After I told my younger sister, Melissa, about my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis, we reminisced about our childhood. “If there were family arguments, we would think it was something little, but, for you, it was huge,” said Melissa. “Something that I considered a minor spat, you felt was monumental and earth-shattering.” It wasn’t until I was 48 that I recognized what caused me to be a drama queen: I was born with ADHD and hypersensitivity.
What Is Hypersensitivity?
Hypersensitivity — also known as being a "highly sensitive person" (HSP) — is not a disorder. In fact, it brings many benefits, such as being able to “read” the mood of a room quickly and factoring in subtle cues when making a decision. “It’s good in some situations and not in others,” says psychologist and psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., author of The Highly Sensitive Person. She believes knowing that you have hypersensitivity is important. As with ADHD, being aware of it makes you realize that you’re not alone.
Symptoms of Hypersensitivity
- High level of sensitivity to physical (via sound, sigh, touch, or smell) and or emotional stimuli
- More likely to suffer from asthma, eczema, and allergies
- Easily overwhelmed by too much information
How I Discovered My Hypersensitivity
I first learned about the genetic nature of hypersensitivity by reading Scattered, by Gabor Maté, M.D., a physician and psychotherapist. “People with ADD are hypersensitive,” says Maté. “That is not a fault, it is how they were born. It is their inborn temperament.” When I read Aron's The Highly Sensitive Person, I finally recognized this sensitivity in myself. According to Aron, 15 to 20 percent of the population is born with a high level of sensitivity.
“When you know that you are highly sensitive, it reframes your life,” says Aron. Knowing that you have this trait will enable you to make better decisions. “Sensitive people have to live differently in order to be comfortable.”
Clinicians working with people with ADHD view hypersensitivity, both physical and/or emotional, as a common comorbid condition. “[People with ADHD] often are hypersensitive in one of the sensory domains: sound, touch, or smell,” says Ned Hallowell, M.D., author of Driven to Distraction. “My daughter with ADHD will only wear cotton, she won’t wear wool.”
I discovered that my longtime habit of fidgeting with my hair was due to hypersensitivity. I dislike the feel of hair strands tickling my face and neck, so I bunch it up in a knot. Before long, it feels like someone is driving her knuckles into my skull, just where I’ve knotted my hair. So down it comes. And so on, throughout the day.
Other sensitivities include sounds and visual stimuli — flashing lights and moving objects. Studies suggest that those with ADHD also suffer more from asthma, eczema, and allergies — conditions of hypersensitivity — than those without ADHD.