My Hypersensitivity Is Real: Why Highly Sensitive People Have ADHD

“Toughen up!” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “I can’t believe that bothers you!” If you are highly sensitive to physical and/or emotional stimuli, you may have hypersensitivity — a condition common among adults with ADHD.

Person with hypersensitivity and ADHD covering their head with pillows

What Is Hypersensitivity?

Hypersensitivity — also known as being a “highly sensitive person” (HSP) — is not a disorder. It is an attribute common in people with ADHD. Symptoms of hypersensitivity include being highly sensitive to physical (via sound, sigh, touch, or smell) and or emotional stimuli and the tendency to be easily overwhelmed by too much information.

What’s more, highly sensitive people are more likely to suffer from asthma, eczema, and allergies. “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.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Hypersensitivity?

After I told my younger sister, Melissa, about my 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.

I first learned about the genetic nature of hypersensitivity by reading Scattered (#CommissionsEarned), by Gabor Maté, M.D., a physician and psychotherapist. “People with ADHD 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 (#CommissionsEarned), 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.”

[Self-Test: Could You Have Sensory Processing Disorder?]
[Additional Resource: Sensory Processing Disorder Symptom Test for Children]

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 (#CommissionsEarned). “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. Then back up. 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.

What Is an Example of Hypersensitivity?

Prior to discovering my hypersensitivity, I perceived my overly emotional responses as a character flaw. My mom would say, “Why can’t you get on an even keel?” As a child, I didn’t have an answer. This added to my already-low self-esteem.

“Recognizing their high sensitivity can help people stop feeling bad about themselves,” says Aron.

[Free Download: Could It Be Sensory Processing Disorder?]

A friend, Denise, diagnosed with ADHD at age eight, had a similar childhood to mine. “My parents would say, ‘You need to toughen up. Don’t be so sensitive. Don’t be so influenced by what others think about you,'” says Denise. “I still find, as an adult, that if I’m fighting with peers, I immediately take their words and gestures to heart. I’m too quick to accept the nasty things they may be saying about me.”

Denise is sensitive to environmental noise. “I need to get into a forest or a quiet place every once in awhile to calm myself down. I am also overwhelmed by the constant flow of information we are bombarded with these days.”

Psychologist and ADHD coach Michele Novotni, Ph.D., says she sees higher levels of physical sensitivities and emotional reactivity in her ADHD clients than in the general population. She told me about a client whose manager made an unkind, unfair remark at work. A person without ADHD may have let the words bounce off of him, but her client, who has a high level of sensitivity, ended up in tears.

Novotni suggests that it is the tendency of people with ADHD to feel overwhelmed that leads to their hypersensitive reactions. This, in turn, contributes to their difficulty in coping emotionally. Take the routine of going to work in the morning, for example. Most people get out the door without forgetting anything, ready with a game plan for the day. Someone with ADHD, who can’t sort tasks and prioritize, feels tired and overwhelmed by the time they get to work.

“Some of my clients tell me that socializing is work,” says Novotni. “So if you think about the things that most people do for recreation as being work, you probably won’t have the resiliency to cope with other things that come down the pike.”

Why People With ADHD Often Have Hypersensitivity

“Just as we have trouble filtering what goes out,” says Hallowell, who has ADHD himself, “we have trouble filtering what comes in. I can’t back this up with research, but in my clinical experience, and in my own life, it seems that we tend to let things get to us. We take on the experiences of others very quickly, like the insect on the leaf that takes on the color of the leaf.”

Maté explains that, if individuals with ADHD are born with a high level of sensitivity, it takes less stimulation for them to feel more overwhelmed, especially in distracting environments and dynamic conversations. Plus, the more sensitive we are, the more likely we’ll feel pain. “Emotional pain and physical pain are experienced in the same part of the brain,” he says.

Many of us have discovered positive things about living with ADHD, and a high level of sensitivity may also be used to our advantage. But like ADHD, hypersensitivity must be managed and controlled to let the positive aspects — creativity, empathy, and depth of perception — shine through. I’ve learned to do this, and so can you.

