Hypersensitivity Is Not Imagined
“Toughen up!” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “I can’t believe that bothers you!” If you have a high level of sensitivity to physical and/or emotional stimuli, you may have hypersensitivity along with attention deficit disorder.
After I told my younger sister, Melissa, about my attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) 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.
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.
What Does It Mean to Be Hypersensitive?
The symptoms of hypersensitivity include the following:
- 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 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, 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.
More Signs of Hypersensitivity
Prior to discovering my hypersensitivity, I perceived my over-the-top emotions 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.
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.”
Like 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 her ADHD clients’ feeling 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. 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 he gets 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 Are Likely to 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, making stimulating environments and conversations feel overwhelming at times. 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 managed to do it, and so can you.
How did I overcome 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, so don’t overload yourself by going out in the evening.
- Step back. Allow yourself your emotional reaction to a situation, but accept that there are other possibilities. Calm down, analyze the situation, and rethink it; pause for reflection.
- 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 by saying no to things you don’t have to do or that you just don’t want to do.
- Make sure you’ve had enough sleep, or take a nap, before facing a situation that will be highly stimulating.
- Meditate, pray, or use another relaxation method to strengthen your ability to cope with day-to-day challenges.