Do you feel like you’re constantly bombarded by sensory information that doesn’t seem to bother others?

It could be the glare of fluorescent lights, the bass of the car next to you thumping in your chest, or a perfume that lingers long after someone has left the room.

Living in the moment can feel impossible when you’re overwhelmed by the world around you.

For those with ADHD, this is known as ADHD sensory overload. It happens when an ADHDer is hyper-sensitive to the sensory information their brain receives, causing them to experience certain sensations more intensely or longer than normal. This leads to overstimulation and a “fight or flight” response, which may affect how a person functions daily.[1]

These difficulties with sensory processing are more common in people with ADHD compared to those who don’t have ADHD.[2] This is likely due to differences in the structure and chemistry of the ADHD brain that change how it processes, receives, and organizes stimuli.[3]

This also shows that what you experience is real and not “just in your head.” 

While ADHD sensory issues can cause problems in your daily activities, there are ways to regain control over your mind and emotions.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload in ADHD

A person with ADHD may experience the sensations around them to a greater extent.[4]

Because of this, they may find it difficult to control their emotions or actions in response to something others easily filter out.

When an ADHDer is greatly affected by a certain stimulus, such as a sound or smell, this can lead to the following signs and symptoms:

To prevent these effects, the ADHDer may have workarounds that help them avoid or minimize their exposure to specific stimuli. Because of this, they may display certain behaviors, such as:

Causes of Sensory Overload

Sensory overload causes are associated with the five senses: sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste.[4]

The following are some common triggers of sensory overload in adults with ADHD.

loud obnoxious noises

Loud Noises

Prolonged exposure to loud noises, such as in a concert or construction zone, can cause stress. In addition, repetitive sounds like a humming fan or clicking pens can be a source of distraction and irritation.

Bright Lights

Strobing, blinking, and flickering lights can cause a person with ADHD to become anxious, irritated, or dizzy. Bright and intense lights (e.g., fluorescent or LED lights) may also contribute to sensory overload.

Strong Smells

A person with ADHD may be more sensitive to certain smells and strong odors, even if they’re meant to be pleasant. Possible culprits can include perfumes, food, cleaning products, or cigarette smoke.

Crowds/Crowded Spaces

Being in a crowded space can expose a person to all types of stimuli. Perfumes, strong odors, constant chatter, and physical contact with strangers can overload the ADHD brain’s processing capacity.

Tactile Stimulation

A person with ADHD may dislike certain materials and textures. For instance, they may get irritated by clothing tags, rough socks, itchy sweaters, and even foods or lotions with certain textures.

Multitasking

Doing too many things at once may cause you to exceed your mental bandwidth and overload. That’s because your brain is trying to process too many different streams of information simultaneously.

Treatment and Management of Sensory Overload

Although there is no cure for ADHD sensory overload, lifestyle modifications and treatment can help minimize its impact on your daily life.

Here’s how to deal with sensory overload.

Pinpoint Culprits

Tune in to your surroundings and search for things that overwhelm you or cause anxiety. This could be a specific location, sound, or smell. Identify your triggers and jot them down so you can devise targeted strategies to avoid them.

Reduce Exposure

Once you’ve pinpointed your triggers, find practical ways to avoid or reduce them. Some examples include:

Your sensory hypersensitivity isn’t your fault or something to be ashamed of.

Explaining how certain things make you feel can help those around you understand your needs better. Instead of hiding away from friends and family, try proposing alternatives for hangouts or social events. For instance, you can suggest going to a quieter restaurant instead of a noisy bar.

Use Sensory Aids

Certain sensory aids can help minimize exposure to specific triggers. You can try noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, or sunglasses.

comfort blanket

Other types of aids can help to reduce the stress or anxiety you feel from sensory overload. Examples include weighted blankets, compression socks, or sensory toys.

You can also use items that appeal to you visually, like a photo of calm scenery. If certain smells nauseate you, take something you like to sniff on the go, like a vanilla-scented chapstick, peppermint sweets, or a travel-sized container of Vicks.

Try Relaxation Techniques

Learning relaxation methods, like yoga, deep breathing, or meditation, are great ways to promote calm and reduce stress from ADHD sensory overload. Alternatively, you can create a relaxation routine consisting of your favorite activities, like having a hot bath while reading and sipping tea.

Reach out for Help

A trained professional, such as an occupational therapist, may help you devise routines and recommend environmental modifications to accommodate your needs.

Your therapist may also suggest sensory modulation/integration therapy. This can help you prepare for and engage actively in your daily roles and activities without overloading your senses.

Try the ADDA Support Group: How to Meditate with ADHD.

Seek Treatment

A healthcare professional may provide mental health advice and recommend therapy or medications to help tackle any anxiety or depression linked to sensory overload.

Overcoming ADHD Sensory Overload With Practical Modifications

The best way to tackle your ADHD sensory issues is to identify the responsible culprits. Then, make targeted changes to your lifestyle, routine, and environment that reduce exposure to these triggers.

That said, we may sometimes still feel overwhelmed by the world around us despite our best efforts. When this happens, find a safe space to calm down, take deep breaths, and collect yourself. Most importantly, take time to reflect, recover, and practice self-care after each episode.

If you’re looking for support and advice to help you manage sensory overload and other ADHD challenges, join the ADDA+ community. Through ADDA+, you’ll receive access to comprehensive resources, webinars, courses, and a community of supportive peers to help you live your best life.

References

[1] Lane, S. J., & Reynolds, S. (2019). Sensory Over-Responsivity as an Added Dimension in ADHD. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 13, 40. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2019.00040

[2] Bijlenga, D., Tjon-Ka-Jie, J. Y. M., Schuijers, F., & Kooij, J. J. S. (2017). Atypical sensory profiles as core features of adult ADHD, irrespective of autistic symptoms. European psychiatry: the journal of the Association of European Psychiatrists, 43, 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.02.481

[3] Schulze, M., Lux, S., & Philipsen, A. (2020). Sensory Processing in Adult ADHD – A Systematic Review. https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-71514/v1

[4] Bijlenga, D., Tjon-Ka-Jie, J., Schuijers, F., & Kooij, J. J. S. (2017). Atypical sensory profiles as core features of adult ADHD, irrespective of autistic symptoms. European Psychiatry, 43, 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.02.481

ADHD & Sensory Overload: Managing Overstimulation
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