Understanding Hypersensitivity in ADHD

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Heightened, over-the-top emotions with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity 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.

What Is ADHD Hypersensitivity?

ADHD hypersensitivity can be physical or emotional. The latter is defined as emotional dysregulation that manifests in low frustration tolerance, impulsivity, temper outbursts, and significant mood fluctuations. These are associated with lower quality of life in adults with ADHD, including marital status and risk of traffic accidents and arrests.


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Emotional Sensitivities and ADHD

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 such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotional dysregulation syndrome.

Some people with ADHD may simply feel more sensitive to negative statements, complaints, or even gentle suggestions from others than a person who did not grow up with ADHD.

People with ADHD are often very creative and empathetic, characteristics that can be big assets in our society.

ADHD and Physical Sensitivities

ADHD hypersensitivity can extend to 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.

Coping with Hypersensitivity in ADHD

Although hypersensitivity and heightened emotions can feel like a burden at times, certain techniques can help you cope and use these traits to your advantage:

  • Develop greater self-awareness. Pay attention to what evokes exaggerated reactions for you, and proactively brainstorm ways to deal with those situations productively.
  • Recognize that this hypersensitivity is part of your disorder, not a weakness or character flaw. This can help you avoid unnecessary, destructive self-criticism.
  • Maintain a constructive attitude when dealing with criticism at work. Assume the other person is "on your side," with the same work goals.
  • Try focused breathing when you feel anxious.
  • Build regular exercise into your life.
  • Schedule routine downtime every day. Recharging and replenishing your emotional reserves is an important part of ADHD self-care.

Additional Tips to Cope With ADHD

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

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.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lane SJ, Reynolds S. Sensory Over-Responsivity as an Added Dimension in ADHDFront Integr Neurosci. 2019;13:40. doi:10.3389/fnint.2019.00040

  2. van Stralen J. Emotional dysregulation in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorderAtten Defic Hyperact Disord. 2016;8(4):175–187. doi:10.1007/s12402-016-0199-0

  3. Moukhtarian TR, Mintah RS, Moran P, Asherson P. Emotion dysregulation in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and borderline personality disorder. Bord Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. 2018;5(1):9. doi:10.1186/s40479-018-0086-8

  4. Shimizu VT, Bueno OF, Miranda MC. Sensory processing abilities of children with ADHDBraz J Phys Ther. 2014;18(4):343–352. doi:10.1590/bjpt-rbf.2014.0043

  5. The American Institute of Stress. Take a deep breath.

Additional Reading
  • 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.

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.