Not Just a Pet Peeve: Hypersensitivity in ADHD


Pet peeves, we all have them. Perhaps it’s the repetitive cracking of someone’s knuckles, or the chronic lateness of a coworker or friend. Whatever it may be, you can feel that same feeling of annoyance creeping up your spine whenever you see, hear, touch or smell it. For most people, pet peeves are simply just that- an annoyance. They are things of discomfort that although might “grind your gears”, are relatively ignorable and can even be forcibly overlooked. For those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) however, these “pet peeves” are much more than simple annoyances and can severely impede aspects of social, occupational and personal life. 

Hypersensitivities, also commonly referred to as sensory sensitivities, can be described as a temperament or personality “trait characterized by increased awareness and sensitivity to the environment”(Acevedo, 2021). These sensitivities can be broken into several subcategories including, noise sensitivity, touch sensitivity/aversion, movement sensitivities and visual sensitivities (PsychCentral, n.d.). In noise sensitivity, triggers can be anything from the repeated dripping of water from a faucet to the sound of saliva in someone’s mouth as they eat or even the volume of a particular sound. In touch sensitivity/aversion, it may be a particular material of a piece of clothing, a tag on a shirt or the sensation of other things against one’s skin. Visual sensitivities may be things like flickering lights (or lights of certain brightness) or repetitive movements. In any form of hypersensitivity, the particular stimulus may be overwhelming and overstimulating to an individual. A common, and often defining, symptom of hypersensitivity is emotional distress and outbursts in reaction to stimuli.  For someone with a form of noise sensitivity the sound of someone chewing may not merely irritate them, but it may send them into visible deep frustration and even rage. They can even have a physical reaction like chest pains or for those with touch sensitivity rashes or eczema (PsychCentral, n.d.). Not being able to remove the stimuli can prolong stress and intensify emotional outburst. 

Although the exact cause of hypersensitivity is unknown, hypersensitivities are generally considered to be caused by the brain’s inability to process multiple sensory inputs at once (Healthline n.d.). Hypersensitivity and other sensory processing disorders, according to some researchers, are considerably common in those with ADHD, with prevalence between 40-84% (PsychCentral, n.d.). Hypersensitivity is also not exclusively a symptom of ADHD. It is also commonly seen in other neurodivergent disorders like autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) as well as in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), general anxiety disorder and multiple sclerosis (MS) (Healthline n.d.). 

Hypersensitivities can often be overlooked or misunderstood by the people in the lives of those that it may affect. It may be regarded as a “bad” personality trait. People with ADHD and hypersensitivity may be told to “suck it up” or “stop being so sensitive,” by those who simply do not understand how impactful and stressful sensory triggers may be. Emotional reactions to hypersensitivities can even lead to the social avoidance of some people. There are various methods of treating and diminishing hypersensitivity, with most of them not involving medication. These methods include therapy, meditation and exercise (Healthline n.d., Acevedo 2021), but one thing we can all do is be mindful and have some consideration for those struggling with hypersensitivity. 

 

Resources

Acevedo, B. (2021). “What is Sensory Processing Sensitivity? Traits, Insights, and ADHD Links”. ADDitude.

ADHD: When Your Senses Are Extra Sensitive. PsychCentral. (n.d.). https://psychcentral.com/adhd/adhd-hypersensitivity#symptoms

What is Sensory Overload?. Healthline. (n.d.). https://www.healthline.com/health/sensory-overload#symptoms

Green, K. (2018). “ADHD Light Sensitivity: The Link with Hypersensitivity & Sensory Processing”. TheraSpecs.

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