The Neuroscience Behind ADHD
I know all about ADHD. You know all about ADHD. We all know ALL about ADHD. Sort of. Let’s be honest. Since Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (aka ADHD or ADD) is still not well understood by neuroscience, what you and I ‘know’ about ADHD in adults probably contains some erroneous assumptions, outdated clichés, and a few gaps. Possibly some major gaps.
I mean, it was over a decade after I was diagnosed that I really started to confront the fact that my own particular combo of ADHD issues included being ‘overly’ sensitive. (Blush!)
Hypersensitivity, Highly Sensitive or Overly Sensitive
Overly sensitive emotionally? Okay. Fair enough. (Is ‘Drama King’ a thing? If so, I’ve had a long and prosperous reign on that throne.) But when we were making our video on Emotional Sensitivity, coaches, doctors, and researchers also talked about physical sensitivities. That’s right, physical sensitivities. As in, your five senses. Which, in no particular order, are Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell, and uh… Feeling? No, that’s Touch… Oh, right, Taste. I eat so fast taste isn’t a big one for me.
While it was a bit of an eye-opener to learn that ‘Dis-regulated Emotions’ could be a challenge for me, ‘Sensory Overload’ wasn’t even on my radar. Which is a bit ironic, since the subject had come up in our documentary ADD & Loving It?! and it filled a whole chapter in our book, ADD Stole My Car Keys. Why hadn’t I noticed?
Distractibility, Procrastination, Overwhelm
One reason I hadn’t noticed I was overly sensitive to physical stuff? I was born this way! It is my normal. I just assumed life was dramatic and tumultuous for everyone. But there’s another reason… Basically, I was too busy dealing with my other ADHD issues: Distractibility, procrastination, over-committing, losing things, failing to finish tasks. (The task could be writing a 30 page television script or simply loading the dishwasher.)
But now the issue of Overwhelm, Over-sensitivity, and Emotionality seem to be hot topics. Dr. Thomas Brown’s great book Smart But Stuck, and Terry Matlen’s latest, Queens of Distraction delve into the subject. And more and more of the experts we interview want to talk about it. And to my surprise, a lot of what they are saying resonates with me.
ADHD Brain vs ‘Regular’ Brain
It’s not that I’m weird. It’s how I’m wired. Here are four esoteric examples of the ways ‘Overly Sensitive to Physical Stimuli’ can show up in daily life:
1. I can hear a conversation three tables away… and tune out the one at my table.
How many adults with ADHD have gone to an audiologist convinced they are losing their hearing from all those Black Sabbath concerts they went to, and are told they have perfect hearing?
Turns out, struggling to filter out noisy environments so you can follow a conversation may not be a problem with your ear drums but how your brain processes and filters sounds. ADHD people can have problems listening in noisy environments.
As Terry Matlen, author of Queens of Distraction, told us, when she is trying to converse with one person, “Even if there’s two other people in the room, I cannot filter out the noise from the other conversation.”
For those around us, figuring this stuff out can get complicated. For example, when someone has music or a TV running somewhere in the background, I cannot tune it out. And I get more agitated by the second. And yet… if I put on music or a program that I like, one that I choose, it helps me focus.
2. Someone says boo. We hear BOOOOO!!!
That’s a classic oversensitivity to emotions. Me? I don’t watch scary movies. I know, “It’s just a movie.” I know you think it’s fun to be spooked, but I’ll be seeing that alien popping up and snarling until the day I die. (And I almost died when I saw it the first time!)
3. I hate the beach!
This is an example of a physical sensitivity. And I’m not talking sand finding its way into some sensitive crevice. For me, just having wet sand on my feet or calf feels like I’m covered in ants—thousands of ants!—each one with a bit of sandpaper.
So when I’m on the beach, I’m on a towel. Or sitting in a beach chair. Or better still in a chair by the pool. Or better still, inside, on the couch, reading.
4. Tag, you’re IT!
Yes, I know that little Levis label is fabric. I am aware that it is not a hot piece of jagged aluminum. But I’m telling you, to me, it feels like it. For others it’s certain fabrics. Or high necklines. Neck ties.
This is also why we buy 10 pairs of things that feel good, and don’t know why. If you’re not able to figure out, “I only wear flannel pajamas because everything else drives me nuts,” you learn to come up with reasons. A University of Memphis study found that adults with ADHD scored higher on 11 standard tests for creativity when compared to their peers. So when we can’t explain what’s going on… we get creative.
This is another aspect of ADHD: We may not be particularly in tune with our emotions and feelings. When life is a constant distraction, racing from idea to idea, there’s no pause to consider and reflect and take stock. (Which is why Mindful Meditation can be so powerful for ADHD adults.)
Knowledge Is King!
In the past, my method of dealing with these issues was simple. I religiously avoided situations where they were a problem, often unconsciously. That’s not uncommon: One way adults with ADHD cope with their challenges is to simply avoid triggering them. “I don’t do parties.” “I only wear cotton.” “I work at home where it’s quiet.”
If someone suggested a trip to the beach, I’d have a vague, undistinguished feeling of “Ugh.” Then I’d find reasons that made sense to others, and to me. “The beach is boring.” Or, “I worry about skin cancer.” (Both of which are true… up to a point.) But saying, “The very idea of touching sand drives me crazy,” sounds, well, crazy. Even to me.
There were foods I avoided because they were like fingernails or a chalkboard. Or in this case, olives on my tongue. “Not really what I enjoy,” was my way of saying, “Yuck! Yuck! Yuck!” followed by severe shuddering.
Now that I know it’s an issue’, I’m noticing more and more examples. I know a lot of guys don’t like wearing neckties, but I feel like I’m being choked. And tags on clothes? When we ordered women’s ADHD T-shirts for our shop, we found ones that come without labels. Perfect!
Here’s the moral of the story, for me at least… If you have ADHD and hadn’t considered this realm of issues, you may be thinking, “OMG! This is why everyone calls me a Drama Queen! This is why I can’t stand scary movies. And why a sad news story can ruin my week. Well, not my whole week. But for a few minutes I’m a mess. Then I watch a good news story and I’m weeping with joy, shouting, ‘What a wonderful world!’ And then that passes and I go have ice cream.”
The key takeaway is… It’s good to notice. Because then you can do something about it.
And on that note… Ice cream!