of ADHD. I don't care how many behavioral strategies or medications you try, it does nothing at the end of the day if you don't treat the emotional stress.

You may not be optimistic about the possibility of getting some balance and joy back in your life, but I am, and I've got many years of clinical experience to back me up. I look forward to introducing you to the many different techniques that have helped me and so many of my clients with ADHD, and to sharing some of their experiences.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, that's fine. You may never have experienced the feeling of being sure of yourself, of having clarity about your decisions. You may not know what it's like to be able to handle a setback, big or small. To calm and reset yourself after something throws you off track. But these are skills you can learn, and the learning begins with your relationship with yourself.

So stay with me. We're going to walk across the fields of neuroscience, psychology, spirituality and imagination. Although I know a lot about ADHD, having a reasonably serious case of it myself, I'm still learning a lot about reaching my potential. It is my hope that you will, too.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though, a few words about navigation and the North Star.
At some point during the long process of writing my new book, I had to come to terms with the fact that although I'd identified a very real issue--the Emotional Distress Syndrome of ADHD--I wasn't going to be able to offer my clients a simple solution, a miracle cure or an effortless intervention. ADHD, and the emotions that go along with it, can't be eradicated, erased or blasted into a million pieces. But they can be managed, in a very personalized way. It's a lifelong process. It takes commitment.

Not very sexy, right?

And yet I've come to feel so hopeful about this process. I've seen things go so right for so many of my clients and friends that I've come to think that dealing with ADHD and its emotional fallout is more like navigating than managing. Managers spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, looking at a screen. Navigators travel the world. That alone should be enough to keep us interested!

But let's take it a step further. Imagine charting the course of your unique life as an epic sea voyage. You'd be prepared to make constant adjustments at the helm depending on the winds and weather--some of which you could predict, some of which you couldn't. Or imagine this life journey as a trek through an uninhabited mountain wilderness. You'd need to orient yourself every step of the way, figure out where you were going, and adjust for whatever nature threw at you. You'd want to have a very clear idea of who you were, and where, exactly, you'd like to end up.

You'd get some insight from fellow explorers, but in the end, you'd have to blaze your own trail.

Interestingly, no matter what kind of adventure you consider yourself to be undertaking, whether by land or by sea--or boardroom, laptop or sofa--you share one simple navigational tool with the rest of humanity. You can teach yourself to find the North Star: Polaris, the star that lines up with the axis of the earth, the star that holds steady while the other stars move around it. From wherever you happen to be, the North Star will always help you get your bearings. Though some poets have claimed otherwise, Polaris isn't the brightest light in the galaxy, just a star of average brilliance. But, really, how brilliant is that?

I like knowing it's out there. I thought you might, too. You can find your own North Star inside of you. Better yet, you can look ahead, chart a course and move toward a future of your own design.

Yes, you can be focused forward.

© 2016 James M Ochoa, LPC, The Life Empowerment Center, Austin, Texas

Focused Forward: Navigating the Storms of Adult ADHD
by James M. Ochoa, LPC
Published by Empowering Minds Press
February, 2016
Available at
To purchase a signed copy, please contact

James Ochoa is a therapist, writer and speaker who investigates the conundrums, challenges and rewards of adult ADHD--all of which he's experienced first hand, being a diagnosed "ADHD-er" himself. Equally grounded in neuroscience and intuition, his personal brand of therapy is uniquely empathetic, often transformative.