Written by Dr. Tara Boustany, Pharm.D on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

ADHD hypersensitivity is a condition that mental health experts in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have recognized but not yet formally accepted as an ADHD subtype.

Hypersensitive ADHD can be defined as an ADHD-related disorder where the individual experiences overstimulation from things like light, sounds, touch, or smells.

ADHD hypersensitive individuals often have difficulty concentrating and may also experience emotional distress related to sensory overload or sensory processing issues.

This blog post will provide you with information on what hypersensitivity in ADHD is, its symptoms, and how it can be managed.

What exactly is ADHD Hypersensitivity?

ADHD hypersensitivity is a condition where patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder experience overstimulation from usually non-harmful sensory sensitivity stimuli.

ADHD hypersensitive types typically have trouble concentrating and may also be emotionally affected by the stimulus they’re experiencing.

Most individuals with ADHD will complain of being bothered by their environment. 

But ADHD sufferers with hyper-reactivity to their surroundings are in a whole different league, especially when it comes to emotional stimuli. 

ADHD hypersensitive individuals will perceive stimuli that most people would not even notice.

But hypersensitivity sufferers may find this stimulus unbearable and be unable to focus on anything else.

What exactly is ADHD?

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes people hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive.

ADHD is an umbrella term for three subtypes:

  • ADHD-PI (primarily inattentive)
  • ADHD-PH (primarily hyperactive and impulsive)
  • ADHD-C (combined inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsivity)

Hypersensitive ADHD can be considered an informal ADHD subtype where sufferers experience overstimulation from sensory sensitivity input.

Individuals with ADHD often complain about being bothered by their environment.

But patients with hypersensitivity are in a league of their own.

The ADHD-PI (primarily inattentive) subtype is characterized by low energy levels and the inability to stay focused on tasks that require mental effort.

They would rather sit around doing nothing than engage in any cognitively demanding activity. 

ADHD-PH (primarily hyperactive and impulsive) is often characterized by the following:

  • Impulsivity
  • Restlessness 
  • High energy levels

People who have this subtype are constantly moving around even when they’re sitting still.

ADHD-C (combined inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsivity) patients have both ADHD symptoms like the ADHD-PI and ADHD-PH subtypes, but they’re more severe.

Individuals with ADHD of this type have a lot of trouble staying focused on tasks that require mental effort. 

Their restlessness makes them constantly fidgety and unfocused.

Types of Hypersensitivity ADHD

There are five hypersensitive ADHD types:

Tactile Sensitivities

Tactile sensitivities refer to hypersensitivity where individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are overly sensitive to touch.

Most ADHD-C patients have tactile sensitivities, but it can also be a problem for ADHD-PI and ADHD-PH sufferers.

The type of touch does not matter; certain materials will bother ADHD hypersensitive people even if they’re touched with a very light hand.

Tactile hypersensitivity in people with ADHD could mean that they may find certain fabrics uncomfortable, especially if they’re worn directly on the skin for an extended time.

A common material that bothers ADHD-C persons is wool because it can cause their skin to itch or break out in hives. 

Light touch may be enough to bother ADHD-C sufferers; any light pressure, like wearing eyeglasses or sitting on a chair with batting in the cushion, can cause discomfort.

Tactile hypersensitivity is often accompanied by hyper-reactivity to sound and visual stimuli as well.

Adverse effects of tactile physical sensitivities may include:

  • Hyperactivity and impulsivity
  • Inattentiveness, especially if the physical stimuli are something that requires concentration to avoid.
  • Mood swings or irritability when clothes are put on or taken off of hypersensitive areas of skin.

Tactile sensitivities may be complex for people with ADHD to manage, but they can find ways to make life easier for themselves.

When wearing clothes, ADHD hypersensitive individuals may prefer natural fibers such as cotton or wool instead of synthetic materials like polyester and nylon.

This is because the former two are less likely to irritate ADHD-C persons’ skin than the latter two.

Wool sweaters are often softer than acrylic sweaters so that ADHD hypersensitive individuals may prefer the former.

Many ADHD-C persons report that they feel fine when wearing loose cotton clothes; tight clothing is often too constricting for their ADHD due to tactile sensitivities.

When sitting at home or in school, many ADHD hypersensitive types find it helpful to sit on a large sofa or bean bag chair instead of chairs with batting in the cushion.

The ADHD hypersensitive types should always wear shoes inside their home because walking around barefoot can be uncomfortable for them.

This includes both ADHD-C and ADHD-PI sufferers, but it is especially difficult for ADHD-PH persons who are constantly on the move.

Many ADHD-C sufferers wear slippers or socks to bed because they are less likely to irritate their ADHD when walking around on bare feet.

