If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you likely struggle with overstimulation. Things others can ignore—like a car revving outside, a cell phone ringing in a restaurant, or the smell of lunch mingling with their perfume—may completely envelop a person with ADHD, causing sensory overload.
Though anyone can become overstimulated, it’s more frequent for those with ADHD. Fortunately, there are many ways to cope with overstimulation, from traditional therapy to support communities and medication. In this article, we’ll discuss healthy coping strategies for ADHD overstimulation.
Whether you have an ADHD diagnosis or are wondering if your frequent overstimulation is a symptom of this disorder, Klarity can help. We connect patients nationwide with medical professionals for affordable, fast, and convenient online ADHD treatment.
Your provider can diagnose your overstimulation (and any other symptoms you may be experiencing) and help you manage your ADHD with a personalized treatment plan and prescription medication, if applicable.
Schedule an appointment on Klarity to get one step closer to finding relief from your overstimulation.
What is Overstimulation?
Overstimulation, or sensory overload, happens when one or more of your senses becomes overloaded. You’re being bombarded with information you can’t process, understand, or avoid. Simultaneously, sensory overload makes filtering out or ignoring sensory details difficult.
Too much strain on the nervous system could result in a panic attack. If you notice yourself becoming overstimulated, try to remove the cause as quickly as possible so you can reset your nervous system and avoid further distress.
Causes of Overstimulation
Overstimulation happens most often in busy environments with many people, such as a restaurant, store, or school. These environments usually have a lot of visual and auditory clutter and blends of smells (e.g., food and perfume).
In these types of environments, someone with ADHD may be unable to filter out things that seem minor to others, meaning they’re taking in much more information than their peers. Without the proper support, this experience can quickly become overwhelming.
Overwhelming sensory stimuli may include:
- Touch: Restrictive or rough clothing, unexpected physical contact, too much physical contact (e.g., a bear hug that lasts too long), lotion or other moist substances on the skin
- Taste: Specific textures and flavors, such as mealy or mushy foods, foods that are either too bland, overwhelmingly bitter, or earthy. Conversely, some people with ADHD enjoy spicy foods or sour candies because these flavors release dopamine in the brain.
- Sight: Very bright fluorescent or flashing lights, views with too much visual clutter, views with too little visual interest, too many bright colors
- Sound: Many sounds happening at once, persistent sounds with no discernable purpose or source, loud or sudden sounds
- Smell: Strong chemical scents, like perfume and nail polish, smells out of context (e.g., food smells in an office setting), prolonged exposure to unpleasant odors
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How to Deal with ADHD Overstimulation
Increased stress levels from overstimulation often exacerbate ADHD symptoms such as poor emotional regulation, inability to focus, and distractibility. Trying to manage these symptoms in an overwhelming environment can be incredibly frustrating for a person with ADHD. They may want to focus on their work or enjoy a social event, but overstimulation makes it impossible.
Overloaded senses block the ability to process information, concentrate on work, or even hold a conversation. It may even feel painful for the person experiencing it.
Fortunately, there are plenty of coping mechanisms and techniques for managing overstimulation related to ADHD.
Medication can help with ADHD symptoms, including sensory overload. These medications work by balancing neurotransmitters in the brain, making it easier to process sensory input from your surroundings.
ADHD medications fall into three basic categories:
- Stimulant medications
- Non-stimulant medications
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
Dependency warning: Schedule II stimulants, including Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta, carry an increased risk of addiction if misused. This is why they are classified as controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act in the United States.
Schedule II stimulants work by stimulating the central nervous system and are commonly prescribed to help manage the symptoms of ADHD, such as overstimulation. However, these medications should only be used under the supervision and prescription of a healthcare provider. Misuse of Schedule II stimulants, such as taking higher or more doses than prescribed can result in severe health issues—including physical dependence, psychological disorders, and even death.
To avoid dependency and treat your ADHD safely, it’s vital to follow healthcare professionals’ instructions precisely and maintain regular communication regarding any side effects or concerns.
Determining whether you’d benefit most from a stimulant medication or one of the other listed options depends on your medical history and the symptoms you wish to treat. If you are interested in finding a medical professional who can determine whether prescription drugs are right for treating your ADHD, connect with a healthcare provider on Klarity today.
Traditional ADHD Therapies
There are three kinds of therapy traditionally used to treat ADHD, which include:
- Occupational therapy
- Sensory integration therapy
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
Each type of therapy helps manage different aspects of ADHD, including physical, sensory, and mental difficulties. Alone or combined, they can help people with ADHD become more organized, combat sensory processing difficulties, and regulate thoughts and emotions more effectively.
Occupational therapy helps you adapt to the activities of daily living. Things you might learn from an occupational therapist include exercises to improve coordination, strategies for time management, improved social skills, and ways to modify chores and other daily tasks to make them easier to complete.
If you have ADHD and frequently experience sensory overstimulation, you may benefit from occupational therapy.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Sensory integration therapy is a branch of occupational therapy consisting of treatment in two parts:
- Sensory exposure: Gradually exposing a person to sensory stimuli so their nervous system can learn how to process it in a structured way.
- Sensory diet: A menu of various sensory activities and stimuli that support a person’s nervous system. It may include physical activities and tools like weighted blankets or aromatherapy.
During a sensory integration therapy session, an occupational therapist (OT) introduces sensory stimulation in a structured environment to help your nervous system acclimate to the stimulus. The goal is to learn to react to the stimulus less impulsively so you can process what to do next.
