ADHD and Emotional Autopilot

Episode 166

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Ash and Cam continue to pull the thread on getting distance from the Adrenaline Response Cycle as they explore common emotional responses when faced with uncertainty and challenge. Today they share the concept of emotional autopilot. We can approach our days and plans in an autopilot fashion expecting our day to go off without a hitch. We can also set our emotions on autopilot or conveniently set them aside – partitioning them from our day. We all know how this plays out. When things don’t go according to plan, our emotions come out in anger or disappointment and often at a higher intensity due to emotional dysregulation. Cam and Ash tack against common suggestions regarding emotional regulation, addressing the challenge more at causation than at manifestation.

According to findings in neuroscience, the more aware we are of our emotions the more we can utilize them as a resource. Like Kelly McGonigal’s work on stress, if we shift the way we view emotions, we can turn them into the resources they are. Emotions drive our desires, our attention and our motivation for change. They can also be difficult to manage because they are stronger than positive emotions. Often the big signal is negative in nature and when we do explore emotions, the first thing we hear is our own internal negative self-talk. The hosts share different ways we can resource emotions and ‘crack the lid on the mason jar’ to let emotions inform, and not drive, behavior or responses.

Ash distinguishes emotions and the story associated with the emotions. He also shares an example where a client uses her own body awareness to better understand how her migraines are an indication of surpassing a threshold and entering the crash phase of ARC. Cam shares an example where a client uses time to process emotions in an interaction with a coworker. The hosts emphasize well known podcast concepts like curiosity and pause, disrupt, pivot to shift away from the autopilot mode.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I am Ash.

[00:00:01] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:02] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD. Just a quick reminder, there are only a couple of weeks left to register for our upcoming group coaching course Project X. That class begins Tuesday, April 11th and meets at 8:30 PM Eastern. For more information about the course, including how to apply and pricing, visit the website and click on the group coaching tab.

So, Cam.

[00:00:31] Cam: So, Ash. 

[00:00:36] Ash: That’s what I was waiting for. That’s what I was waiting for, listeners. If you could have seen the blank look Cam gave me when I said, so Cam. He was waiting for me to say more. So let’s try that again.

[00:00:48] Cam: Yeah, I was looking at my notes. In my mind I was like, so Ash, what else are you gonna say?

[00:00:55] Ash: So Cam, what are we talking about today?

[00:00:59] Cam: What we’re talking about today…there’s so many different directions we could go in from last week. Last week we talked about what we call the in-between place. This place of as we’re developing awareness and understanding of our ADHD, right? To start to understand, to start to own and to start to translate. It can be a little squirrely. It can be a little uncomfortable. Because it’s this state of new awareness, new information. We did an old episode on this, Ash, the grieving around an ADHD diagnosis, of grieving that person you would never be. So there’s a lot of emotions here.

There’s also this, as you’re trying to move away from the ARC adrenaline response cycle, the ability to respond and react, the ability to deliver work in the 11th hour is that you kind of find your place in this a bit untethered. And so that was the operative word last week, of feeling untethered.

And so I was thinking about, you know, different directions to go in today and really thought of this one that I see often as you know, you can kind of scramble back to ARC, the safety of that one pony. You can stay in this uncomfortable place, and there’s a number of other things that we can do, and I want to speak to one of those. And I’m just gonna call it emotional autopilot.

So autopilot is something that we often do, any given day autopilot around our plans, autopilot around our schedule. I’ve made my list for today. I’ve learned that it’s likely that this list is not going to happen the way that I have it, but that’s taken some time to learn. What I used to do is make a list and then just assume that it would happen and then be surprised and frustrated that it didn’t happen. And along with that kind of autopilot setting of sort of establish a plan for the day and then expecting it to turn out, that way we can kind of dial in our emotions in the same way. And we talked about this in episode 70. When we introduce the emotional health ladder and then autopilot is this middle level…this middle level of we are showing up and our emotions are on autopilot. And as we drop down that emotional health ladder, we drop into survival. As we move up, we’re more aware and more at choice. And level two is attending to.

But today I wanna talk about, again, what can happen and why this is straight out of the gate how ADHD comes into play with autopilot is cognitive and flexibility and prospective memory challenges to sort of anticipate how a day will play out. Those are executive function intense. So what we can do, though, you know what we were talking about, Ash and I do these sort of philosophical conversations. It’s kind of fun. We sort of meet where we are and start to share what’s going on for both of us, and thinking about different directions we can go in with different aspects of translating ADHD, whether it’s the group coaching or new offerings. Or what we’re talking about on any given day. And Ash said something to the effect of, you know, I think people are under a lot right now. There’s too much, too much data, too much information just given what’s been going on for the last three to five years is that a lot of us are hurting, and it’s a very natural thing to not want to feel that, to put a lid on that. Right. It’s almost easier to kind of just close that. Let’s just seal that up in a mason jar, put it on a shelf and set it aside. Again, as we do that, this is what we’re calling kind of emotional autopilot to partition it and set it aside because in a way it’s.

