Hypersensitivity Is Not Imagined — Especially for Adults with 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.

Hypersensitivity and ADHD

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 Explained

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 are Hypersensitivity Symptoms?

The symptoms of hypersensitivity, common among adults with ADHD, 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.”

[Self-Test: Could You Have Sensory Processing Disorder?]

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.

[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.”

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.

Hypersensitivity Treatments

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.

[Why You Feel Rejection So Intensely]

Updated on September 25, 2019

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  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.

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