Hypersensitivity, also known as being a “highly sensitive person” (HSP), is not a disorder. It is an attribute common in people with ADHD. Symptoms of hypersensitivity include being highly sensitive to physical (via sound, sight, touch, or smell) and or emotional stimuli and the tendency to be easily overwhelmed by too much information.
What’s more, highly sensitive people are more likely to suffer from asthma, eczema, and allergies. “It’s good in some situations and not in others,” says psychologist and psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., author of The Highly Sensitive Person. She believes knowing that you have hypersensitivity is important. As with ADHD, being aware of it makes you realize that you’re not alone.
Prior to discovering hypersensitivity, people often perceive overly emotional responses as a character flaw. “Why can’t you get on an even keel?” Recognizing their high sensitivity can help people stop feeling bad about themselves.
Take those sensitive to environmental noise. They may need to get into a forest or a quiet place every once in a while to calm down. This is even true for being bombarded with the constant flow of information in the modern world.
Psychologist and ADHD coach Michele Novotni, Ph.D., says she sees higher levels of physical sensitivities and emotional reactivity in her ADHD clients than in the general population. She told me about a client whose manager made an unkind, unfair remark at work. A person without ADHD may have let the words bounce off of him, but her client, who has a high level of sensitivity, ended up in tears.
Novotni suggests that it is the tendency of people with ADHD to feel overwhelmed that leads to their hypersensitive reactions. This, in turn, contributes to their difficulty in coping emotionally. Take the routine of going to work in the morning, for example. Most people get out the door without forgetting anything, ready with a game plan for the day. Someone with ADHD, who can’t sort tasks and prioritize, feels tired and overwhelmed by the time they get to work.
“Some of my clients tell me that socializing is work,” says Novotni. “So if you think about the things that most people do for recreation as being work, you probably won’t have the resiliency to cope with other things that come down the pike.”
Links Between ADHD & Hypersensitivity
“Just as we have trouble filtering what goes out,” says Hallowell, who has ADHD himself, “we have trouble filtering what comes in. I can’t back this up with research, but in my clinical experience, and in my own life, it seems that we tend to let things get to us. We take on the experiences of others very quickly, as the insect on the leaf that takes on the color of the leaf.”
Maté explains that, if individuals with ADHD are born with a high level of sensitivity, it takes less stimulation for them to feel more overwhelmed, especially in distracting environments and dynamic conversations. Plus, the more sensitive we are, the more likely we’ll feel pain. “Emotional pain and physical pain are experienced in the same part of the brain,” he says.
Many of us have discovered positive things about living with ADHD, and a high level of sensitivity may also be used to our advantage. But like ADHD, hypersensitivity must be managed and controlled to let the positive aspects — creativity, empathy, and depth of perception — shine through. I’ve learned to do this, and so can you.
How do I cope successfully with my hypersensitivity? By practicing instructions given by your doctor or training program and following these simple strategies:
- Honor your sensitivity. Don’t make yourself do things that are difficult. As much as possible, choose situations that suit your temperament. Highly sensitive people need more time than others to process the events of the day. Before you overload yourself by going out in the evening, take a few minutes to consider if you can handle more stimulation or if you’ve met your limit for the day.
- Step back. Allow yourself your emotional reaction to a situation, but consider that there may be other interpretations. Pause for reflection and take some deep breaths to calm down. Analyze the situation and re-evaluate it.
- 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 — a smaller grocery store instead of a major chain, for example, or a small doctor’s office located in a home instead of a large group practice at a hospital.
- Reduce extraneous stimulation. Say ‘no’ nicely to things that have overwhelmed you in the past, that you don’t have to do or just don’t want to do. Identify your limits and implement them when you’re overwhelmed.
- Make sure you’ve had enough sleep: Rest or take a nap before facing a situation that will be highly stimulating or after an intense one to regroup.
- Use relaxation methods: Meditate, pray, or do some yoga to strengthen your ability to cope with day-to-day challenges by practicing feeling calm and learning how to recreate this sensation.
Neurofeedback Therapy at NHA
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