[00:05:00] Ash: Yeah. I’m gonna toss in a sidebar here because it’s funny, but I would like you to imagine all of the emotional upheaval that all of us have been under for the last several years. And having your entire physiological response to emotion change overnight, because here I am going through a second puberty and the way that emotion moves through my body is different than it used to be. So, just an aside, I don’t necessarily want to go down that tangent, but it’s so interesting, and I just had to toss it in there.

[00:05:40] Cam: Well, I appreciate you sharing that, Ash, because you know what you are bringing is, there’s some curiosity and awareness there. And that’s what’s available when we pull that mason jar off the shelf and crack that lid. We’re not suggesting that you pull the lid off people and have that full emotional experience because it can be too much with emotional regulation challenges, there might be too much going on.

Today we’re gonna talk about how to bring emotions in because they’re so essential. There’s something that I’ve learned in the last several years is the interplay of executive function and emotion and how emotions drive our desires. We talk about Purpose and we talk about Project X and we talk about Agency. We talk about wanting to have some sense of control and choice in our life. But emotion comes into play around what we’re attending to, what we take action on, what we care about, and what we don’t care about. So when we crack that lid, often what we’re presented with is that inner critic and the inner critic’s like, you don’t have this, you don’t have this, you don’t got this and you still don’t have this. And so naturally, yeah, you want to kind of crank that lid down and set it aside and like, you know what? I’m just gonna partition these emotions.

But then what happens is, again, one of these cause and effect dilemmas we’re going about in our day, and then something happens. The plan doesn’t go according to plan or, again, something pops up where we get upset, someone around us gets upset, and then we have this emotional fallout, and then we can get flooded or triggered or have a really big emotional response. And this is where a lot of attention is in ADHD land right now, DESR is the big term, and we’ve talked about that here before. We wanna look back at, again, where can we address this proactively? And where we can address this proactively is to loosen the lid there and to bring some of that awareness and curiosity and empathy to your situation.

So that inner critic and those negative emotions, they are three to five times stronger than positive emotion. This is what neuroscience is telling us is that signal in the brain is three to five times stronger. So it’s gonna get your attention and, oh, Ash, recall what are we wired for? We’re wired for the big signal. So the big signal is this negative signal, and it’s like, you suck. What are you doing? Stop your free fall. Stop doing that.

You know, last week we talked about the big brainer can be kind of when they’re untethered, feel like they’re in a freefall. And the fast brain when they’re untethered, it’s sort of like they’ve taken off all the restrictor plates and their race, car train, rocket ship, whatever you wanna call it, is in this sort of just constant acceleration, faster and faster and faster and faster. And then by the side then you’ve got this inner critic like judging and persecuting and punishing the whole way. I will argue that because of our connection to that ARC system and fight flight that we’re wired into that because that’s what we’ve used to get things done, right? That consequence based motivation system, what’s the thing that’s gonna bite me in the butt that I’m gonna address? We access that fear center because of that wiring.

I’m gonna say that signal is even more than three to five times strong. Let’s just double that. Six to 10 times stronger. This is why that when our clients come to us we cultivate safety and trust core competency, and they start to share, this is the message, this is the voice, because it’s the biggest signal, and it’s the most convenient one to explain their situation without this information or knowledge of what is actually going on. And so it’s six to 10 times stronger – of course what you’re gonna do is crank down on that mason jar and keep those emotions. Let’s just set those aside. All right, listeners, how’s that working for you? How’s it working for you?

I found it didn’t really work well for me. And so starting to take those mason jars and crack those lids and let that sort of pressure off a little bit and start to challenge that inner voice just a bit, challenge it with like, again, what are the facts there? It’s likely imposter syndrome might be coming into play, right? Not seeing oneself in the picture. So coming back to what do we know? What can we tether to? This is why Ash and I focus on self-care when we work with all of our clients, when we start a group coaching class, it’s starting with how can we take care of ourselves during these eight weeks? Or to begin to address needs that might be unmet because when needs are not being met, that’s when that inner critic can really come into play, right?

All of you, as you’re here listening, you are here because you’re wanting to learn, to figure out how to manage your ADHD and move forward. This is change. Anytime we’re presented with change, the inner critic, the fear center of our brain, is like no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don’t go in that direction. That’s too scary. There’s too much uncertainty there. Don’t do that. Let’s go back to what we know, right?

