Understanding Hypersensitivity in ADHD

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If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may notice that you have strong emotional reactions to things that other people seem to take in stride. Heightened, over-the-top emotions with the disorder are very common, in both positive and negative situations. It is also not unusual for individuals with ADHD to feel physically hypersensitive to touch, sounds, light, even the tags on clothing.

Research shows that more than half of people with ADHD have trouble with emotional regulation, experiencing symptoms such as low frustration tolerance, impulsivity, temper outbursts, and significant mood fluctuations. These are associated with lower quality of life in adults with ADHD, including reduced marital status and a higher risk of traffic accidents and arrests.

Emotional Sensitivities

Emotional self-control, particularly as it relates to difficult emotions like frustration, anger, or sadness, can be very challenging for someone with ADHD. It is painful to experience negative feelings so deeply and have little ability to control your response. What's more, emotional sensitivities can often affect social interactions when others are on the receiving end of these strong emotions.

When a person is impulsive they simply react driven by the intensity of the moment. To be able to delay a response allows a person to separate a bit from the emotions and react in a more objective way. This ability to delay response is sometimes very difficult for those with ADHD.

At this point, it is unclear whether the symptoms related to emotional dysregulation are caused by ADHD itself, or comorbid psychiatric conditions, which many people with ADHD have.

It is also possible that because of past experiences and growing up with all the negative labels that can be associated with ADHD, some people with ADHD may simply feel more sensitive to negative statements or complaints or even gentle suggestions from others than a person who did not grow up with ADHD.

Physical Sensitivities

Many people with ADHD are also hypersensitive to their physical surroundings. Sounds as subtle as the humming of the air conditioning or lights from a flickering candle or the scratching from a tag on a shirt can become major distractions. When a person is unable to filter and inhibit their responses to incoming stimuli—like sights and sounds—everything becomes a distraction. Instead of having problems with inattention, this person may pay attention to everything whether it is relevant or not. This can be very disorienting.

Difficulties integrating sensory input may also contribute to physical sensitivities. A simple pat on the shoulder from a caring teacher may feel irritating to some students with ADHD. As a result, the reaction creates problems for this child and confusion for the teacher. For adults with ADHD, these sensitivities around touch and sensory stimulation can also create quite a few problems in intimate relationships.

How to Cope

While hypersensitivity and heightened emotions can feel like a burden at times, you can learn techniques to help you cope and use these traits to your advantage. People with ADHD are often very creative and empathetic, characteristics that can be big assets in our society. Awareness and understanding of these sensitivities that are often associated with ADHD is a good first step—as is recognizing that they are part of your disorder, rather than you simply being overly emotional. This can help you avoid unnecessary and unconstructive self-criticism.

Other Helpful Ways to Cope With ADHD

  • Scheduling routine downtime every day.
  • Noting when you may be more prone to exaggerated reactions, such as during hormonal fluctuations, affect many women with ADHD.
  • Building regular exercise into your life. 

If these issues continue to be troublesome for you, talk with your doctor and, together, develop strategies for managing these sensitivities in your daily life.

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Article Sources

  • Craig B. H. Surman,Joseph Biederman,Thomas Spencer,Carolyn A. Miller,Katie M. McDermott,andStephenV. Faraone.Understanding deficient emotional self-regulation in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a controlledstudy.ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders.September 2013,Volume 5,Issue3,pp 273–281
  • Zoe Kessler. Hypersensitivity Is Not Imagined. Attitudemag.com: Inside the ADHD Mind.