Typical ADHD Behaviors

Why Am I So Sensitive? Why ADHD Brains Can’t Just Ignore Unfairness

Do you become overwhelmed or enraged by life’s unfairness and attacks on social justice? You may be experiencing the impact of a little-known ADHD trait called justice sensitivity.

Does walking past a sidewalk panhandler make you want to weep? Does the guy cutting the mile-long line at airport security send you into a rage? Do you feel paralyzed by a barrage of negative news?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may have the largely overlooked but hugely impactful ADHD trait called justice sensitivity. Whether it’s triggered by societal injustice or small inequities, justice sensitivity causes you to perceive unfairness and wrongdoing in the world more frequently — and to feel it more acutely — than do neurotypical peers.

Several studies have found that ADHD brains (particularly inattentive type) are significantly more justice-sensitive than are neurotypical brains. Possible reasons for this include emotional lability, intensity, and dysregulation, which are common symptoms of ADHD. But researchers also theorize that ADHD brains tend to perceive information with a less positive view; this, along with cognitive rigidity and ADHD-impacted brain networks, can lead to intense rumination. And it doesn’t stop there. Researchers found that people who have ADHD feel such a strong need to restore justice that they will take action to do so even if they hurt themselves in the long run.

Fixated on Unfairness: Symptoms of Justice Sensitivity

How do you know if you might be prone to justice sensitivity? If you identify with the following emotions, you may have this trait:

  • Frequent anger and resentment about victimization
  • Fear of future victimization
  • Indignation about injustice done to others
  • Strong drive to restore justice
  • Perceiving injustice where others do not
  • Hopelessness about large-scale issues facing the world
  • Feelings of worthlessness when unfairly treated
  • Rumination about inequity and injustice
  • Intense guilt or shame about causing injustice

[Self Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

When Social Injustice Becomes All-Consuming

As anyone who’s ever stumbled down the doomscrolling rabbit hole can tell you, justice sensitivity can wreak havoc on mood, productivity, and energy levels. This is because people with ADHD are more likely to ruminate, and to feel the anger, helplessness, and despair that injustice can trigger, preventing them from moving on to other tasks and potentially affecting their mental health. In fact, research has shown that justice sensitivity, along with rejection sensitivity, largely accounts for the association between ADHD, depression, and anxiety.

But justice sensitivity doesn’t have to overwhelm you, and there’s plenty you can to do to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair. To begin, avoid being bombarded with news reports that heighten emotions by filtering your newsfeeds or turning off notifications.

Try integrating a mindfulness practice or relaxation strategies into your day by doing breathing exercises, walking in nature, or using other calming strategies that center and ground you when the world feels unbearably unjust.

Harnessing your Power: Taking Action on Social Justice Issues

If managed correctly, a healthy dose of frustration and sadness regarding inequities can be useful. After all, the world needs individuals who are committed to making a positive difference in the lives of others—so long as it doesn’t come at too great a personal cost.

[Read: Being Sensitive is One of the Gifts of ADHD]

Instead of succumbing to fury and despair, mobilize yourself to do something positive. Taking even small actions can help people feel more empowered and less despondent. Here are some suggestions:

  • Feeling desperate about climate change? Take actions to reduce your daily carbon footprint.
  • Heartbroken about homelessness in your city? Offer to volunteer at a local shelter.
  • Eager to strengthen local crime prevention? Contact your local law enforcement authorities and ask how you can help.

Marcy Caldwell, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and founder of Rittenhouse Psychological Services, which specializes in adult ADHD, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She also created ADDept.org.

Why Am I So Sensitive?: Next Steps

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2 Comments & Reviews

  1. I find this claim to be suspicious, Dr. Caldwell. You say “several studies have found” in the article, yet don’t cite any of those studies in the literature. As a Psy.D, you have demonstrated ability, and as a Psy.D should feel a certain ethical duty to adhere to, really, the most basic standards you were held to along the way. If you make a claim (i.e. “several studies have found”) you should cite those studies. Leave the “several studies have found” BS to those with a B.S.

  2. This is certainly a trait I have recognised clinically and I have my own theories about why this might be. I would love to see your reference list could post links that would be fantastic

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