ADHD and overstimulation: What you need to know

ADHD and overstimulation: What you need to know

Reviewed by:
Caitlin Gardiner, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
February 23, 2024
In this article

Our world is an exhilarating place: We are constantly exposed to noises, smells, sounds, sights, and feelings. These sensations are all part of life’s texture. But for some people, the world’s abundant sensory stimuli can become overwhelming, causing difficulty focusing, migraines, or even meltdowns, among other things.

Anyone might experience this kind of sensory overload at some point, but if it’s a regular occurrence for you, it could be a sensory issue and a symptom of a mental health condition. Sensory overstimulation can be a key feature for some  people with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), which is usually characterized by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity that all interfere with your functioning or development.  It is informally referred to as “ADHD overstimulation” or “sensory overload.” However, overstimulation is not an official symptom recognized by the DSM for ADHD diagnosis—and it may not be experienced by everyone with ADHD.

Whether you’ve already been diagnosed with ADHD or just suspect that your experience of sensory overstimulation might be connected to undiagnosed ADHD, read on for more information about what ADHD overstimulation is and 10 coping strategies, along with how to access other kinds of treatment options.

What is ADHD overstimulation?

The terms “ADHD overstimulation” and “sensory overload” are informal ways that people describe a sensory processing issue that happens when at least one of the five senses takes in more information than the brain can handle. Everyone has limits on the amount of sensory input they can absorb. Think of a time you were blinded by a bright headlight or needed to move away from the speakers at a loud concert. If you have ADHD, your threshold for these things might be lower. Overstimulation is not cited in the DSM as part of having ADHD, but more akin to a secondary symptom that people with ADHD and other conditions may experience.

That’s because when you have ADHD your brain already has difficulty with what clinicians refer to as “attentional control”—or choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. The brain of a person with ADHD isn’t focusing on only the relevant things but trying to pay attention to everything at the same time instead. This means that a person with ADHD is more likely to be overwhelmed by sensory input.

Overstimulation and sensory processing issues can be symptoms of other conditions as well, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, and Tourette syndrome. It’s important to consult with a qualified mental-health professional to make sure you get a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment, since what you’re feeling might be related to something else other than ADHD. You can complete Talkiatry’s short assessment to get matched with a psychiatrist who’s right for you.

Common causes and sensory triggers

Several types of sensory inputs are known to trigger overstimulation. Here are some common things to look out for, whether you have ADHD or not.  

  • Tactile sensations: Certain materials or textures might become overwhelming for a person with ADHD. For example, tags in clothing or food textures can lead to an overstimulated response, and even physical contact from other people, particularly if it’s unexpected, can be a trigger.
  • Repetitive or loud noises: Some people with ADHD might have an auditory sensitivity. This means that excessively loud noises, such as busy streets or other people in a household, can be stressful or distracting for them. The same can apply to noises that are repetitive but not necessarily loud, like a pen clicking or an air-conditioning unit buzzing.  
  • Bright lights and other visual stimulation: Harsh or flashing lights, as well as chaotic visual environments, can trigger overstimulation in some people with ADHD.
  • Strong smells: People with ADHD might become overstimulated by smells from perfumes, cleaning products, body odor, or even food.  
  • Overcrowded or confined spaces: Busy, crowded spaces, like concerts or parties, can be overwhelming because of the number of sensory stimuli—sounds, smells, and sensations. This might be especially true when the spaces are smaller and more confined, like a subway car. And they might be even made worse if relocating to a less crowded environment with fewer sensory triggers is difficult.  
  • Multitasking: People with ADHD can become overstimulated by situations that demand juggling multiple projects or priorities simultaneously.  

What does ADHD overstimulation feel like?

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by too much sensory stimuli, you can have a physical and/or emotional response, which can be heightened when you have ADHD.

Physical symptoms of ADHD overstimulation:

  • Inability to sit still, restlessness, and/or fidgeting
  • Feeling like your clothing is suddenly too tight, itchy, or just uncomfortable
  • Exhaustion or sudden tiredness (more on ADHD and fatigue)
  • Migraines or headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Sleep issues, including difficulty falling or staying asleep

However, like ADHD itself, the experience of overstimulation can be different for everyone. If you experience ADHD overstimulation, what’s most important is knowing your own triggers and symptoms, so that you can try to avoid them—or, if that’s not possible, set yourself up to be prepared when they do arise. A mental-health professional can help you understand your personal triggers and treat your symptoms.

Is overstimulation the same as hypersensitivity?

Some people have a sensory processing sensitivity and are hypersensitive to to certain stimuli, such as tags in clothing or the noise made by blenders—many of the same things that can trigger ADHD overstimulation. Hypersensitivity is a personality trait, not a condition or disorder.  

Certain people may have a biological sensory "dysfunction" in their brain that hinders their ability to process environmental stimuli appropriately. This sensory processing issues are not part of the DSM and debated as disorder. And while many people with ADHD experience sensory issues, how exactly these are related isn’t yet understood.

Related article: What is ADHD object permanence?

What about ADHD understimulation?

Understimulation is a separate but related phenomenon of ADHD. You could think of it as the opposite of overstimulation: Understimulation can occur when a person’s brain isn’t receiving enough sensory input to keep them engaged in their surroundings.  

Research on ADHD has suggested that this has to do with how dopamine (the chemical that regulates good mood and feelings) works in the brains of people with ADHD. In a neurotypical brain, positive stimulation produces dopamine, which in turn leads to pleasure from being engaged and motivation to stay engaged. However, people with ADHD produce dopamine differently than neurotypical people do, making them more likely to feel bored, restless, or in need of new stimuli.  