How to Treat Hypersensitivity

How do I cope successfully with my hypersensitivity? By following these simple strategies:

  • Honor your sensitivity. Don’t make yourself do things that are difficult. As much as possible, choose situations that suit your temperament. Highly sensitive people need more time than others to process the events of the day. Before you overload yourself by going out in the evening, take a few minutes to consider if you can handle more stimulation or you’ve met your limit for the day.
  • Step back. Allow yourself your emotional reaction to a situation, but consider that there may be other interpretations. Pause for reflection and take some deep breaths to calm down. Analyze the situation and re-evaluate it.
  • Block it out. To avoid sensory overload and anxiety, always have earplugs and a headset with you to block out noise.
  • Tone it down. If crowds and noise are problems, find venues that are quieter and less populated — a smaller grocery store instead of a major chain, for example, or a small doctor’s office located in a home instead of a large group practice at a hospital.
  • Reduce extraneous stimulation. Say ‘no’ nicely to things that have overwhelmed you in the past, that you don’t have to do or just don’t want to do. Identify your limits and implement them when you’re overwhelmed.
  • Make sure you’ve had enough sleep: Rest or take a nap before facing a situation that will be highly stimulating or after an intense one to regroup.
  • Use relaxation methods: Meditate, pray, or do some yoga  to strengthen your ability to cope with day-to-day challenges by practicing feeling calm and learning how to recreate this sensation.

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20 Comments & Reviews

  1. Thank you for posting this. Currently I am a freshman in college and all of the symptoms you mentioned I’ve noticed in my own life. I mean, for crying out loud, I’m typing this in the stairwell of my residence hall because its too loud and lively everywhere else. Iv’e always not liked scary or thriller movies because the movie gets too intense for me to handle. I’m highly affected by the heavy use of aerosol sprays in any space, even if its been two or three days since it was sprayed. Luckily for me, I’ve been able to notice when I’m about to experience a sensory overload and am able to step back from the situation and take a breather. Again, thank you for posting this article. I’ve always felt like I have been sensitive, overly sensitive. Now I know that I’m not alone and that this is an actual thing.

  2. I’ve read several articles here this morning, and I’ve recognised myself in every one, and I feel like crying because I think I have ADHD.

    I have 3 sons and I can’t take the noise, I say to them that they are doing my head in. I have to stay up late so I can have some quiet alone time because my brain won’t stop if I go to bed without it.

    I actually went to register, and when I got the email from additude, 2 seconds later, I went to emails and COMPLETELY FORGOT why I was there and started reading other things, then I remembered, it was to confirm my email for this site.

    I’m studying for my B.Nursing and I’m so disorganised! I’m amazed at how I’m even passing. Sometimes I feel completely mental, but I know I’m not.

    Don’t anyone cry around me or I’ll be crying with them. I have to deliberately choose not to read anything about people being treated badly, or death, because I absorb it, get furious, or cry, and then try to save the world.

    My anxiety is awful! Sometimes I’m scared to open emails, answer the phone, or open the door, because I have no idea of what might be on the other side, and if it’s going to ruin my life.

    I remember watching Born Free when I was about 7 or 8 years old. When Elsa died I cried, no I sobbed hysterically for hours. Mum kept telling me it was just a movie, but I couldn’t be consoled, in fact just remembering it now is making me sad.

    Thank you for listening to me. I’m going to have to get tested. I hate being the way I am. My ex husband used to tell me, and everyone else, that I can only cope when there is a crisis, and if it’s calm I’ll create a crisis.

    1. I loved your comment and I recognize almost everything. I always thought I was weak, crying over every roadkill, avoiding all conflicts, being scared of my letter box, scared of new things and meeting new people, being distressed by disputes with my partner which my partner didn’t even recognize as a dispute, being disorganized, bothered by sharp sunlight and supermarkets with too many products, being very ticklish! I hate to socialize but I love talking to my friends, I hate talking on the phone but I love going to a restaurant and talk. I am not a recluse but I need to be alone sometimes.I won’t panick in a crisis but will panick over nothing or things to come. Always feeling less than others….

