Sensory Processing Disorder

“Please Don’t Hug Me! Seriously. And More Weird Things That Trigger My Hypersensitive ADHD”

Ever since I was a child, the sound of people chewing has filled me with a desperate rage. Ditto putting on makeup. And please don’t even think of hugging me. Did you think you were the only one with these hypersensitive ADHD quirks? You are not alone, you wonderfully strange human. Let’s not hug it out.

Irritated, hypersensitive woman with ADHD covering her ears to block chewing sounds
Irritated, hypersensitive woman with ADHD covering her ears to block chewing sounds

When you’re diagnosed with ADHD as an adult as I was, you have the benefit of looking back several decades, cataloging your challenges, and finally realizing that not everyone lives this way. I keep a running list of random things I thought everyone struggled with, but it turns out that isn’t the case.

Children and adults with ADHD notoriously hate waiting in line, are unable to focus on mundane details, and interrupt others constantly — but I struggle with the lesser-known challenge of hypersensitivity. Here are five everyday behaviors that cause sensory overload and drive me crazy, but that you might not have connected to ADHD.

Hypersensitivity, ADHD, and Me: My Top 5 Sensory Triggers

Keep in mind that not all people with ADHD struggle with these difficulties, but here are the sensory triggers I cannot tolerate:

Hypersensitivity #1: Hearing Someone Chew.

Ever since I was a child, the sound of people chewing has filled me with a desperate rage. I have distinct memories of sitting across the table from my mother eating crunchy onions while I was internally begging for a rogue asteroid to hit us both.

It’s a real thing, called misophonia — the dislike or even hatred of small, routine sounds, such as someone chewing, slurping, yawning, or breathing. It’s often an ADHD comorbidity. Similar to ADHD itself, misophonia is not something we can just get over if only we tried harder. It’s still a bit of a mystery disorder, but the most likely hypothesis is it’s essentially an auditory processing overreaction. The chewing or slurping causes a misophonic brain to freeze out all other sensory input: It is a nightmarish hyperfocus.

To this day, hearing my long-suffering spouse eat a juicy pear fills me with visceral loathing. Writing about hearing my spouse eat a pear fills me with visceral loathing. Don’t get me wrong: I love this man. As long as he’s not chewing.

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Joking aside, this is why misophonia can be serious, even though it’s tempting to dismiss it as a silly quirk. People can lose their jobs and marriages over this. But knowledge is power: now that I know it’s a real thing, I’ve learned to leave the room when I feel it happening. If your child with ADHD tumbles into an unexplained rage or visible anxiety whenever you have dinner, try letting her leave the table. Yes, eating together can be a time to connect, but when one of the diners is wishing for an asteroid to hit the others, she’s not getting much bonding time from it anyway.

Hypersensitivity #2: Being Hugged.

I hate being hugged by 99 percent of people. Thankfully, the one percent consists of my husband and son. Some of my friends think this distaste for physical affection is because I grew up in Europe. It’s not but I let them think so, because “cultural aversion” sounds better than “neuro-biological disorder aversion.”

Whether it be sound or touch, several items on this list come down to sensory processing. There are some studies about sensory processing issues in children with ADHD, but not much is known about the exact relationship between the two. We do know that people with ADHD have a higher incidence of sensory processing disorder. Whatever the cause, do not force a child with ADHD to hug anyone. Come to think of it, do not force a child without ADHD to hug anyone. Let’s all just mind our own bodies. You might love embracing, but I don’t, and both are OK. We’re just humans trying to do our best. Doesn’t that acceptance feel good? Great. Let’s not hug it out.

Hypersensitivity #3: Putting on Makeup.

Foundation is sold with phrases like “seamless blending” and “smooth application.” I am waiting for one that claims to “apply itself,” because that’s what I need most. Blending and applying require patience and focus, both of which are in short supply around here. No matter how smooth the foundation, it’ll be streaked across my chin. No matter how lengthening or waterproof the mascara, I will stab myself in the eye with the brush. An actual cat could do a better job creating a cat-eye than I can.

Messing up one’s makeup is not, of course, a comorbidity. It’s just another consequence of the pathological impatience and lack of focus. I’ve seen those Instagram posts where a kind individual talks you through flawless makeup application, and all I can think is: There’s not enough Adderall in the world for me to accomplish this. Those people must not have ADHD – or they do, and makeup is the thing that brings them that blissed hyperfocus we’re all chasing. Either way: Hats off to the makeup people. And please don’t look at me too closely when you see me.

Hypersensitivity #4: Watching TV.

When I tell people I never watch TV, they often respond with reverence because they assume I am doing more intellectual things. True, if you consider mindlessly scrolling Instagram while pacing the upstairs hallway an intellectual activity. The truth is: I can’t sit still for TV. I used to be able to do this, but I no longer can. Nope, not even for high-visual, high-drama shows like Game of Thrones. My brain will enter hyperfocus for several things, but dragons and R-rated tête-à-têtes don’t do it anymore. Trust me, I wish they still did.

[Get This Free Download: Are Your Senses in Overdrive?]

I’ve noticed that people view this as a positive side effect of ADHD. Compared to some of the other consequences of the condition, that is true. I would like to sometimes watch a show with my husband and son, though. It’d also be nice to be able to engage in conversation with friends when someone inevitably says, “Have you seen such-and-such show?” Usually, I shake my head and say, “Not yet! I’ll have to put it on my list.” Just between us: that’s a lie. There is no list. I won’t be watching it, because I can’t.

Hypersensitivity #5: Getting Angry at My Clothing.

When I am having a bad ADHD day, I become enraged by my clothing, usually around 4 or 5 PM. I get especially angry at my pants. The fabric doesn’t matter, nor does the size, cut, or color. It’s just the pants having the audacity to be pants on me. I have ripped off clothing and thrown it into the trash in a fit of rage. Luckily never in public.

Research shows that the level of tactile sensitivity is higher in women with ADHD than in men with ADHD. This sensory over-responsivity in ADHD is associated with anxiety as well, and if you live with this, you didn’t need a study to tell you that.

There is no magic fix, but your child is not “just trying to be difficult” when he rejects shirt after shirt as you’re trying to get out the door on time in the morning. I often said that phrase to my own kid before I knew any of this, even as I had the exact same issues. (Clearly, I don’t suffer from a hyperactive insight system.) I feel guilt over this, but to quote the inimitable Oprah Winfrey: “When you know better, you do better.”

For now, the only fix I can offer is, first and foremost, to show empathy – to your kid and to yourself. Find an article of clothing that works and buy the crap out of it. Ride the trend of environmental-sustainability-gone-chic and wear the same shirt every day if it’s the only thing that works.

Does any of this sound familiar? I know we can be frustrating to live with. As with most perplexing ADHD behaviors, empathy is key. Sometimes you just have to hug the person (assuming #2 does not apply) and say: I love you just the way you are, you wonderfully-strange human. ADHD hypersensitivity or not, isn’t that what we all crave most?

[Read This Next: “I’m a Sensitive Woman”: Sensory Overload in Adults with ADHD]