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ADHD Sensory Overload

ADHD Sensory Overload

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects almost 10% of all children in the United States. Many people associate ADHD strictly with hyperactivity, imagining children who can’t keep still and are “difficult to manage.” ADHD is far more complex than that, and it affects people throughout their life. Many adults are living with ADHD, which is an incredibly livable condition with the right set of skills at your disposal. Here at SUN Behavioral Health in Columbus, we understand ADHD and want to help our patients learn the skills and tools necessary to thrive with it. 

As someone who has ADHD, one thing that didn’t initially occur to me was how much ADHD can affect how your body reacts to, and perceives, the stimulation to your senses. Humans are constantly processing and being exposed to many sensory inputs all at once, and our brains are built to handle this. The process that filters through the stimulation, and properly reacts to it, is handled by the frontal cortex, which is an area of the brain that can be impacted by ADHD. This leads to trouble properly processing and filtering through the sensory input we’re constantly experiencing around us. 

What is ADHD Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is when a person is unable to properly filter through the sensory stimulation around them to the point where it becomes too much for them to handle. 

ADHD comes in three different types. All three types impact the processing centers of the brain, which is where sensory inputs are filtered through and managed. In addition, those with ADHD can struggle with focus and retention. This can make the additional, unfiltered stimulation around them more noticeable and distracting, which can potentially lead to a sensory overload.

Symptoms of ADHD Sensory Overload

The experience of sensory overload is usually not very fun, especially for younger children or when someone is unprepared for it. During sensory overload, the brain becomes overwhelmed and reacts as if it were in a life-threatening situation.

Here are some of the symptoms you or a loved one could experience during sensory overload:

  • Anxiety
  • Shakiness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Stress
  • Physical discomfort

Along with these symptoms comes the urge to try and remove yourself from the situation, sometimes by physically leaving or trying to stop the stimulation from being observed. People will often close their eyes, cover their ears, and maybe even curl in on themselves. 

For younger children who aren’t as able to verbalize discomfort, the result of sensory overload could be a tantrum or sudden outburst. Understanding the symptoms of sensory overload can help a parent, teacher, or another adult better recognize what might be happening so they can help the child navigate the overload. 

Common Triggers for Sensory Overload

Thankfully, sensory overload has triggers that can be noted before the overload happens. Knowing you or your loved one’s triggers can help make managing sensory overload much easier.

Each individual is different, so not all triggers for sensory overload are universal, but here are some of the most common triggers:

  • Stress
  • Migraines
  • New or overwhelming situations (i.e. a crowded festival)
  • Sudden changes in the environment around them
  • Extreme sensory input (strong smells, loud noises, bright lights)

Ways to Help Someone Experiencing Sensory Overload

If you’re in a situation where someone might be triggered into a sensory overload, there are ways you can help mitigate the side effects and help someone quickly recover.

Leaving the situation is a very safe option. Removing the person from the source of their overload can help their brain catch up and calm down. 

If you’re in a place where you can’t easily leave, there are other tools that can help. There are ways to block out the most offending stimulants and help reduce the effects of overload. For example, in the situation of a loud room, putting headphones on the person with soothing music (or no sound at all) can help them feel safer. Another good method is providing a  distraction or giving them something else to focus on. This method is the one that works best for me personally. I have a few items at home and on my phone that I can use to help my brain focus when I need it to.

Conditions Associated With Sensory Overload

ADHD is not the only thing that can lead to someone experiencing sensory overload. Those who have autism can also struggle with sensory processing. The effects of anxiety and PTSD can also contribute to sensory overload when you’re already hyper aware of the sights and sounds around you. 

Repeated experiences of sensory overload can also lead to anxiety revolving around new situations, especially in children. It can be scary for a young person who doesn’t understand what’s going on to experience sensory overload. If it happens multiple times in similar situations, they might develop a fear of that type of situation, even when they don’t experience overload during it. 

How to Prevent Sensory Overload

Learning potential triggers is a big part of preventing sensory overload. If a trigger can’t be avoided, bringing tools to help mitigate or even prevent sensory overload is important.

As an adult with ADHD, one of the things that helps me the most is being informed about the situation I’m going into and taking the time to mentally prepare myself. Other times, I bring things along such as headphones or a large, comfy piece of clothing to help lessen the sensory input of noise and touch around me. 

A child might not be able to pinpoint what about a situation affects them the most, so trying out a few things can be helpful. Ask them questions about how things make them feel, from the sensory input itself to what tools seem to work best for them.

Treating and Managing Sensory Overload

Receiving treatment for your ADHD can help you learn new skills and mindsets to better manage your symptoms as they arise. 

Besides blocking out or dulling the sensory input around us, distractions play a big part in ADHD as a whole. Some people with ADHD experience the need to “stim.” Stimming is a method of coping with overwhelming situations – it can be used as a means to dull the senses around us by focusing on one sensation instead. In the case of sensory overload, if you or your loved one has a preferred stimming method, such as tapping on something, using a fidget device, or chewing on gum, this can help alleviate the overwhelming feelings  of sensory overloads by grounding them in a familiar way.

Keeping the tools that work best for you or your loved one can make managing unexpected sensory overload that much easier to navigate.


If you or a loved one is having difficulties managing ADHD, or if you’d like to learn more about the signs of ADHD,  give us a call at 614-706-2786.


FAQs About ADHD Sensory Overload

How does ADHD Sensory Overload affect the brain?

Sensory overload happens when the brain is overwhelmed and unable to process excess stimulation. The brain reacts in panic, sending a person into fight or flight mode.

What are important things to know about ADHD Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is manageable and preventable once you learn more about personal triggers. One of the quickest ways to deal with sensory overload is by leaving the situation. If that isn’t possible, you can make the situation less overwhelming by quieting down or using tools, like headphones or blankets, to block sensory input.

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