The OT may also help you create strategies for managing sensory triggers, such as carrying earplugs in noisy environments or having aromatherapy jewelry handy to block out distracting smells.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps patients restructure thought patterns that lead to emotional difficulties. Cognitive patterns like black-and-white thinking, overgeneralizations, emotional reasoning, and comparative thinking can lead to distorted thoughts that paint a shadow over what’s actually happening. CBT helps you challenge these thought patterns and ideas to learn to control your emotional reactivity to certain stimuli.
Distorted thinking often leads to stress that can make sensory overload issues worse. For instance, if you’re already agitated by negative self-talk, you’re more likely to become irritated and overwhelmed by environmental stimuli.
CBT teaches you to recognize and combat distorted thoughts by replacing those patterns with more realistic or objective thoughts. For example, you might learn to replace “I can’t do this,” with “What are the tools I need to do this?”
Better thought patterns lead to functioning more easily on a daily basis, which lowers stress and helps lower the possibility of sensory overload.
ADHD Support Communities
ADHD support groups help you build a network of others with ADHD. The people in these groups will understand what you’re dealing with on a deeper level because they are experiencing similar things. They may be able to share practical advice and strategies for managing overstimulation and other common ADHD symptoms.
To find local ADHD support communities, search “ADHD support groups in <your area>.” Some groups meet in person, while others only meet online, and some may host both kinds of meetings.
Stress is the main contributor to panic attacks and the other adverse effects of overstimulation. Relaxation techniques calm the nervous system and help you reset. They alleviate strain on your body and mind and provide time and space to address the sensory stimuli in your environment.
- Go for a walk. Even five minutes of moving your body can help you calm down. Plus, it allows you to find somewhere quiet where you can reset.
- Deep breathing. Deep breathing stimulates your vagus nerve, which controls your nervous system’s “rest and digest” function. Take 10 to 20 deep belly breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. You should feel your heartbeat slow to a calmer rate.
- Stretch! When your body is tense, it signals to your brain that you’re in danger. Stretching and getting your circulation going helps those muscles relax and tells your system the threat has passed.
Good sleep is key to everyone’s well-being, but is especially important for those with ADHD. Sleep and rest help regulate your circadian rhythms, which play a significant role in hormone production in the brain. Regular sleeping patterns can help someone with ADHD balance their neurobiology.
The right amount of sleep also reduces stress and combats the irritability that comes with fatigue. When you’re tired, you’re extra-sensitive to stressors in your environment because you have less energy to process and dismiss them. A well-rested mind makes it easier to process the stimuli in your environment.
If you regularly have trouble sleeping, try developing a bedtime routine. Going through the same habits each night signals your body that it’s time to wind down and get ready to rest. If you struggle with insomnia or other sleeping disorders, a professional diagnosis and treatment plan may help you correct your sleep pattern.
What Does ADHD Overstimulation Feel Like?
Overstimulation produces a kind of mental pain that quickly translates into physical pain through tension and stress. It can manifest as a severe headache or tense and sore muscles. Most debilitating are the thoughts and feelings whirling uncontrollably through your mind. It may become difficult to breathe, and you may get irrationally upset or angry.
If left unchecked, the mental and physical symptoms of overstimulation can result in a panic attack. Symptoms of a panic attack include shortness of breath, body tremors, the urge to scream or shout, racing thoughts, and intense fear that something terrible will happen.
Symptoms of overstimulation may build faster and more intensely in those with ADHD.
Are Overstimulation and Hypersensitivity the Same Thing?
While overstimulation and hypersensitivity are closely related, they are two different things. The main difference is that overstimulation is the result of hypersensitivity.
In other words:
- Hypersensitivity is the state of being more sensitive to sensory stimuli.
- Overstimulation is what occurs when stimuli overload the senses.
If you’re hypersensitive, you’re more likely to become overstimulated from sensory input. For instance, someone with hypersensitive hearing may become overstimulated by grocery stores or restaurants, where overhead music and multiple conversations occur simultaneously.
Is Sensory Overload a Symptom of ADHD?
Anyone can experience sensory overload, but those with ADHD are more likely to suffer because of how their brains work.
People with ADHD can’t filter out the minute details that others ignore, meaning they receive and process every sound, texture, sight, and smell around them. For this reason, it takes them longer to sift through sensory information and determine what’s essential and what’s safe to tune out.
When there’s an excess of stimuli in an environment, it can become overwhelming to try and process every sensation they’re experiencing. This is when sensory overload occurs.
Those who severely struggle with sensory overload may also have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This is a common comorbidity with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder and can be characterized by both overstimulation and under-stimulation. People with SPD may have aversions to certain food textures, clothing, or sounds, or they may exhibit thrill-seeking tendencies and put themselves in danger because they feel under-sensitive to stimuli.
Many doctors believe that sensory processing disorder is not a separate issue, but rather a symptom of ADHD or autism. In fact, it is still not recognized as a stand-alone medical diagnosis. If you struggle with self-regulation and will avoid entire food groups, fabrics, or environments related to sensory overstimulation, you could have SPD related to ADHD or autism.
How to Find an ADHD Specialist
If you cannot cope with ADHD overstimulation on your own, you may benefit from personalized ADHD treatment. Klarity connects patients with healthcare providers in their state for convenient, affordable, insurance-free online ADHD treatment.
With Klarity, you can receive the support you need to manage your overstimulation right from the comfort of your home. Find a provider and schedule your first appointment today.