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ADHD Overstimulation: Symptoms, Nuances, and Coping Strategies

Julia Ovcharenko, CEO of Numo
January 12, 2024

The modern world is…it’s something, alright.

Granted, it has a lot of coolness, but sometimes, I can’t come to terms with the sheer density of information we are bombarded with daily. 

It’s probably enough to make a person’s head spin, even if they don’t have ADHD. When you add it to a mix, it becomes a boiling cocktail of panic and misery.

But, you know, one problem at a time. So, today, let’s wrestle with ADHD and overstimulation and talk about things like:

  • What causes overstimulation?
  • Are ADHDers more prone to being overstimulated?
  • Is overstimulation a sign of ADHD? 
  • ADHD overstimulation symptoms
  • How to cope with it

And a few more things, here or there. 

Ready? 

Let’s dig in! 

[What is Overstimulation] Understanding Overstimulation: A Deep Dive

First things first, let’s talk about what the heck overstimulation is and how it happens. 

Although we take it for granted, our sensory organs - ears, nose, eyes - are quite complex mechanisms, not for the least due to how they filter and pass the information to the brain. 

Processing the modern world’s barrage of information can get quite intense, so it begs the conclusion that there can be such a thing as too much information. Recall the last time you were in a bustling high-traffic street, simultaneously trying to write a text message and entertain a friend trying to talk your ear off. And there are all these smells, noises of the crowd and the cars, flashing lights… If you ever felt irritated or freaked out at these moments, that wasn’t you being 💅extra💅 

That was your brain panicking, unable to take in all the information the world was throwing at it. 

A short story long is that everyone can feel overstimulated, but it seems to be a particularly serious issue for us ADHDers?

Well, why’s that? 🧐 Let’s find out!

P.S. Fun fact: Have you ever tried turning down the music volume to see better? Even if you haven’t realized it, that was you trying to tone down the amount of stimulation you receive to think better 🤓

[ADHD and Overstimulation] The Link Between ADHD and Overstimulation

If everyone can feel overstimulated, why are we dedicating an entire article to its connection with ADHD? 

As some of you may know, ADHD isn’t just a behavior disorder. Instead, its origins are more neurological, and the brains of ADHDers are, quite literally, wired differently.

And those unique properties make ADHD and overstimulation tandem more prevalent than most. 

Keep in mind that ADHD is a relatively “young” condition, especially considering that we’ve only just recently broken away from the original misconceptions about the condition. For instance, do you know that ADHD isn’t “just a boy disorder” it’s just women experience ADHD differently

I’m doing this preface because science is constantly evolving, so what we have right now is the best approximation for why things are as they are. 🥺

With that said, let’s look at some of these theories. 

Irregular Dopamine Function

ADHDers have what you can call an irregularity with dopamine1 - those funny “reward” chemicals we receive when we complete a task. As a consequence, we tend to struggle with long-term planning and activities that have delayed gratification because our gremlin brains demand happy chemicals right this moment. 😡

That’s why social media, video games, and stimulants (coffee, nicotine, etc.) so frequently become vices of ADHDers. That’s also why overstimulation becomes a hurdle that can sometimes be difficult to overcome. 

Why? Well, because if a neurotypical person realizes that the music is too loud or social media alerts are breaking their concentration, they can eliminate the biggest offender to focus on the most “rewarding” thing at the moment. 

ADHDers, on the other hand, might find it challenging to suss out the most rewarding thing to focus on at the moment, which will see us hopping from one stimulus to another without an end in sight. 

Hypersensitivity

Overstimulation is about the capability to process multiple stimuli and the capacity. In other words, some people have inherently lower tolerance towards stimuli, meaning that the scenarios perfectly acceptable by the majority will be completely unbearable for them.

If you think just having ADHD isn’t enough, certain research papers suggest that people with ADHD have unusual sensory profiles2, often leading to hypersensitivity. Coupling this comorbidity with the fact that ADHDers often struggle to tune things out creates an interesting interaction: not only is it so much easier to become overstimulated, but exiting this state can also be challenging. 

Although it’s not 100% related to our discussion today, this hypersensitivity also extends to emotional stimuli. Intense emotions can sometimes feel stressful and unbearable, hurting so much that the rejection can feel like physical pain

[Symptoms of ADHD Overstimulation] Recognizing the Signs: Symptoms of ADHD Overstimulation

Physical Symptoms

  • Restlessness: One of the most common manifestations of overstimulation in ADHD is intense restlessness. You may constantly need to move, fidget, or change positions, even when socially inappropriate or disruptive.
  • Heightened Startle Response: Have you ever had those moments when the slightest unexpected sound makes you jump? Like when your phone buzzes and you almost drop your coffee. Those experiencing overstimulation might react exaggeratedly to sudden noises, movements, or unexpected events. 
  • Fatigue: Paradoxically, while it can look like restlessness from the outside, being overstimulated can feel quite draining. That is because processing the information bombardment can be mentally and physically exhausting.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Overstimulation can wreak havoc on sleep patterns. It can include difficulty falling asleep due to racing thoughts, waking up frequently, or experiencing restless and unsatisfying sleep.
  • Tics or Repetitive Movements: Overstimulated individuals might develop tics or engage in repetitive movements, such as finger tapping, leg shaking, or other rhythmic motions they might be unaware of.