So we’re in this place of like, man, it’s uncomfortable. But in this place, starting to tether to certain needs, certain practices, certain people and certain environments. There are certain environments that are really beneficial and those that drain. To start to take inventory of that there are people who are supporters and those who are not, and to identify who they are and to start to take care of yourself and to think about emotions in a new way.

[00:12:02] Ash: Cam, I like to tell my clients, when it comes to emotion and ADHD, that what can be so confusing is that the emotion itself is real. The way it feels in the body, be it shame, guilt, anger, sadness, it’s real. The story behind the emotion may not be entirely real, and that is the opportunity in is to parse out what’s real here and what’s not. And when I say the story behind the emotion may not be real, right? That doesn’t mean that there’s not a story or a reason for that powerful emotion to be present, but it might be different than what we initially thought it was.

And so these powerful points of emotion become a great place to get curious what’s going on behind the emotion. Can we lift the hood up here and see what’s fueling this powerful response in the body and in the mind?

[00:13:16] Cam: That’s a great distinction, Ash, on again, sort of our emotional response and the story that might be at play, and so this is one of these opportunities to pause, disrupt, and pivot, right? We are looking for an opportunity to pause, and what you are doing is something that we’re seeing in neuroscience right now, around emotions.

So Kelly McGonigal talks about this stress that our relationship and what we think of or how we think of stress dictates what happens next, right? If we see stress as this negative thing, then it informs our experience. And not only it’s the stories we have, but also our physical response that more visits to the doctor, right? There’s a physiological response there to the way that we think.

And so if we really pivot, this is perspective. How you’re viewing the situation. And this is just a central piece of coaching. We are looking at the thing and we’re also looking at how you’re looking at the thing. And so when you view stress as a resource, oh, the stress I’m feeling, what might it be? A early warning of it might be my body’s trying to tell me something. What’s it trying to tell me? That then we have a different experience and we’re actually healthier.

And the same thing with emotion. This is the work of Susan David and emotional agility is that all emotions are useful and informative. And so it’s, again, you can be in the place of fear and anger and resentment, despair. And if you can get some distance and look at how can I use this information as data to inform what is going on for me? That’s the thing that I found that I flipped with emotion myself. As kind of being on that buckin’ bronco of emotion and getting jerked all over the place when I set up emotional autopilot and then all of a sudden the day didn’t go according to plan. Someone didn’t respond a certain the way I thought they were gonna respond, and I got that surprise. And then I’m in that emotional dysregulation place of getting triggered or that emotional spike. And then I’m riding that emotional intensity, and I’m just beholden to that versus what’s going on.

Why am I having this and how might it inform the situation? So it’s taking emotion and really starting to put it in this category of a resource, that emotion that is positive and negative. And even that inner critic is the inner critic or the judge, or my avoider, are they trying to tell me something, right? So not to be beholden to it, but to take it as data and kind of take that step. How is this playing into my story, right? What’s it informing here and can I step back and consider and weigh and think about this? And when we do that, there’s a certain agility or a dexterity with that curiosity that again, it bumps us out of that emotional autopilot place. And into more of this attending to, paying attention to where that emotional voice is more informing than, again, we’re just trying to keep as much distance from it as possible.

[00:16:59] Ash: Cam, I saw this play out with a client of mine who was probably more aware of her mind-body connection than any other client I had worked with previously. She brought the topic of migraines to a coaching session and wanted to work backward from the point that she gets a migraine to see if she couldn’t adjust her experience to avoid a migraine altogether. Because what she knew is when she was under a lot of deadline pressure, that was on the other side of that deadline pressure. When the deadline had been met that was a time that was ripe for a migraine. And so we did, we started to work the problem backwards, and as we did this, she got more and more data about what that threshold really looks like. Because at first the only information we had was if there’s a big urgency push, chances are you’re gonna get a migraine. But the more we revisited this topic and revisited this topic and looked at it when there was urgency in the picture, the more granular we got, the more she was able to understand sort of what that threshold actually looks like. Because real life is not all or nothing, urgency is always going to have a place in all of our lives.

So going at this with the goal of eliminating urgency altogether is just not realistic, but instead going at it with the goal of understanding when urgency is present, what other conditions lead to a migraine, lead to that strong signal from my body. That crash, really that’s what it was for her, is a migraine is a bad crash on the back end of the ARC cycle. So how do I take care of myself enough to not crash to this point? And it was such interesting coaching.

