Highly Sensitive and ADHD

Often, people with ADHD are also highly sensitive to environmental stimuli. They may have a disproportionate reaction to sounds, smells, tactile sensations or certain visual stimuli. For example, they may have strong reactions to loud noises, flashing lights, or the feel of certain fabrics. They may also experience strong emotional reactions.

Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), the term used to describe this characteristic, is an innate trait associated with greater sensitivity, or responsiveness, to environmental and social stimuli. According to Dr. Arthur Aron, the trait is becoming increasingly associated with identifiable behaviors, genes, physiological reactions, and patterns of brain activation.

Highly sensitive people (HSP), those high in SPS, encompass roughly 20 percent of the population. Elaine Aron, PhD, originated the HSP concept. Humans characterized as HSPs tend to show heightened awareness to subtle stimuli, process information more thoroughly, and be more reactive to both positive and negative stimuli. In contrast, the majority of people have comparatively low SPS and pay less attention to subtle stimuli, approach situations more quickly and are not as emotionally reactive.

Psychologist and ADHD coach Michele Novotni, Ph.D., says she has observed higher levels of physical sensitivities and emotional reactivity in her ADHD clients than in the overall population. She suggests that those with ADHD already have feelings of being overwhelmed and this can lead to a heightened sensitivity to things in their environment.

Zoe Kessler, writing in ADDitude magazine has suggested several ways for someone with ADHD to reduce the effects of heightened sensitivity, including:

  • Honor your sensitivity – Don’t make yourself do things that are difficult. Where possible, choose situations that suit your temperament. This allows more time to process the events of the day.
  • Step back – Allow yourself your emotional reaction to a situation, but accept that there are other possibilities. Calm down, analyze the situation, and rethink it; pause for reflection.
  • Block it out – To avoid sensory overload and anxiety, always have earplugs and a headset with you to block out noise.
  • Tone it down – If crowds and noise are problems, find venues that are quieter and less populated.
  • Reduce extraneous stimulation – Say no to things you don’t have to do or that you just don’t want to do.
  • Make sure you’ve had enough sleep – If not, take a nap, before facing a situation that will be highly stimulating.
  • Practice mindfulness – Meditate, pray, or use another relaxation method to strengthen your ability to cope with day-to-day challenges.
  • Use deep touch pressure – This refers to a form of tactile sensory input which is often provided by firm holding, firm stroking, cuddling, hugging, and squeezing. It acts as a calming or focusing agent and helps increase endorphin levels and decrease heart rate and blood pressure (indicators of anxiety and stress). 


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2 Responses

  1. Lesley Marsilio

    Has there been any research done showing a connection between ADHD and Misophonia? This article suggests that such a connection most likely exists. Thank You

  2. Shelley Mitchell

    I love this! I’m a Business Coach and an ADHD Coach but this is ME! Thank you for sharing this information and helping those understand that someone out there also understands us. I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and also Central Sensitization Syndrom with a lot of physical injuries accompanied by PTSD from serving in two wars when I was in the Army. My body finally shut down and now I have to practice all of the things you listed in this list. I wish I knew this 30 years ago. – Shelley Mitchell http://www.mypersonalbusinesscoach.com