If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), overstimulation might be a familiar challenge. Everyday occurrences, such as the noise of a car engine, the ring of a cell phone in a restaurant, or the mingling aromas of food and perfume, can be overwhelming for someone with ADHD. Alongside this sensory overload, the executive dysfunction often associated with ADHD—impacting organization, focus, and task completion—can further complicate these challenges. This article explores effective ways to cope with ADHD-related overstimulation and the intertwined difficulties of executive functioning. 

Coaching services like Effective Effort Consulting can provide a pathway to a personalized treatment plan. Tailored to individual needs, ADHD coaching helps in developing strategies to manage priorities, navigate challenging situations, and minimize overstimulation. It’s a vital component in enhancing the coping mechanisms for those dealing with ADHD. By scheduling an appointment with Dr. Murphy, owner of EEC, you can take a step towards alleviating your overstimulation and navigating your ADHD with empowering support.

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What is Overstimulation?

a student with ADHD is overstimulated with his tasks.

Overstimulation in ADHD can be closely linked to the core feature of inattention, often manifested as “poor attentional control.” This impaired ability to filter irrelevant information and inputs plays a key role in the susceptibility to overstimulation, as the brain simultaneously pays attention to everything. 

For instance, one study highlighted that individuals with ADHD exhibited 138% more “background noise” in their brain activity compared to a control group during a simple task. This “background noise” refers to the amount of irrelevant information the brain is processing. 

The study used pattern electroretinogram (PERG) to observe how retinal cells in subjects’ eyes processed visual input, indicating a significant difficulty in filtering visual stimuli. Additionally, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from another study showed elevated activity in all brain regions associated with sensory processing, even in a resting state. 

This suggests that the ADHD brain often tries to process all sensory input it receives simultaneously, struggling to prioritize the most important inputs.

What Does Overstimulation Feel Like?

Overstimulation is a barrage of sensations causing disorientation and distress, often leading to anxiety, irritability, and a lack of focus.  It’s like standing in the center of a busy city intersection, with the cacophony of traffic, flashing billboards, and bustling crowds enveloping you, making it hard to think straight. The overstimulation causes a breakdown in executive functioning, leading to feelings of being ‘stuck.’  

“When I am overwhelmed or overstimulated, I can’t seem to prioritize effectively. I find myself avoiding the hard tasks and getting stuck on distractions. If it’s really bad, then I need to get out of there. ”

Common symptoms one feels when experiencing overstimulation include:

🔆Trouble focusing
🔆Anxiousness
🔆Panic attacks
🔆Irritability
🔆Rapid heartbeat
🔆Dissociation

Symptoms of Sensory Overload in ADHD

Individuals with ADHD may experience intensified symptoms like headaches, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating. Approximately 50-70% of individuals with ADHD report hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, making them more prone to overstimulation.

When ADHDers experience strong stimuli, such as specific touch, sounds or smells, they may exhibit the following signs and symptoms:

  • Headaches or dizziness, possibly leading to feelings of illness or nausea.
  • Heightened anxiety and stress, manifesting in emotional outbursts.
  • Increased irritability and agitation, affecting emotional stability.
  • Difficulty focusing and restlessness, impacting concentration and physical calm.
  • Sleep disturbances and panic attacks, reflecting extreme responses to overstimulation.

In addition to sensory challenges, individuals with ADHD often face ‘ADHD paralysis,’ a state where overwhelming choices or tasks lead to inaction. For more insights on this and coping strategies, read more on Effective Effort Consulting’s blog about ADHD Paralysis.

Overstimulation Vs. Hypersensitivity

Overstimulation and hypersensitivity are related but distinct experiences. Hypersensitivity is a consistent, heightened reaction to specific stimuli, like a microphone amplifying every sound. 

For example, if you’re hypersensitive to bright lights, they may always cause discomfort. Overstimulation, however, is more situational, occurring when an accumulation of stimuli, like lights, sounds, and smells at a concert, becomes overwhelming. In other situations, these same lights might not be bothersome. 

Essentially, hypersensitivity is a constant sensitivity, while overstimulation is a temporary state of sensory overload.

Causes of Sensory Overload

📢Loud Noises

Some people with ADHD may be more sensitive to specific sounds, loud environments, or unexpected noises, making them intolerable or overwhelming. Loud noises can be particularly jarring and uncomfortable, akin to a sudden car alarm going off in a quiet street.

🔆Bright Lights

Intense lights, such as stepping into bright sunlight from a dark room, can cause disorientation. Overwhelmingly bright fluorescent or flashing lights, environments with excessive visual clutter, or those with sparse visual elements can also be challenging. 