And in hindsight, I better understand this now. I never really understood body-based coaching, although it’s a coaching modality that is offered and is offered by the coach training program that I took. Well, I didn’t have a strong connection to my body for most of my life, so no wonder that was a difficult modality for me to understand. So this client in particular, I learned a lot from and started to bring a lot more body-based coaching when I would notice that language from other clients, right.

So listeners, how do you feel your emotion? How does it move through your mind or move through your body? For me, it’s a very cerebral experience. It’s very much up in my mind for the most part. It’s almost like my body is not even part of emotion unless I am holding anxiety. That is the one time where my body is very much part of the picture.

But for a lot of my clients, the body cues are what happened first, right? a feeling in the pit of their stomach, you know, a little bit of tension. In a place, right, in a known place that leads to bigger challenges, fatigue when they’re otherwise well rested. So as you start to get curious about this, really a great place to start is starting to understand how you experience emotion. Because once you are a little more aware of that, then you can start to tune in to those signifiers, and you can catch them a little earlier and a little earlier and a little earlier, just as my client did with migraines, right? We knew the signifiers of a migraine when one was almost sure to happen, but as we backed it up more and more, she found earlier and earlier cues.

[00:21:11] Cam: That’s a great example. And it really illustrates the first and third barrier of ADHD. So the three barriers of ADHD are awareness, action, and learning. And so really that exploration to get to that awareness place to flip the switch on a migraine versus I need to avoid this at all costs, this is bad, versus, oh wow, it’s still unenjoyable and it’s not great, but it’s actually indicative of these thresholds. Of what is too much.

This is where we started today – our discussion of about, you know, ADHD is often this experience of too much data, too much information, too much emotion, not enough emotion, right? It’s around management and regulation, but that work around that body-based coaching or somatic coaching. Allowing the body to inform what is going on, paying attention to, again, the factors in play, whether they’re environmental, or not. And so taking that awareness and then bringing it to learning in those two barriers.

It reminds me of a couple weeks ago when I was sharing the example of the client who was kinda getting into there, playing around with their emotions, right? That whole FOMO around the day trading and that intense emotional response, the fear of missing out, missing that key trade. And so the client going in and setting the parameters and going in and sort of exploring and learning, right? Developing more awareness about his emotions and his emotional responses.

What came out of that? Something very similar, Asher, around thresholds and limits, and this is one of those things that we wanna become curious about when we are untethered or we’re fully in ARC. We often just go toward that big signal and in the brightness of the big signal, boundaries go away. Those helpful structures disappear. We don’t really know where the limits are, and that’s one of the big things about ADHD is that consistency over time.

As you were talking there, I just thought of someone in a group coaching class where it was this mix of emotion and time, and it was just beautiful, beautiful work that they did, is that it was a work situation and it was a coworker who was not being professional. The student who was in the class had admitted as much that in the past, if someone’s not being professional and it reflected personally on them, that would have a strong emotional response, and then they would engage directly, right? Like, go tell this person exactly what they’re thinking, again, it was all baked in that emotion, the intensity of that moment, how they were wronged, how this was not wrong. And what happened here was the client paused and saw time as a resource. You know what, what I have to share is not urgent, right? It’s getting distance from ARC because ARC would have them just like, oh, I gotta share it right now while it’s here, right?

We use that fire to motivate and you know, blast out the other person. Well, all they get is emotion. They don’t get the message, they don’t get any learning. So he’s like, you know what? I’m gonna wait on this. I’m gonna let this sit because I’m not in a position to be objective and to really go to what’s the bigger opportunity. The bigger opportunity is to mentor, to support, to point out the opportunity for this southern individual. And that’s what they did.

They paid attention, first of all, to that negative emotion of what they were feeling, but didn’t act on it. Right? That’s another thing, Ash, to consider, listeners, when you have an emotion to not act on it immediately, but to let it be a little arm’s length and just consider what is that? What’s that strong emotion, and is it something that I can use, pull the data from it. Is it showing up in my body in a certain way? Can I take some breaths? So mindfulness practices.

This is another thing that neuroscience is teaching us, is that we can do specific breathing exercises in order to have a different body experience. And when we have that different body experience, we can have a different emotional experience. It goes both ways. And then when we have a different emotional experience, then the story is more approachable, right? We can start to tinker with that story or that perspective or the slight, the injustice versus, okay, maybe this is really important to me. Maybe that’s why I feel so strongly about this, so how can I proceed forward more? Inform. Really interesting stuff, Ash, and I think that we’re onto something here that we might continue to explore in future episodes. 

[00:26:29] Ash: Yeah, Cam. And I think that that’s an awesome place for us to wrap it up here for today. So until next week, I’m Ash,

[00:26:35] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:26:36] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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