    2. I bought a pair of 3M noise blocking headphones at Home Depot, the kind worn for lawn mowing and construction work. They are very affordable, and work GREAT for cutting down the noise at home with kids. Headphones also serve as a concrete/visual message to your kids that things are getting too loud. Also, having the headphones on helps the highly sensitive parent to maintain composure when asserting behavioral boundaries with kids. I remember being so pained by my child’s meltdowns (physically because of the volume and pitch, but also emotionally because I could easily empathize with my child’s distress). Without the headphones, I felt I was in “survival mode.” They are also great for long car rides (but not when you’re the driver, of course!)

  3. I was called crybaby all the time growing up. I was told, “If you don’t stop that crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” This was before ADHD was ever heard of! Looking back, I am grateful for ingrown toenails… sounds off subject, but read on. Every night for supper, I was given tea with knox gelatin in it. That was enough caffeine to allow me to somewhat cope. I shudder to think what I’d have been like without it. High school was difficult. I made it through college on Dr. Pepper! I still struggled, but I never could have made it through without it. I think a lot of undiagnosed ADHD is self medicated with caffeine. As usual, I digress.. anyway, ADDitude magazine continues to help me understand myself. Thank you!

  4. The more I read on this website, the more my life makes sense to me.

    I’ve always been incredibly sensitive, I thought it was because I was creative. I’ve recently been signed off work with stress and anxiety due to a meeting with my manager where she read out a list of criticisms about me. I broke down, I couldn’t cope. It was awful and it felt like a personal attack on me. I was told that all the pressure I feel at work is put on myself (maybe some of that is true, but not all). I became very defensive at first as I believed the criticisms were unfair. But I feel like I’m constantly upsetting people, or being told I have to change to fit in with how others want me to be. It’s like whatever I do isn’t good enough, and I’m trying so hard all the time.

    I’m currently on a six month waiting list to see a specialist in ADHD. It honestly can’t come soon enough. I don’t really know what to do. I don’t want to go back to work, it makes me so unhappy. I just can’t fit in to that world.

    1. BeccaM ~ Omg, I SO totally relate! You said, “I feel like I am constantly upsetting people, or being told I have to change to fit in with how others want me to be. It’s like whatever I do isn’t good enough, and I’m trying so hard all the time.” AMEN and AMEN. I’m 56 years old now and that’s the story of my entire friggin’ life! Uuuugh! Your words are mine to the letter. For god’s sake, somehow it’s always ‘too much of this’ or ‘not enough of that.’ By this point in my life I am very isolated, and working hard on ways to earn a decent living without putting myself in the line of fire any more than I have to. That’s a sad testimony, isn’t it? But somehow we have to find our own way, our own place in this stupid world, because if we cannot simply live in peace with some measure of fulfillment, what’s the point? I will say this to you: Your entire life is about working your way through a mine field and coming to the conclusion of what works for YOU, so waste NO time on people and things that don’t. Yes, be honest with yourself, learn to be a strong person, suck it up when you need to, etc. We all have to grow up and be adults in an adult world; yeah, I get that. But don’t allow yourself to get stuck in toxic situations where you’re groveling and apologizing all the time, constantly feeling like crap about yourself, always questioning yourself, never believing in yourself, and feeling trapped. It’s not worth it. Use that sensitivity of yours to intuit when a situation isn’t working – and won’t work – and pull the rip cord. Punch out, walk away, learn from the experience, and keep dialing in what works for YOU. It’s your life, and you are either happy or you’re not. If you’re not, move on. – JH.Boise

  5. MY QUESTION IS… Even if I am aware of this, what difference does it make? Who cares? NOBODY, that’s who. At the end of the day we still live in the same world with the same people, the same beliefs and expectations, etc. We still have to smile and curtsy, we still have to ‘produce’ for everyone around us – service with a smile, the customer is always right, yada, yada, blah, blah. God help you if you live in a ‘red’ state or come from a family of right-wing conservatives. No, at the end of the day we just stuff it all down and stick to ‘safe’ routes through the world around us because there’s nothing else to do with it. We might be aware that we are ‘different,’ but being aware doesn’t make any difference, does it? – JH.Boise

  6. Thanks for this article almost all of the symptoms here I can relate to other then the sensitivity to light and sounds . I’ve dealt with this my whole life. I always knew from a young age there wAs something different about me for sure . My emotions everyone are amplified anger sadness happiness , excitement kindness empathy . It can be such a curse . But on the other hand a gift .my work life has really been amazing a over achiever but. That thing that brings balance is broken . It made school form start too finish a nightmare . Causing scars that will last a life . Time good luck and God bless to all those that can relate.

