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How to Deal with RSD

How to Deal With Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)
By NeuroSpark Health

This month we’re focusing on all things rejection sensitive dysphoria! In this blog, you’ll find an overview of strategies and techniques that may be helpful about how to deal with RSD. As with most neurodivergent experiences, the same strategies that will be effective for one person may not be helpful for another person. The list includes potential methods to understand and spot RSD when it shows up, and how to navigate the emotional intensity that often characterizes the RSD experience.

Understanding Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

What is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is an intense emotional response or reaction to real or perceived rejection or criticism that involves overwhelming feelings of distress, inadequacy, or despair.  RSD is thought to be a widely understood profile of ADHD, however, it is also argued that autistic and other neurodivergent individuals can also share this heightened sensitivity to rejection. Unfortunately, many individuals who experience RSD are often called “oversensitive,” “overdramatic,” and other stigmatized criticisms that can actually further exacerbate difficult feelings of being judged, misunderstood, and rejected. The truth is that RSD can significantly affect a person’s emotional well-being and daily life. These feelings often lead to challenges that are difficult to manage in relationships, work, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.  Many ADHDers and other neurodivergent people experience these challenges and ask us about how to deal with rejection sensitive dysphoria.

Signs of RSD

RSD manifests differently in each individual (it’s another spectrum!) but can include heightened sensitivity to criticism, emotional reactivity, avoidance behaviors, and an intense fear of rejection. This fear of rejection can influence behavior, causing us to avoid situations where rejection or criticism might occur. This might inadvertently limit personal growth and opportunities for social interaction, leading to feelings of isolation or loneliness. The heightened reaction to rejection can also lead to arguments in relationships when a person feels criticized and may confront the rejecting party. This can cause conflict. Sometimes, the rejecting person isn’t even aware that what they said was critical and it can be difficult to resolve these kinds of conflicts, leading to further “communication breakdowns.” When this occurs, the process of repair or resolution is so important with RSD. So, how can you deal with rejection sensitive dysphoria and get to a place of management and resolution? We’ll get into that further below.

The Intersection with ADHD and Autism

RSD is often experienced by people with ADHD, but as mentioned above, other neurodivergent people have also resonated with the experience of RSD. Some autistic self-advocates, those with trauma-based neurodivergencies, relationship OCD, and more, have shared that they also experience RSD. In individuals with ADHD, RSD can intensify emotional responses, potentially impacting their ability to focus and engage in tasks effectively. For autistic people who experience RSD,  these responses can exacerbate social challenges. Autistic people can struggle with discerning the intentions of others, making it more difficult to communicate, navigate social interactions and resolve conflict when it is unclear whether they will be (or have been) accepted. For almost all neurodivergent people, struggling to gain acceptance and understanding is a significant challenge that is only complicated further by RSD.

How to Identify Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Identifying rejection sensitive dysphoria can be complex because characteristics of RSD overlap with various emotional responses. However, certain indicators might be helpful to you to discern how your emotional experience has been influenced by RSD so you can understand how to deal with rejection sensitive dysphoria. Gaining awareness about your emotional experiences can be beneficial to identify, and possibly disrupt, the “RSD spiral” before it happens.  Individuals experiencing RSD often experience an intense and immediate emotional reaction to perceived rejection or criticism that may seem to others as perhaps disproportionate to the situation's severity. These reactions can include overwhelming feelings of distress, self-doubt, anxiety, or sadness. These heightened emotional responses can lead to shutdowns or avoidance behaviors. (If you’re wondering if RSD applies to you, check out our quiz here.)

Strategies to Manage Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Increasing Self-Awareness

Increasing self-awareness can be a powerful tool in equipping you with the ability to spot triggers, identify, and possibly disrupt the emotional responses that cause you distress. Mindfulness practices (being able to objectively notice what is happening for you internally), journaling or sharing with a trusted person in your life (to express your feelings and help you feel less alone), or therapy sessions can aid in this process by providing you the affirmation and reassurance to know that you are valued and loved, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment.

Mindfulness and Emotional Regulation

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, can encourage emotional regulation by helping you connect with the present reality, redirect your focus to the current moment, and being able to calmly and objectively take a non-judgmental approach to your emotions. Having mindful awareness about when RSD is emerging for you without judging yourself helps in managing RSD-related distress.