ADHD-PI and ADHD-PH individuals may favor this option as well due to tactile sensitivities.

Olfactory Sensitivities

People who have olfactory ADHD hypersensitivities are overly sensitive to odors.

Many ADHD-C individuals have unpleasant reactions when their sense of smell is triggered; this can include everything from feeling nauseous or sick to have a headache or mood swings.

The smells that trigger ADHD-C persons’ olfactory sensitivities depend on the individual, but common ADHD hypersensitivity triggers include: 

  • heavy perfumes
  • strong household cleaners and chemicals
  • cigarette smoke
  • Insecticides
  • other toxic odors.

Some individuals with ADHD may also be sensitive to fragrances in food or the smell of certain foods cooking; this is a very rare form of olfactory sensation ADHD hypersensitivities.

Many ADHD-C types are sensitive to the smell of gasoline, but they may not be able to tell which gas is being used in a car until they’re close enough for it to trigger their ADHD.

Most people with hypersensitive ADHD can cope by avoiding places with strong odors or wearing clothes that cover up any unpleasant smells.

ADHD-C persons may also choose to sit further away from people who are wearing heavy perfumes or colognes.

Adverse hypersensitivity effects for people living with olfactory sensitivities include:

  • Headaches, migraines, and nausea when exposed to strong odors.
  • Mood swings when exposed to strong odors that trigger ADHD.
  • Irritability when exposed to fragrances in food or the smell of certain foods cooking.

Hypersensitivity may be complex for adult ADHD, but they can find ways to make life easier by avoiding places with strong smells as much as possible and wearing clothes that cover up any unpleasant odors.

Auditory Sensitivities

People with ADHD hypersensitivities may be sensitive to loud noises or certain types of sounds.

These individuals often have problems when they are in places where the noise level is high, such as nightclubs and concerts.

Tthis can lead to irritability and mood swings due to ADHD sensitivities.

Adverse Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder effects include:

  • Headaches and migraines when exposed to loud noises.
  • Irritability or mood swings triggered by noise levels that are too high for ADHD-C sufferers.
  • Difficulty concentrating on work tasks due to sounds that trigger ADHD hypersensitivities.

Many individuals with ADHD can cope by wearing earplugs to avoid hypersensitivity trigger noises or by asking for a quieter work environment.

Visual Sensitivities

People dealing with ADHD and sensory sensitivities may also be sensitive to bright lights, specific colors, or other visual stimuli.

This can include sensitivity to fluorescent lighting from overhead office fixtures and sunlight streaming in through windows.

Individuals with ADHD hypersensitivity should avoid work areas that are excessively lit up because this ADHD trigger makes it difficult for them to concentrate.

Another ADHD visual sensitivity is the inability of ADHD-C individuals to wear sunglasses or dark glasses because they can trigger irritability and mood swings.

Claustrophobic Sensitivities

Finally, ADHD-C individuals may have hypersensitivity reactions to being in small spaces for too long.

This can include everything from a crowded elevator making people dealing with ADHD feel trapped and closed in or having ADHD symptoms triggered by riding on planes with tightly packed seats.

Adverse ADHD effects of claustrophobic sensitivities include:

  • Irritability and mood swings when people living with ADHD are in small spaces for long periods of time.
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks due to ADHD hypersensitivities triggered by tight spaces or crowded areas. 

Most ADHD sufferers can cope by avoiding being in small spaces for long periods or asking for a larger work area if hypersensitivity to tight spaces affects their job performance.

Are people with ADHD more emotionally sensitive?

ADHD-C hypersensitivity can make emotional sensitivity more pronounced.

When people dealing with ADHD are emotionally sensitive to the point that every little thing causes them stress or sadness, it’s called “emotional lability.”

Emotional lability is one of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD-C and has been described as being on a roller coaster of emotions.

People dealing with ADHD-C can find ways to cope by:

  • Avoiding situations that they know will be emotionally draining, such as certain social interactions or difficult conversations.
  • Meditating regularly and practicing deep breathing exercises when hypersensitivity triggers mood swings or other ADHD symptoms.
  • Having someone close by who can provide support, such as:
    • A trusted friend
    • A family member
    • Therapist
    • someone who understands hypersensitivities in ADHD and how to cope with it.

ADHD Hypersensitivity to Criticism

People who have ADHD-C may be more sensitive to criticism because their hypersensitivity magnifies feelings of shame when the symptoms are triggered.

Adverse ADHD effects include:

  • Difficulty concentrating on work tasks and avoiding distractions due to doubts and worries about the quality of their performance.
  • Feelings that they will never meet expectations or get things done right.