Emotional Symptoms

  • Irritability: Overstimulation can lead to heightened irritability. Situations or comments that one might usually brush off can become sources of significant annoyance or distress.
  • Mood Swings: The emotional toll of overstimulation can result in rapid and unpredictable mood changes. You might swing from happiness to sudden sadness or anger without a clear external trigger.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: While concentration can already be challenging for those with ADHD, overstimulation exacerbates this. It can seem nearly impossible to focus on a single task or thought.
  • Sense of Overwhelm: Everything feels magnified. Once manageable tasks now seem impossible, and the crushing weight of the surroundings and thoughts becomes too hard to bear. 
  • Anxiety: I’m not talking about general worry here. It can manifest as palpitations, rapid breathing, and a pervasive feeling of dread.
  • Decision-making Paralysis: The sheer volume of stimuli can make even the simplest decisions feel monumental, leading to indecision and procrastination.

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Avoidance: To cope with overstimulation, some individuals might start avoiding situations, places, or people they associate with these overwhelming feelings.
  • Seeking Isolation: There's a marked tendency to seek solitude. This isn't necessarily out of antisocial tendencies but rather a need to reduce the stimuli you receive. 
  • Increased Impulsivity: Overstimulation can lead to heightened impulsivity. Without the mental bandwidth to process everything, acting on our first impulses becomes even easier without considering the consequences.

[ADHD and Overstimulation Connection] The interplay between ADHD and Overstimulation

As with many ADHD-related conditions, it is important to understand what comes first - overstimulation or ADHD. Spoiler alert: it can be both.

While ADHDers are more prone to being overstimulated, overstimulating, too, can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD. It might sound like I’m saying the same thing twice, but trust me, there’s nuance to it! 

ADHD Leading to Overstimulation

Individuals with ADHD often struggle with attention regulation, making them more susceptible to sensory overload. Their brains might give equivalent importance to multiple stimuli, lacking the typical filtration system most possess.

To explain what I mean, let’s will a new entity into existence. Meet Emma, a teenager with ADHD, attending a family gathering. 

While most attendees comfortably navigate conversations, Emma feels bombarded. She's trying to concentrate on her cousin's story, but the aroma of the cooking food, the background music, the tapping of someone's foot, and the flickering light from a nearby TV are all vying for her attention. For her, the environment is not just distracting; it's overwhelmingly stimulating.

Overstimulation Impacting ADHD

Going in another direction, being in a hyper-stimulating environment can amplify ADHD symptoms. You might already have a high baseline of distractibility due to ADHD, but an influx of stimuli can elevate this to extreme levels.

Since we’re playing gods today, let’s create another life. Meet Alex, a college student with ADHD. 

He's used to a certain level of distraction while studying in his dorm room. However, one day, he decides to study at a busy café. The cacophony of chattering customers, the dishes' clattering, and the espresso machine's intermittent hissing exacerbate his ADHD symptoms. Tasks that would take him 20 minutes in his dorm now take an hour, with constant breaks and re-readings.

[Tips for Dealing with Overstimulation] Coping Mechanisms and Strategies for ADHD Overstimulation

So, how do we cope with it? While it’s part of the equation, managing overstimulation for us will take more than avoiding noisy rooms and bright lights. It’s all about building a toolbox of strategies to adapt to various scenarios and always be prepared. 

Almost like Batman but less…Bat. 

Anyway, let’s look at those things now. 

Adapting Your Environment

Creating a little “pocket” of sensory under-stimulation can work wonders whenever you need a break from being overwhelmed or just a quiet corner to work at. 

Strategies:

  • You can opt for noise-canceling headphones, especially in environments with a cacophony of sounds.
  • Make seating arrangements so that you will be facing away from your exposure to potentially distracting visual stimuli.
  • Adjust lighting conditions by dimming overly bright lights or opting for soft, ambient lighting that soothes the eyes.

Scheduled Breaks

But it’s not always that you can just rearrange furniture on a whim, so if you can’t fight it, leave it. Taking breaks from your surroundings, especially if they’re stimulating, can give your brain exactly the time and pace it needs to recharge and to help with focus. 

Strategies:

  • Consider checking out the Pomodoro technique, which champions concentrated work intervals (usually spanning 25 minutes) punctuated by a brief 5-minute respite. 
  • Do short walks and stretches every once in a while - in combination with Pomodoro Technique. Shaking things up and changing your rhythm can help you return to work with reinvigorated focus. It may sound simple and silly, but it does work!

Grounding Techniques

In moments of gluttony for the senses, grounding exercises are a beacon, helping you anchor to the present and diverting attention from overpowering stimuli to the present moment.

