If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some clothing or food textures can cause sensory overload.
It’s natural to be sensitive to your environment. Sometimes the music is simply too loud, or someone nearby is wearing a strong perfume.
But if you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), too much of something happening in one place at the same time can cause overstimulation or sensory overload.
When sensory overload happens, your brain is overwhelmed with information from your five senses and can’t process it correctly.
Anyone can experience overstimulation, but it may be heightened if you live with certain conditions, such as ADHD.
Those moments when there’s too much going on in one room — lights flashing, too many people talking, loud music — can overstimulate your senses.
Overstimulation, a type of sensory processing difficulty, occurs when your senses relay more stimuli to the brain than it can handle.
Rather than taking one thing in at a time, your brain can’t prioritize. Some people refer to this as getting “stuck.”
When your brain is stuck, it starts sending out signals that you need to escape your situation.
Feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable is how your body encourages you to get away from stimuli so your brain can get back on track.
Overstimulation typically happens when one or more of your senses is overstimulated.
Symptoms may include:
- sensitivity to certain textures, fabrics, clothing tags, or other things that may rub against the skin
- unable to hear or focus over background sounds
- dislike of certain food flavors or textures
- urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes from too much stimuli
- extreme irritability
- discomfort or restlessness
- stress, fear, or anxiety about your surroundings
The reason the brain gets overwhelmed is unknown, though structural differences may play a role.
Older research suggests that lower levels of white matter in the brain can play a role in children with sensory processing difficulties.
The brain’s white matter is where neuron networks form pathways to send signals. These signals connect the various regions of the brain and allow them to communicate.
Too much stimuli can interrupt this communication and start a chain reaction in your body, sending a message that you need to get away quickly.
Research is still ongoing into the role changes in the brain might play in overstimulation.
One of the classic symptoms of ADHD is trouble paying attention. Overstimulation of your senses can compete with your brain’s attention and cause your senses to become overloaded.
Imagine you’re having dinner with a couple of friends and more guests show up unexpectedly.
You were able to keep up with the conversations when it was just the three of you. But adding more people can quickly become overwhelming.
Then, someone turns on music, and now you may feel pulled away from the conversations going on around you to the music playing.
There are also other reasons you may experience overstimulation.
Trouble with flexible thinking — the process of moving from one thought to another — can also contribute to overstimulation.
A 2019 study suggests overstimulation may be the reason why people living with ADHD avoid certain activities or display specific behaviors.
Overstimulation and hypersensitivity are often used to describe similar symptoms but they aren’t necessarily the same.
Both overstimulation and hypersensitivity can occur physically or emotionally and can involve one or more of your senses.
Hypersensitivity, however, means you may always have a strong reaction to the same sensory stimuli.
If you’re hypersensitive to bright lights, for example, those lights may bother you anytime you encounter them.
With overstimulation, bright lights might cause only your discomfort if you’re in a state of stimuli overwhelm. An example would be attending a concert where lights, sound, and smell are all bombarding you at once.
Those same lights, without any of the other factors, might not bother you another time.
Overstimulation with ADHD isn’t a formal diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean you have to live with feelings of overwhelm or frustration.
You may find you benefit from traditional therapies such as:
- occupational therapy
- sensory integration therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy
There are also ways to manage stimuli that may be helpful.
Your stimuli threshold
You may not be able to control everything about your day, especially if you work outside of your home, but being mindful of what stimuli overstimulates your senses can be helpful.
Once you know what overwhelms you, you can try to avoid those stimuli. For example, if you know large crowds overwhelm you, you may want to avoid overcrowded malls, amusement parks, or large concerts.
If avoiding these situations aren’t an option, try having a plan for managing your symptoms when these moments arise.
If you’re going out with friends, you might want to confirm how many are coming. If extra people show up unexpectedly, you can have a plan to help ease your symptoms.
Other tips can include:
- planning and identifying safe spaces to avoid overstimulation
- during large gatherings, holding conversations in a quieter or more remote space
- making a list before going to a store or mall to prevent becoming overwhelmed
If you’re feeling uncomfortable, it’s OK to leave. Staying in a state of overstimulation may cause you to become irritable or emotional toward the people with you.
Stress and anxiety can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed. When you start to feel the pressure from your day accumulate, having a go-to relaxation method may help.
Some relaxation techniques you can try include:
- deep breathing exercises
- mindfulness techniques, such as yoga or meditation
- regular exercise
- eating a nutritious diet
- good sleep habits
A support network
Sometimes, sensory overstimulation can sneak up on you.
If you have a plan to prevent overstimulation, you can share it with people you trust.
By having someone you trust on the lookout for situations with a variety of stimuli that may overwhelm you, you may be able to leave an event or gathering before feeling overwhelmed.
Too much on your senses at one time can be exhausting, emotionally and physically.
Try to carve out time to calm down, rest, and recover afterward.
If you’re in a public place, try to find a remote place that’s quieter and away from the stimuli. If you’re at home, you can go to a place that calms or soothes you.
If other people are around, you can ask them to give you a moment. When you feel calmer, you can return.
When you live with ADHD, overstimulation can be disruptive and uncomfortable.
You may feel as though your senses are being flooded. You’re not alone.
Overstimulation can happen to anyone, whether they have ADHD or not.
And there are ways to help manage your symptoms when your senses become overloaded.
If your symptoms have significantly impacted or interfered with your daily life, consider talking with a mental health professional.