Cognitive Behavioral Techniques

Cognitive-behavioral techniques can focus on identifying and modifying negative thought patterns associated with RSD. This might involve challenging automatic negative thoughts by evaluating evidence and for and against them, thus altering the emotional responses triggered by perceived rejection or criticism. Note: CBT techniques may be helpful for some neurodivergent individuals to reframe thought patterns, but other neurodivergent people find these techniques unhelpful or inaccessible for their neurotype. 

Developing Coping Mechanisms

You can develop coping strategies on your own, or with a therapist, by identifying what helps you feel better in those moments of distress and despair. As with all coping strategies, these are deeply personal and variable based on what works for you.  This might include seeking support from trusted loved ones, , engaging in hobbies or activities that bring you joy, engaging in a self-care activity, using positive affirmations, taking a break, etc. 

Practical Approaches for Everyday Life

Communicating Boundaries and Needs

It is not easy to live with RSD when it is an experience that is born out of our relationships, connections, and interactions with others. RSD can happen in all types of relationships-romantic relationships, friendships, work relationships. Communication is so important when you experience RSD. Communication allows us to express our needs and boundaries and can also work to mitigate or prevent future misunderstandings that may trigger RSD. Another important aspect of communication and RSD is being able to effectively repair or resolve conflicts when they arise. Unfortunately, not everyone is receptive or respectful to our feedback or needs (for example, an uncaring boss). In these cases, it may be more helpful to identify a safe and trusted person to reach out to when you are feeling upset. 

Seeking Support Networks

Identifying safe, trusted, and supportive people in your network who can help you in times of RSD distress can give you the validation and affirmation you need in those difficult moments. This can include friends, family members, romantic partners, or other neurodivergent connections in your network who just “get it.” It should be said that sometimes our trusted loved ones and friends are actually the ones who may trigger our RSD themselves, so reaching out to a neutral third party can sometimes be exactly what you need. In addition to your personal support network, you can also choose to seek  support  from ND-affirming therapists or coaches, joining support groups, participating in online forums, or connecting with other people who understand and validate your experiences with RSD. 

Using Positive Distractions

Special interests, hobbies, and activities that bring joy or relaxation can serve as welcome distractions from RSD occurrences. Keeping the “RSD spiral” in mind, it can be helpful to disrupt or distract yourself from further engaging in the whirlwind of negative thoughts and emotions. Whether it's pursuing creative endeavors, spending time with our people, or simply taking time for self-care, these activities can help get our minds off the trigger and act as a buffer against distressing emotions. Plus, they’re great for our general emotional well-being and health!

Self-Compassion and Acceptance

Healing often starts with self-acceptance and self-compassion. Remember that you are not broken, deficient, or wrong for experiencing heightened sensitivity. Recognize and honor that you have these reactions and patterns without harshly judging or criticizing yourself. That way, in the moments where your RSD is triggered, you can compassionately recognize and move through these emotions without adding the guilt, shame, and blame to an already difficult situation. Treating yourself with kindness and understanding, especially during challenging moments associated with RSD can help you recognize that you are simply a human with a range of intense emotions. You can always remind yourself in times of distress that you will be okay even though it doesn’t feel that way now. You have strengths, talents, attributes, and contributions that are valued and appreciated even when RSD makes you feel unworthy. 

Thriving Despite Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Setting Realistic Goals

Setting realistic and achievable goals helps build confidence, empowerment, and motivation to  know that you are making valuable progress even when you receive feedback or criticism. Perfection is not the goal. Ensuring that your goals are manageable and sustainable for you can allow for a sense of progress and achievement that no one can take away from you!

Embracing Mistakes

Embracing mistakes, and coming to expect them as a normal part of life, helps you  view challenges as opportunities for learning and growth rather than failures. This mindset shift can help us reframe RSD challenges.

Celebrating Achievements

Acknowledging your achievements and doing things that you are proud of, can improve your self-perception and self-worth. Celebrate your progress and recognize your strengths,  whether personal or professional. For example, if a coworker criticizes your work, you can rest assured knowing how much amazing work you have contributed thus far. A criticism or rejection does not cancel out the value that you have contributed to the world and those around you. 

NeuroSpark is here to support 

At NeuroSpark Health, our commitment to understanding and supporting neurodivergent adults, includes specialized autism and ADHD assessments and comprehensive support services. Our goal is to empower you by providing a safe space and specialized care that acknowledges the complexities of conditions like RSD.