  7. Something to consider adding to the “How to treat” section:
    – white noise machines for auditory hypersensitivity
    – compression socks/ pants for tactile hypersensitivity: I find these are like a white noise machine for my skin as long as the pressure is even and they are a smooth texture themselves.

  8. OMG!! My sensitivities are far and wide: Noises (like my husband’s snoring, dripping faucets, clicking/rattling noises like in a car, or beeping things like the timer on my stove–I want to kill that thing), lighting (especially color), textures (food, clothing, random items in my life), scents (I HATE perfumes and colognes, aftershave, super stinky deodorant, lotions, etc), and a bunch of other stuff all drives me nuts.

    Video game noises drive me crazy with all the squeaking, the zinging, the buzzing, bells dinging and it’s sensory overload to my ears–my child never played her Gameboy with the sound on, poor kid. My husband’s metal detector makes me want to kill myself, with all it’s squealing. Incidentally, I can’t stand babies crying either, and this actually made me a good parent, because the minute there as a peep of a cry out of my daughter, I addressed whatever the problem was quickly, so she would not cry anymore.

    I HATE florescent lighting; it gives me headaches, and blue or white colored light hurts my head and eyes, I need 3000 Kelvin or less colored lights; I have to track down a red colored alarm clock for my bedroom and no light from devices is allowed in my bedroom ever, including the intermittent green blinking light on my stupid smoke detector (I ripped it off the wall one night and smashed it, I was so irritated by it). My husband thought I was crazy because that the annoying little light would wake me up, until he saw it and then it bugged him too…lol.

    I hate certain textures of food like raw fish, smooshy ice cream, sand or grainy sand-like textures in my food, like in clam chowder, and limp lettuce. I hate clothing and sheets that pill–the dingle balls feel scratchy to my skin, and will drive me nuts.

    I can’t stand the feeling of touching newspaper when my hands are wet or waterlogged from doing dishes, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me, and it gives me the willies.

    I hate the feeling of foam, like a foam sleeping pad or cushion–EWW.

    I don’t mind more botanical scents like: Lemon, orange, mint, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla and the like, and they don’t seem to hurt my respiratory system if they are high quality scents. But, I detest fake flowery lotions/perfumes, anything musk or patchouli,and stinky old lady scents or axe/old spice–BARF. All these scent sensitivities make finding shampoo, conditioner and deodorant difficult. Also a lot of perfumes hurt my respiratory system, because I grew up in a smoking house, and my sinuses and glands in my head and neck burn and itch when I am around that stuff, and I am also very allergic to the chemicals in commercial cigarettes, but that is my Dad’s fault for smoking, not my ADD.

    I like to sleep to the humming motor of a box fan running, it drowns out my husband’s snoring, and it’s consistency and low, quiet noise is calming to me and my brain. I don’t understand how people can like white noise who are sensitive, it’s variable noise level is agitating to my brain and keeps me awake, it’s like it’s violent or angry to my ears/head.

    I also cannot stand walking on grass barefoot, even some carpets feel gross to me. Also socks made from synthetic materials. I have to have cotton, cashmere or merino wool socks with only a bit of elastic in them. And I love going the ocean, but hate sand.

    It’s a lot of pickiness on my part and I am not an easy person to live with because of it.

  9. “Some of my clients tell me that socializing is work,” says Novotni. “So if you think about the things that most people do for recreation as being work, you probably won’t have the resiliency to cope with other things that come down the pike.”

    Dear Novotni,
    As a physical therapist, you would never say “some of my paraplegic patients are less resilient because they THINK of walking as work”… for someone with paraplegia, walking IS work. As an endocrinologist you would never say “some of my patients with type 1 diabetes are less resilient because they THINK of sugar management as work”… for individuals with type 1 diabetes, managing blood sugar IS work. For many people with ADHD, socializing IS work. Please reframe your understanding of ADHD before continuing as a clinician.

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