ADHD, Emotion, and Dr. Russell Barkley

When it comes to emotions, the focus seems to dwell on the negative. Sometimes as I’m coaching those with ADHD, I see them as very passionate about things and they’re full of emotion, but this passion often rages out of control. So, is there a positive side? A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Russell Barkley ( on Attention Talk Video to get his perspective as a researcher on the subject. In our discussion, he explained that in some circumstances these emotions may actually be beneficial.

The problem for those with ADHD is that they may have had bad experiences and they feel the anticipation of a threat even if there isn’t one. They go into fight, flight, or freeze mode and they’re just completely stuck. It’s important to understand what this concept is and how it works so that they can understand the context of this biological response and the importance of engaging their executive functioning brain to override it.

Video Transcript:

Jeff Copper:    Welcome, everybody, to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, ADHD and attention coach Jeff Copper, and we’re here today with Dr. Russell Barkley. Dr Barkley, welcome to the show.

Dr. Barkley:    Thank you so much, Jeff. I appreciate you having me on again today.

Jeff Copper:    I always enjoy interviewing you. I learn so much from it. We’ve done some interviews on our radio format about ADHD and emotion, and you talk about emotions being as much a part of ADHD as attention. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr. Barkley:    Yes. I think, as you know, for the past 40 years or more since 1968, the DSMs, which is our diagnostic manuals, have not included emotion as part of the way that we think about clinically or conceptualize ADHD. It’s always just focused on attention, inhibition, and hyperactivity. Yet, if you look back into the research literature, even back to 1775 in the first article on ADHD in a German medical textbook, they talk about the importance of emotion as being an equally central and important part of this disorder as are the more routine things. It’s been there but it’s been ignored now for the past 40 years and I think it needs to come back.

Jeff Copper:    You’ve been doing a lot of lecturing about making an argument that it should come back and it’s great stuff. But what’s interesting to me is I’ve learned and you’ve talked about emotion, you’ve also talked about ADHD as being more of an executive functioning and a self-regulation issue which to me really makes a lot of sense because two things that you need to regulate are your emotions and your attention. Can you speak to that for a second?

Dr. Barkley:    Well, yes. There are at least five major executive functions in daily life and one of those, of course, has to do with working memory and organizing yourself. We also use that for problem solving. The second, as you know, is self-restraint or inhibition. The third is time management, managing yourself to time. The fourth has to do with self-motivation. The fifth, which is very important especially for social functioning, is emotional self-control. All of our research shows that these are the five major dimensions that ADHD is disrupting and yet the DSM view doesn’t respect that. You can see that one of the five executive functions in daily life is the self-control of emotion.

Jeff Copper:    One of the things that, Dr. Barkley, we do in coaching is related to that. Inhibition is how people begin to try to notice themselves and become aware of what’s going on. Particularly when it comes to emotion, particularly when they feel that flooding kind of feeling coming in; to recognize it and then begin to notice that they need to down regulate it as a means to manage it. I know we’ve talked a lot about that before. You want to prevent situations where your emotions might fly, but if you can catch it when you’re in it, then you can begin to do things to down-regulate. You can more better manage it. Can you speak to that?

Dr. Barkley:    Absolutely. There are two parts to self-control of emotion. The first is inhibition. You have to overcome or restrain yourself in showing any strong emotion that might’ve been provoked by a situation. Let’s say that someone insults you, for instance, in a business meeting. You have to suppress that initial primary emotion that’s been provoked. Then, the second thing that people do is they engage in a series of self-directed actions to calm themselves down. Like your mother said, you count to ten and go to your happy place. But basically what you do after suppressing the strong emotion is you try to engage in self-calming, self-soothing. You divert your attention away from the provocation. You may try to reevaluate it using a lot of self-statements or just counting to ten, but you begin to talk to yourself to try to calm yourself down.

Then, perhaps you might even try to provoke a new emotion to help you. You think about being on the beach in Aruba or something very pleasurable to you. That brings an emotion that helps to counteract and quell the initial strong emotion. Those are the steps involved in emotional self-control and those are the steps that people with ADHD, particularly adults, have a lot of trouble engaging in.

Jeff Copper:    And as a coach, a lot of times we’re working with them to being able to notice that and catch themselves and design strategies and structures around for them to kind of get in and accelerate that down-regulation of emotion. I’ve got one more question before we wrap this up because when it comes to emotion, people always dwell on the negative. Is there a positive side? In coaching those with ADHD, sometimes I see them very passionate about things and it’s an emotional passion. It’s kind of like the opposite that it kind of rages out of control. From your perspective as a researcher, is that anything that you guys take a look at or notice or is it just confined in my world?

Dr. Barkley:    Well, we certainly paid attention to it and in my book on executive functioning and ADHD, I explained that it’s all emotions that are so easily provoked, but it’s the negative ones that are so socially costly. We spend a lot more time on those because those are the ones that are getting you into trouble.

But we should see that other emotions, how humorous you are, how quickly you are to show affection, how passionate you might be about something that you’re very involved in, or how easily excitable you get when you’re in the midst of a situation that’s excitable, like a party or some other event. You’re going to be displaying more positive emotions than others. You might be the class clown, you might be the person that’s talking too much and easily excited at a party, or you might be the person who’s much more passionate about something than the people around you intend to be.

Those are all, I think, things that not only are forgiven but in some circumstances may actually be beneficial. For instance, many people with ADHD find that the performing arts or rock music or any place where they can display emotion through music or literature or poetry is something that they tend to excel at. Not all of them but many of them. It’s certainly a place where they’re not handicapped by their emotional self-control problems. But it’s the negative emotions, if those get provoked, that are going to cost them.

Jeff Copper:    In the coaching side, we always kind of, as I say, we try to use what you can pay attention to help you get around, what you struggle with. In the same light, that’s the reason I brought this up, because there can be a positive side, particularly for those with ADHD that are really passionate. That emotion can really come and they can be very motivating and very inspiring. Dr. Barkley, I can’t thank you enough for coming on the show. We appreciate it.

Dr. Barkley:    Thank you, Jeff. Good to be with you.

Jeff Copper:    Take care, everybody.


4 thoughts on “ADHD, Emotion, and Dr. Russell Barkley

  1. Health suffers (high rates of health problems, incl. premature death (as much as 8-10 years, per research from Dr. Russel Barkley)

  2. How’s it happening that so many researchers and professionals agree emotional dysregulation is so much a part of ADHD and it go ignored in the DSM manual?
    It just makes it hard for people experiencing these issues get the information and the help they need to deal with them. I can personally say that the emotional aspects are costly as Dr Berkerley mentions in this interview and more than that are extremely challenging and debilitating for us because it is a coping limitation.
    I’m not sure what needs to be done for this to change but it seems to me some of our professionals and researchers should have an idea and it would be great if they took it the next step to ensure this can change.

    1. Emotions used to be part of the diagnostic criteria before 1970 but were removed because emotions are so intangible. Dr. Barkley was frustrated that emotions didn’t make it into the DSM-5. End of the day, the DSM is the last thing to get updated. In a sense, by definition, it is always a bit out of date. Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *