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ADHD And Hypersensitivity – Physical And Emotional Issues

ADHD hypersensitivity is a sensory processing issue that exaggerates common sensory stimuli such as sounds, tastes and smells. Sensitivities can be triggered by both physical and emotional stimuli. We examine different types of sensitivities and offer advice about how to manage hypersensitivity with ADHD.
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ADHD And Hypersensitivity – Physical And Emotional Issues


Hypersensitivity is a common attribute in people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It can present in a number of different ways and can be difficult to predict. Sensitivities can be triggered by both physical and emotional stimuli. ADHD hypersensitivity is a sensory processing issue that exaggerates common sensory stimuli such as sounds, tastes and smells. In this blog, we examine different types of sensitivities and offer advice about how to manage hypersensitivity with ADHD.

Physical Hypersensitivity

There are many different physical and environmental stimuli that can trigger hypersensitivity. This often causes someone to leave (or try to leave) their environment to avoid stimuli that they can’t tune out. Here are a few examples:

Auditory stimuli – loud noises, unexpected noises, and repetitive sounds like a ticking clock or a dripping tap.

Olfactory stimuli – smells such as scented candles, perfumes, strong food smells and body odour.

Visual stimuli – this can be anything somebody sees around them, depending on their level of sensitivity. Examples are flashing or bright lights, pictures or patterns on the wall, other people or items in the room.

Claustrophobic stimuli – elevators, windowless rooms, crowded places, and people standing too close can affect a hypersensitive person. They may find queuing difficult and not like their personal space being invaded.

Sensory stimuli – a person who is sensitive to touch might dislike physical contact; they may be highly irritated by clothing labels or seams on clothing.

Food stimuli – people can be sensitive about certain types or textures of food. This is one reason why someone with ADHD might have a limited diet, as they stick to their known safe foods.

Emotional Hypersensitivity

Emotional hypersensitivity is a type of emotional dysregulation that causes low frustration tolerance, impulsivity, shortness of temper, emotional outbursts and sudden mood changes. Emotional sensitivities can be extremely challenging alongside ADHD and can affect social interactions.

Someone with emotional hypersensitivity can become upset easily. They may struggle to take criticism, take everything to heart and feel other people’s words very deeply. Such is the intensity of feeling that it can take a while to recover from the emotional pain.

Being emotionally hypersensitive can also mean being very sensitive and empathetic to other people’s experiences and feeling other people’s emotions very deeply. This can happen both face-to-face or indirectly, for example, feeling emotional from reading a book, watching the news, or the sad part of a film.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is a specific form of emotional dysregulation or hypersensitivity that is also common in people with ADHD. RSD causes feelings of intense pain as a result of actual or perceived rejection, criticism or teasing.

The word ‘dysphoria’ means ‘unbearable’ in Greek and emphasises the depth of pain experienced by someone with RSD when they experience rejection. The pain can often appear physical as well as emotional, such is the depth of emotional response

When externalised, RSD can manifest as sudden and instantaneous rage and can also include suicidal thoughts. Episodes of RSD are often triggered by an event of real or perceived rejection, criticism or teasing. They can occur instantly but rarely last for more than a couple of hours.

As a coping strategy to avoid overwhelming pain, someone who experiences RSD regularly whilst growing up may adapt their character by becoming a ‘people pleaser’ and doing everything they can to avoid rejection and criticism; or they stop trying, in an attempt to avoid any situations that might cause them distress. These adaptations, or personality tendencies, can cause other problems later on in life with our relationships and can frustrate getting our needs heard and met in a healthy way.

While RSD is not recognised as a formal symptom of ADHD, it is considered a form of emotional dysregulation. Awareness of the emotional component of ADHD is still relatively new and research is ongoing.

10 Coping Strategies For Hypersensitivity

  1. First, it’s important to identify which stimuli invoke hypersensitivity. If you know what the cause is, it’s easier to make adjustments and be prepared. Think carefully before entering into situations and make sure you know as much as possible about events and activities before agreeing to attend them.
  2. Respect yourself – If you know a situation will upset you, don’t put yourself through it. If it’s unavoidable, allow yourself sufficient recovery time afterward. Remember, everyone is different.
  3. Recognise that hypersensitivity is part of who you are and it can be a positive as well as a negative attribute.
  4. Block out loud noises using ear defenders or ear loops if you know you will be subjected to them.
  5. Identify your limits and say ‘no’ to situations where those limits will be exceeded.
  6. Make sure you’ve had enough sleep – having a nap may help before facing a big event.

  1. Stick to quieter places if they suit you better and avoid busy places.
  2. Be aware of what has caused you overwhelm in the past.
  3. Use relaxation methods to practice feeling calm such as mindful meditation.
  4. Schedule some downtime every day to recharge and replenish your emotional energy reserves.

Being highly sensitive is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s wise to pre-empt situations and circumstances that might make you feel a certain way. Remember to mention it to your healthcare provider if you feel that hypersensitivity is having an adverse effect on your life.

The Impact Of Hypersensitivity

Hypersensitivity can be very frustrating, especially if you’re not aware of it and don’t understand why you have strong reactions when other people don’t. It can make someone reluctant to try something new as they fear how they will react, or they might withdraw from social situations to avoid embarrassment.

Being overwhelmed can make someone more sensitive. This is particularly relevant for people with ADHD, who can be easily overwhelmed just by the effort of trying to complete everyday tasks and regular functioning.

It’s worth thinking about the connection between ADHD hypersensitivity and inattention. Certain sensory stimuli may lead to increased inattention; a hypersensitive person may find themselves paying attention to and being stimulated by every little thing, whether this is an irritating clothing label or a flickering light or the sounds made by a heater. So it isn’t a case of someone being inattentive, they just aren’t able to pay attention in the way that is required.

Sensitivities can also manifest physiologically as hypersensitive people are more likely to suffer from eczema, asthma and allergies.

It’s important to stress that hypersensitivity has many positive outcomes too. A hypersensitive person can have traits of creativity, empathy and depths of perception that a less sensitive person may not be able to feel. It’s important to recognise hypersensitivity and learn to manage and control it in a way that works for you.

At The ADHD Centre, our team of consultant psychiatrists and behavioural coaches and therapists are highly experienced in treating hypersensitive ADHD. If you’d like to learn more about our ADHD assessments, evidence-based treatments or ADHD coaching, please contact us on 0800 061 4276 or by email at

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