Strategies:

  • The "5-4-3-2-1" technique requires you to identify five things within your sight: four you can physically touch, three you can discern audibly, two you can smell, and one you can taste. It’s kind of like a recalibration for your senses.
  • You can also do deep breathing exercises or a short meditative break to ground yourself in now. Long-term meditation is also a great way to master the rhythm of “acknowledging and letting go.” You don’t have to zone out or try to dismiss sensory stimuli - that will only make you focus on them more. Instead, try practicing acknowledging their presence and then gently letting them go…unless it’s fish in a microwave. That won’t work, even if you’re a guru. 

Sensory Tools

To the surprise of most, fidget spinners have practical uses. Fidgets, or sensory tools, are tactile gizmos and objects designed to channel surplus energy, providing a much-needed outlet during episodes of overstimulation.

Strategies:

  • Utilizing fidget toys or stress-relief balls to engage the hands and divert attention.
  • Embracing weighted blankets or vests offers a comforting, enveloping sensation to ground yourself. If only you could carry one everywhere…

Time Management and Task Prioritization

A structured approach to organizing and managing tasks can significantly reduce exposure to situations that trigger sensory overload.

Strategies:

  • Drafting detailed to-do lists and methodically prioritizing tasks, breaking them into smaller, digestible segments.
  • Allocating specific time slots for more demanding tasks, ideally during heightened alertness and focus, such as the early morning hours.

Seeking Quiet Zones


Recognizing and gravitating towards calmer or less sensory-intense environments during moments of overwhelm can be a lifesaver.

Strategies:

  • In a social gathering or event, seeking out a more subdued room or an outdoor space can offer a momentary escape.
  • Designing a "quiet corner" in your home, equipped with gentle lighting and comforting elements, is perfect for sensory saturation.

Professional Support

On occasions, the expertise of a therapist or counselor, especially one well-versed in ADHD, can be invaluable, offering specialized strategies and coping mechanisms.
Strategies:

  • Participating in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions to hone and refine coping techniques.
  • Enrolling in ADHD-centric support groups fosters a space to exchange stories and glean insights from others navigating similar terrains.

[Numo App: Strength in Numbers] Numo: Seeking the Help of ADHD Fellowship

As I’ve mentioned a few times, ADHD is a bit of a mercurial condition, as its science is still developing. 

So it’s quite often that we have to turn to our collective lived experiences for advice and counsel because of things that we definitely know to be ADHD you can’t read or learn about. 

For example, when discussing the body doubling technique for ADHD, I found no meaningful scholarly source about using this technique in an ADHD setting. Yet, browsing Reddit and other social media gave me plenty of examples of how ADHDers use it to a great effect. 

Sure, it might all just be a placebo or nonsense, but no harm, no foul, eh?

The point I’m making here is sometimes the best help you can get will be the shoulder of another ADHDer, which is why we have created Numo in the first place. 

At its core are our squads and tribes. Safe spaces where you can connect and chat with fellow ADHDers and learn about many things, overstimulation coping strategies included! 

But we also wanted it to be more than just that and to create an ultimate ADHD app, so it’s packed with many other useful features such as:

  • ADHD Planner: Its task management made fun. Instead of being a boring planner, you will forget about soon before long, you can receive points and levels for each completed task. 
  • Noise Generator: Evidence suggests that static noise can help ADHDers relax and stay focused, depending on the frequency and the occasion. And, maybe an orderly noise is just what you will need to tune out all the other stimuli in the wild. 
  • Knowledge Library: We also frequently share tips, strategies, and coping mechanisms you can pick up in a bite-sized format. We promise the advice we share there is way shorter than these articles. 😉 

So, if you reckon this sounds like a good deal, we would be happy to have you. Say hi! 🤗

[Conclusion] Conclusion

So, what have we learned today?

  • Overstimulation is when your senses become overwhelmed by the density of visual, auditory, and olfactory (this means smelly) information you receive. 
  • Overstimulation may feel like fatigue, restlessness, frustration, anger, and more
  • While everyone can experience overstimulation, ADHDers are more prone to it.
  • ADHDers are more likely to become overwhelmed because of how our brains are wired. We have trouble tuning out background distractions, instead taking them all in and becoming fatigued. 
  • ADHD and overstimulation have a circular relationship as ADHD makes it easier to become overstimulated, but also because overstimulation can worsen ADHD symptoms. 
  • The best way to combat overstimulation is by avoiding or minimizing its risks. This includes knowing your limits to stimulation and creating safe “quiet” zones where you can reduce stimuli to a minimum. 
  • Coping Mechanisms and Strategies: Exploring diverse techniques, from environment customization to professional support, that can help manage and mitigate overstimulation.

All in all, while it may sound like a big doozie, it’s nothing to worry about it, if you know what to expect. By recognizing your limits, knowing how to zone out the worst offenders, and by practicing grounding techniques, you can master overstimulation in no time!

Sources
1 Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome - PMC (nih.gov)
2 Atypical sensory profiles as core features of adult ADHD, irrespective of autistic symptoms - ScienceDirect

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