Hypersensitivity and ADHD: A Love Story

Don’t feel like reading? Listen to my podcast episode on emotional hyperarousal instead.

We’ve talked about how ADHD and its impact on the prefrontal cortex causes us to feel emotions more viscerally and powerfully. So it should come as no surprise that this magnifying glass can be applied to physical sensations as well.

When I was a kid, I avoided jeans as much as I could – but growing up in the 90’s, denim was difficult to dodge. So I compromised with my mom by ONLY wearing jeans if I could tuck my shirt completely into the waist. (Whatever you are picturing right now is accurate.) I did this because I couldn’t stand the feeling of a button touching my stomach. It was one of the many little “quirks” my parents had to deal with – along with gagging at the texture of soup, squirming with the sensation of my shirt sleeve bunching up in my jacket sleeve, and constantly tugging up my only-ankle-length socks so that my sneakers never touched my bare skin. It was a great look.

Honestly it is a miracle I didn’t get beat up in middle school.

Thankfully, my tolerance and fashion sense have improved with time. But a lot of those weird sensory sensitivities still stick with me today (looking at you, soup); and it wasn’t until my diagnosis in adulthood that I finally figured out why.

In its simplest form, ADHD can be reduced to a disorder characterizing how we take in, process, and interpret the world’s messages. Psychiatrist and fellow ADHDer Dr. Ned Hallowell says: “Just as we have trouble filtering what goes out, we have trouble filtering what comes in.”

In reality, the term “attention deficit” is not only a little hurtful; it’s misleading. We have no shortage of attention. In fact, we frequently pick up on small cues or details that others miss. What we lack is the ability to direct and target that attention quickly and towards the responsibilities assigned to us. This is why it is not always as simple as just cutting out all distractions. Just as many people actually need more stimulation in order to tune everything else out and hyperfocus (“I need to be in a crowded coffee shop to work, quiet makes me anxious”). Both of these techniques, that I’m sure you have heard from your ADHD loved ones, are ways of relying on our environment to coach our brain into directing its resources appropriately. The ADHD brain is very ride or die in the way it takes information: either it’s all coming in, or none of it is. Either way, the data bombarding our senses at any given moment always has the potential to capsize us.

OK. Let’s go back to our child mid-meltdown from the previous post on emotional hyperarousal.

“Ok I get that she’s sensitive to stuff, but you don’t understand, Abby – she is sitting right next to me, experiencing the same things I am, and yet she conjures up an inconsolable rage out of thin air!”

Two things are at play here: sensory triggers and emotional overreaction. The task of controlling and focusing attention, for neurotypicals, is often done without much concerted effort. Take for example: you are engrossed in a book. But when you hear the barista call out your order, your brain separates that sound from the coffee grinding/talking/screeching of chairs so you can divert your focus away from your book and walk up to the counter. Sometimes, when you are reading a dry textbook, you may need to consciously channel your attention back into this textbook when you return with your steamy latte – but most of the time, those efforts work. You are aware of the sounds and the smells and the taste of your latte, but you turn off the active noticing of those inconsequential things and turn on your working memory to study for tomorrow’s test.

However, an ADHDer sitting in that same coffee shop reading a captivating novel may be sabotaged by the barista announcing the arrival of your half-caf almond milk latte, or two friends discussing a movie they just saw, or someone dropping a spoon. Or perhaps all those sounds blend into one monotonous drone and they sink into their novel, only to be violently jerked from it once more when a man walks by leaving behind the scent of his cologne.

Imagine this: If someone screamed FIRE!, wouldn’t you stop reading your textbook to react? Now imagine every sound or texture or smell was someone screaming FIRE! when there is no fire. And eventually it becomes harder and harder to go back to studying because you are now more aware of your surroundings just in case there could be a fire, and also pissed off that someone keeps yelling FIRE when there is in fact no fire.

Then combine that with a brain that experiences emotion and annoyances as if they were physical affronts. This is what is happening inside your child’s brain. Yes, you may be experiencing similar sensations. But your brains are interpreting those sensations in fundamentally different ways.

Neurotypicals – especially those with ADHD children – this is a special message for you: Please try this simulation of hypersensitivity and attention issues on Understood.org. It allows you to experience what it is like in your child’s head, and the challenges of keeping up in a neurotypical world. It will dramatically change your perception.

Next up: the third and final pillar of ADHD, rejection sensitive dysphoria.

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About Abby Chau, LMFT, ADHD-CCSP

I am a marriage and family therapist based in Seattle, WA. I also have ADHD! And I love learning more about it, by myself and with my clients. Join me as I create an ADHD Owner's Manual! (she/her)