How ADHD sufferers can cope with hypersensitivity to criticism:

Identifying triggers for ADHD symptoms is important, such as when and where ADHD-C symptoms are most likely to occur.

For example, an ADHD-C individual may feel particularly shameful at work after having lunch with a critical friend or coworker.

Breaking down ADHD triggers into smaller, more manageable pieces can help ADHD sufferers cope with emotional sensitivities.

This includes finding ways to put negative feelings in perspective and refocusing attention on the tasks at hand.

It might mean breathing deeply while counting backward from 100 or doing a quick meditation exercise when the symptoms are triggered.

Once ADHD sufferers have identified what triggers them, they can plan in advance how to deal with hypersensitivity when it happens, especially when receiving criticism.

This includes deciding which coping strategies work best and practicing these techniques regularly so that ADHD-C individuals are prepared the next time their symptoms trigger emotional lability or other adverse ADHD effects of hypersensitivity.

Understanding Hypersensitivity in ADHD

Hypersensitivity ADHD can affect people’s lives in many ways.

It can make ADHD-C sufferers feel overwhelmed, depressed, and anxious because they are constantly on edge due to their ADHD sensitivities.

On the other hand, symptoms of hypersensitivity ADHD also have advantages that may not be apparent at first glance—such as being more aware of surroundings and better able to notice details.

People with hypersensitive ADHD can learn ways to manage their ADHD sensitivities by:

  • Avoiding or limiting exposure to triggers that ADHD-C sufferers know will lead to ADHD symptoms, such as:
    • bright lights
    • loud noise
    • crowded spaces
  • Taking medication for ADHD when hypersensitivity is so strong that ADHD-C individuals cannot function normally.
  • Talking to a therapist or loved one about ADHD sensitivities and what can be done to help cope with them when they get in the way of daily life, such as work tasks.
  • Having someone nearby who understands hypersensitivity and how best to handle the symptoms when they arise.

Examples of hypersensitivity triggers include:

  • Not being able to wear sunglasses or dark glasses without emotional lability, irritability, and mood swings occurring.
  • Being unable to stand in crowded spaces for long periods because it makes ADHD sufferers feel trapped and closed in.
  • Having trouble concentrating when hypersensitivity triggers symptoms in tight spaces or crowded areas. 

Why do people with ADHD often have hypersensitivity?

People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are more emotionally sensitive to the world around them, which can cause hypersensitivity.

For example, there might be a loud noise outside that is not noticeable by neurotypical people but may trigger ADHD symptoms in someone who has ADHD-C or ADHD-PI.

In this case, it is as if ADHD sufferers are experiencing hypersensitivity because they have trouble regulating their heightened emotions and emotional responses to the world around them.

For example, ADHD-C individuals might get angry or upset when overwhelmed by sensory stimuli in a loud place while ADHD-PI individuals may become anxious and hyperactive when exposed to bright lights in crowded spaces compared with neurotypical people.

This is because hypersensitivity makes ADHD-C and ADHD-PI individuals more sensitive to the emotions of others.

Therefore, they may become overwhelmed when exposed to sensory stimuli that do not affect other people.

In addition, hypersensitivity can cause people dealing with ADHD to feel similarly affected by their environment or situations that neurotypical people would not feel as strongly.

For example, hypersensitivity may cause ADHD-C and ADHD-PI individuals to cry easily when experiencing strong emotions because they are so closely connected with the world around them.

However, this can also be a positive thing: hypersensitive ADHD means that people dealing with ADHD who suffer from emotional lability have a heightened awareness of their surroundings.

On the other hand, hypersensitivity can also lead to symptoms such as irritability and mood swings because ADHD-C and ADHD-PI individuals are so easily affected by their environment.

For example, ADHD sufferers may become irritable and anxious when they need to go somewhere crowded because it triggers their hypersensitivity symptoms such as mood swings and emotional lability.

In many cases, people dealing with ADHD find that the world around them is overstimulating and triggering.

For example, people who have ADHD may experience hypersensitivity when trying to complete a task that requires concentration because there is so much going on around them—such as other noises or smells from the environment.

Concluding Thoughts

ADHD hypersensitivity can cause a variety of symptoms in people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, such as emotional lability and mood swings.

However, there are many ways to cope with hypersensitive ADHD triggered by the world around you, such as:

  • Taking medication for ADHD
  • Learning how to regulate your responses to sensory stimuli like bright lights and crowded spaces. 
  • Taking the time to talk with a mental health expert who can provide medical advice about ADHD hypersensitivities.

In addition, hypersensitive ADHD means that you are more emotionally connected to your environment—which can be both a positive and negative thing.

If you need expert help from a mental health professional who can provide medical advice that suits your needs and lifestyle, take advantage of this ADHD quiz.

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