Because people with ADHD also run the risk of being overstimulated, this means that living with ADHD can be a kind of balancing act: You need enough stimulation to keep your brain engaged, without increasing sensory input so much that it leads to overwhelm.

Related article: What is "ADHD paralysis"?

10 strategies for preventing and managing ADHD overstimulation

Because ADHD overstimulation can affect your daily life, preventing and managing ADHD overstimulation will make a big difference to your well-being. Here are 10 strategies for how you might do that.

  • Identify your triggers: Knowing what your personal sensory triggers are, whether that’s strong perfume and/or repetitive noises, is the first step to managing ADHD overstimulation.
  • Avoid or control your sensory triggers: Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can figure out how to either avoid them or control your exposure to them. This might mean getting permission to work from home so that you can dodge an overstimulating commute, or wearing noise-canceling headphones, or even ear plugs, in places where loud sounds might trigger you.
  • Keep a sleep schedule: Sleep is incredibly important for your brain’s health and ability to recover from stimulation during the day. Having a well-rested mind will make it easier to avoid getting overstimulated.  
  • Maintain a routine: Having a structure you can rely on can make it easier to manage the amount of sensory stimuli you’re exposed to.
  • Give yourself cool-down time: Try integrating cool-down periods into your daily routine, where you can step away from the stimulation of the day and decompress.
  • Adapt triggering environments to your needs: If you have to be somewhere that is triggering to you, see if there are ways you can adapt it to your needs. For example, maybe your assigned seat in class is right in the middle so you regularly get overstimulated by the other students surrounding you. You can ask your teacher to move to a corner of the room instead.
  • Cultivate safe spaces: Identify spots that feel low-stimulation to you in the environments you often find yourself in. So if you sometimes get overstimulated at the office, try finding a quiet conference room where you can retreat to calm down when you’re feeling triggered.
  • Try self-soothing: Self-soothing or relaxation techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises, yoga, or meditation, can reduce stress and overstimulation by helping you with your emotional regulation.
  • Get support from your loved ones: Research shows that relationships with family members, friends, or healthcare professionals can be a great way to share and work through any issues you’re facing. Plus, having people on your team makes it easier to ask for help with practical challenges that come from living with ADHD and trying to avoid overstimulation.
  • Work with a professional: A mental-health professional, such as a psychiatrist and/or a therapist, can be an important resource, whether you’ve already been diagnosed with ADHD but are finding you need support in dealing with overstimulation, or if you’re experiencing overstimulation and wondering if an ADHD diagnosis is accurate for you. If you’re not sure where to start, take Talkiatry’s free online assessment.

How to treat overstimulation in ADHD

ADHD overstimulation isn’t something that can be cured; however, it can be managed to make its impact on your daily life much less disruptive. For some people, medication is a good option to manage their symptoms. There are a variety of ADHD medications that can be prescribed that have been shown to be very effective.

You and your psychiatrist may decide that medication isn’t right for you, or that it would be most effective to pair it with therapy. Some of the therapy treatment options for ADHD overstimulation are:

  • Sensory integration therapy (SIT): SIT is a kind of therapy that can help you acclimate to triggering sensory stimuli in a controlled environment, so that your nervous system can become more accustomed to it and is less likely to be overwhelmed by the stimuli when you encounter it in your daily life.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Cognitive behavioral therapy is a goal-oriented approach to therapy that focuses on disrupting negative or unhealthy thought patterns that might be contributing to your experience of overstimulation and your emotional response to it.  
  • Occupational therapy (OT): Occupational therapy focuses on helping you develop skills to manage your everyday life and tasks. In the context of ADHD overstimulation, an occupational therapist might work with you to design what’s called a “sensory diet,” a personalized activity plan tailored to your sensory needs to help you strike the balance between understimulated and overstimulated.  

If you’ve been experiencing something that seems like overstimulation but you don’t already have a diagnosis for ADHD or another mental health condition, your first step should be to talk it over with a qualified professional and get one.  

ADHD can look different for different people, but some of the other common symptoms include difficulty focusing or staying organized, lack of attention to detail, fidgeting, and trouble staying still or even seated. If you think you might have ADHD, take Talkiatry’s quick assessment to get started.

We’ll make sure we’re a good fit for you and that we take your insurance, and you’ll be matched with the right Talkiatry psychiatrist for your specific needs.

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Dr. Caitlin Gardiner is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Dr. Caitlin Gardiner's practice is based on the biopsychosocial model and believes that the foundation of healing is in psychotherapy and human connection. She is known for incorporating therapy into her medication management practice. Typically she offers 30-minute follow-up visits for medication management with focused therapy based on individual needs.

As a known helper, Dr. Gardiner started her career with a bachelors degree in social work from Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, NY. After changing career paths she received her medical degree from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY. She stayed at Upstate to complete her general psychiatry residency where she was chief resident during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this, she completed her child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship at Upstate due to the high quality of training. Dr. Gardiner has completed 3 years of advanced training in Dynamic Deconstructive Psychotherapy as well as specialized training in DBT.

Dr. Gardiner is a well -rounded psychiatrist who enjoys treating youth and young adults during transitional phases of life while providing a safe and supportive environment. She believes strongly in reducing polypharmacy and providing high-quality medication management through a therapeutic and developmental lens.

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