If you have 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.
Fortunately, there are many ways to cope with overstimulation, from traditional therapy to support communities and medication. Though anyone can become overstimulated, it’s more frequent for those with ADHD. In this article, we’ll discuss healthy coping strategies for ADHD overstimulation.
If you’re not sure whether you have ADHD, but this experience feels familiar, it may be helpful to seek a diagnosis.
How to Deal with ADHD Overstimulation
Increased stress levels from overstimulation often exacerbate ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity, inability to focus, and distractibility. Difficulty managing these things is incredibly frustrating for a person with ADHD. They may want to focus on their work or enjoy a social event, but overstimulation may make those things 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 methods and techniques for managing overstimulation related to ADHD.
Medication can help with ADHD symptoms, including sensory overload. These medications work by balancing the hormones in the brain, which make 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)
Which one is right for you depends on your medical history and the symptoms you wish to treat.
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, process sensory input more efficiently, and regulate their thoughts and emotions more effectively.
Occupational therapy helps you adapt the activities of daily living to meet your needs. Things you might learn from an occupational therapist include exercises to improve coordination, strategies for time management, improved social skills, and ways to modify things like chores to make them easier to complete.
If you have ADHD and frequently experience sensory overload, you may benefit from occupational therapy because it helps make your daily life more organized and efficient. If you’re not already anxious about being late to work or remembering where you put something important, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by environmental stimuli.
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 activity 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 overload, 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. It teaches you to challenge things like black-and-white thinking, overgeneralizations, emotional reasoning, and comparative thinking. These cognitive patterns lead to distorted thoughts that paint a shadow over what’s actually happening.
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. Everyone in these groups understands your experiences from the inside out because they’ve experienced similar things. They’ll understand what you’re dealing with on a deeper level and may be able to share practical advice and strategies for managing things like overstimulation.
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 gives you a chance 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 getting to sleep, 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.
What is Overstimulation?
Overstimulation—also called sensory overload—happens when one or more of your senses becomes overloaded. Essentially, you’re being bombarded with information you can’t process, understand, or avoid. Simultaneously, sensory overload makes it very difficult to filter out or ignore sensory details.
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 an office or school. These environments usually have a lot of visual and auditory clutter and blends of smells (e.g., food and perfume). In this kind of environment, someone with ADHD may be unable to filter out sounds and sensations 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
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 music simultaneously playing while a conversation is going on in the vicinity.
Is Sensory Overload a Symptom of ADHD?
Anyone can experience sensory overload, but those with ADHD are more likely to experience it because of how their brains work.
They can’t filter out minute details 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.
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 be hard to breathe, and you may become emotional.
If left unchecked, overstimulation’s mental and physical symptoms may 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 than in those without ADHD.
How to Find an ADHD Specialist
A medical professional specializing in ADHD can provide a wealth of information for managing your symptoms with therapy, medication, or both.
To find an ADHD physician, you can:
- Speak to your primary care physician if you have a good relationship with them. They may be able to refer you to a specialist.
- Search the lists available through the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations. They provide lists of medical professionals by state and specialty.
- Ask others in your ADHD support group for recommendations. Your shared experience means they’re likely to understand what you need from a physician.
- Contact Klarity to connect with an ADHD specialist.
Klarity Offers Fast, Convenient, and Affordable ADHD Diagnosis & Treatment
At Klarity, we make ADHD diagnosis and treatment available for everyone. For just $25/month, we provide continuous support optimized to meet your needs and goals.
Each new patient is scheduled to receive a 30-45 minute online visit with an ADHD specialist, who will evaluate your symptoms and plan your treatment. We’ll find one that works for you and meet with you regularly to make needed adjustments.
Providers on Klarity understand that everyone is different and that you deserve the best possible care at the most affordable price.