Additionally, settings with overly vibrant colors can contribute to the discomfort experienced by individuals sensitive to bright lights. This array of visually intense scenarios can be particularly jarring and contribute to sensory overload.

🛒Crowds/Crowded Spaces

Being in a crowded place, such as a packed grocery store or concert, can lead to sensory overload with the sheer number of stimuli.  

👃🏻Strong Smells

Strong odors, ranging from perfumes to cleaning products, can be overpowering and uncomfortable. This heightened sensitivity can make even ordinarily pleasant scents challenging and contribute to sensory overload.

🤚🏽Tactile Stimulation

An unexpected touch, like someone brushing past you in a crowded subway, can be startling. Also, restrictive or rough clothing or too much physical contact (e.g., a bear hug that lasts too long) can be overwhelming. 

📝Multitasking

Juggling multiple tasks, like cooking while managing a loud family environment, can be triggering and lead to executive dysfunction in prioritizing or initiating. 

Six Tips to Cope With Overstimulation

1️⃣Identify Your Triggers/Threshold

Knowing your triggers, like recognizing that loud environments quickly overwhelm you, helps manage overstimulation.

After identifying your overstimulation triggers, consider practical avoidance or reduction strategies. 

  • Use blackout curtains and dimmable lights to control light exposure.
  • Choose scent-free personal care products like detergents and shampoos.
  • Plan to leave social events early to manage social stimuli.
  • Select comfortable clothing to reduce tactile discomfort.
  • Avoid busy places during their peak times to minimize crowd-related overstimulation.

2️⃣Learn Self-Soothing Techniques

Self-soothing, like deep breathing when overwhelmed, can mitigate the effects of overstimulation.

3️⃣Step Away & Recharge

Removing yourself from an overwhelming situation, such as stepping out of a noisy party, is a helpful life skill to practice.

4️⃣Integrate Sensory Aid

Using tools like noise-canceling headphones can help manage sensory input in loud environments.

5️⃣Take a Self-Care Sensory Break

Regular breaks in quiet, calming environments can be restorative.

6️⃣Talk to a Trusting Other

Discussing experiences with a friend can provide comfort and understanding.

ADHD and Overstimulation

In the context of ADHD, heightened stress from overstimulation can intensify symptoms like poor emotional regulation, executive functioning, distractibility, and focus. This becomes particularly challenging when trying to concentrate on work or engage socially, as the overloaded senses hinder information processing and communication, sometimes to a distressing degree. 

However, the good news is that there are various effective coping strategies and techniques available to manage overstimulation.

How to Deal with ADHD Overstimulation?

ADHD Medications

Medications can help manage symptoms, acting like a filter to reduce the intensity of sensory input. 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)

Traditional ADHD Therapies

Therapies like CBT can be effective in managing ADHD and related sensory issues by providing coping strategies. 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?”

ADHD Support Communities

Finding support within communities offers shared experiences and coping strategies. 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.  This group meets online —> ADHD Support Groups: How to Meditate with ADHD.

ADHD Coaching

By recognizing early signs and employing specific strategies, those with ADHD can navigate their day-to-day lives with greater ease and confidence, thereby enhancing their overall quality of life in the context of ADHD management.

Coaching is instrumental in reducing instances of overwhelm and overstimulation. 

Relaxation Techniques

Practicing relaxation techniques, like yoga, can help manage sensory overload. 

Additional relaxation techniques you can try include:

💨deep breathing exercises
🧘meditation
🏃🏽‍♀️regular exercise
🥑eating a nutritious diet
🙆🏽‍♂️stretch

Sleep

Adequate sleep is vital for managing ADHD symptoms, acting as a reset for overstimulated senses. 

Is Caffeine making you sleepy? explore how substances like caffeine affect individuals with ADHD differently. For an in-depth analysis of this topic, read Why Does Coffee Make Me Sleepy: ADHD & Caffeine.

Executive Functioning Assessment from Effective Effort Consulting

Conclusion. In My Experience

In my professional experience as an ADHD and executive function coach, I’ve found it crucial to help clients develop a consistent, personalized approach to managing their lives. This involves crafting a meaningful schedule and action plan that prioritizes their well-being. By doing so, we aim to proactively manage personal priorities, minimize the risk of overstimulation, and foster a more productive and fulfilling life. Such a roadmap is tailored to each individual, empowering them to navigate their unique challenges with ADHD and sensory overload effectively.