Stick & Stones break bones but Words really hurt…

Language is powerful. With it we can share ideas, create images of what is not, relive the past and organise our thinking. Accordingly, this language “reality” can also hurt. 

With others’ words, we conjure mental images that change the way we feel and act. The mediator for this is usually a feature of executive function. The self regulation of our thinking and acting. 

To do this, our “emotional” network will take in the information, process in reference to our “emotional experience” or memory, and create a motivational response, either towards or away. As our “emotional memory” is by nature vague and fast, we have the fore mentioned mediator in the form of our “attentional” network. 

The “attentional” network involves close focus where more detail is added while at the same time the “emotional” network is turned down. With this new information and perspective, (including an awareness of intent and benefit) the new “story” is directed back to the emotional network to rewrite the script and change our response (motivation). 

The challenge with ADHD is that easy access to the “attentional” network is inconsistent. The result being a bias towards “emotional” network processing and reactive responses often related to our more negative past experiences. Without the easy access to the “attentional” mediator, the power of words hit our most sensitive memories and trigger painful and reactive responses. Worse still, these emotional experiences can be very difficult to move on from, colouring the way in which we see the world and those around us. 

The opportunity is to consider languages role in regulating our emotions and how profoundly they can influenced the focus of attention. Lisa Feldman Barrett describes in her book “How Emotions Are Made”, this relationship between an emotional experience (or motivational experience), trigger/s, and the energy. To extend this model to incorporate executive function, it is interesting to propose the application of Barrett’s “energy” to effective executive function. 

This then would read as:

> a trigger 

> stimulating emotional referencing (fast, imprecise, protective response) which with the right executive function resourcing would then 

> create inhibition of reaction, 

> redirection to attention, 

> processing of detail, and 

> recreation of perception and a new “emotional” context or story 

> resulting in a different response. 

So enters self directed talk. Pre-learned language strategies that create a reality supportive to allowing this cascade of reason to happen. People with ADHD often present has having few or poorly formed self directed talk but have the potential to develop it as adults. Simple directions such as “take a deep breathe”, “ she means well”, “I need to take a moment” or even “toilet break!” can create enough of a pause in processing to allow easier inhibition of emotional reaction and facilitate the cascade of reason. 

A language strategy that I use with clients involves the acronym SOLVE. When ruminating and stuck in the emotional mental loop, we engage the SOLVE:

  1. S – STOP! Take a breath, change your position (move!)
  2. O L – Objectively List – state what you positively know – no assumptions or presumptions!
  3. V – Verbalise – turn it into words. By keeping it in your head you lose much of the impact of language. Say it out loud. What you know and what next.
  4. E – Exit the loop – move on to another activity or positive action.

This simple language strategy helps break emotional thinking and introduces the attentional thinking and in turn the changes the experience. So to quote many a mother, “ Use your words!”