Sensory Overload: ADHD And Its Causes

Published 12/02/2020

For the past few decades, psychologists and psychiatrists – as well as the whole of society – have seen an uptick in the number of people with ADHD. At the same time, the world has become a place of more and more sensory input, which makes everyone more susceptible to sensory overload. But are these two things related? Recent research suggests that sensory overload could be one of the major causes of ADHD.

Here, you’ll learn about sensory overload, ADHD, and its symptoms, and how these two conditions might fit together. You’ll also see some treatment options for ADHD that target the sensory overload causes of the issue.

What Is Sensory Overload?

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While sensory overload is often associate with ADHD, it is actually a condition that is experienced in its own right. Basically, sensory overload refers to any time when a person is receiving excessive amounts of input from their five senses. This input is considered excessive because it is more than the person’s brain is able to process or sort through at a given time.

Sensory overload’s symptoms vary according to the person who is experienced and the environment in which they’re being experienced, so there is no definitive list of the symptoms of sensory overload. However, some of the most common symptoms of sensory overload include difficulty focusing since there is a lot of competing input from the environment, being extremely or unusually irritable, feeling restless or uncomfortable, feeling wound up or energetic for no reason, wanting to cover your ears or eyes in the presence of overwhelming input, stress, anxiety, unexplained fear, and/or a sharper sensitivity to input from your five senses. Again, these symptoms are just some examples, and the level of intensity of the symptoms usually vary from person to person.

There are many causes of sensory overload, although the causes are often different for different people who experience sensory overload. The underlying cause of sensory overload, though, is too much sensory input competing for limited processing power in your brain. Your brain, upon realizing that it’s impossible to process all of the sensory input, starts to shut down as a way of dealing with the situation. It’s the basic fight or flight response, and in the case of sensory overload, the brain usually chooses flight. That’s why the brain, and often the body as well, retreats from the stimuli or input that are causing the sensory overload. In fact, in this situation, the brain also sends signals through the nervous system to tell your body to put physical space between yourself and the sensory input that is triggering the sensory overload.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is the shorthand for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Basically, someone with ADHD is a person who has difficulty when it comes to responding to sensory input from their environment because their brain cannot properly collect and organize all of the sensory information that they’re receiving. Or, what sensory information is being received is taking a lot of time and energy to process because the brain isn’t doing it in an efficient or effective way. A lot of people might describe a person with ADHD as “easily distracted.”

The most widespread symptoms of ADHD are:

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Not being able to sit still, especially if the environment is quiet and calm

  • Constant or near-constant fidgeting or movement
  • Excessive physical movement
  • Not being able to wait for a turn, wait in a line, or be patient when instructed
  • Acting rashly or impulsively
  • Talking too much in settings where it isn’t appropriate
  • Not being able to concentrate on a task, especially when they’re asked to concentrate on one task at a time
  • Not being able to finish a project before “getting bored” and starting a new one
  • Interrupting others’ conversations, as if they cannot wait to share their piece.

If you see just a couple of these symptoms, then you probably don’t have to worry about ADHD. However, if you or someone you know is presenting several of the symptoms from this list, you might want to, you can check out this ADHD quiz. It will guide you through a series of questions that will point out some of the most popular symptoms of ADHD and help you decide if you should talk to a mental health professional about ADHD.

What Causes ADHD?

Even though mental health professionals have been studying ADHD over the course of a few decades, they still haven’t found the exact cause of the condition. However, they have identified a strong link between sensory overload and ADHD.

When people with ADHD struggle to pay attention to one task or to stay still in a calm and quiet environment, it could be because their brain is in fight or flight mode. The brain enters this mode as a result of being overstimulated with too much sensory input.

Similarly, researchers have also found that under-stimulation can also trigger the onset of ADHD. In this case, the brain struggles to find the motivation to make sense of sensory input. Instead, the brain allows it all to just “wash over” the person, causing them to seem disengaged and distracted by those around them. In such cases, many other symptoms of ADHD could also be present. This type of under-stimulation can be caused or exacerbated by other mental health issues, especially depression.

As you can see, there are many different causes for ADHD, but some of the most prevalent theories about the main cause of ADHD revolve around sensory overload and/or under-stimulation. In both of these cases, the brain has difficulty in receiving, processing, and reacting to sensory input. In that situation, the brain often goes into fight or flight mode, which leads to the presentation of many of the symptoms of ADHD.

How Is ADHD Treated?

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ADHD has a lot of different treatment options. Some of the most common treatments for ADHD include exercise and physical activity and specific brain and body exercises for bringing the symptoms under control.On the one hand, physical exercise throughout the day can help a person to manage their ADHD. Research has shown time and time again that exercise has a positive effect when it comes to brain function and reaction to sensory input for people with ADHD. This means that getting exercise, and exercising intentionally throughout the day, can help people with ADHD win back some of their ability to focus throughout their workday.

Many people with ADHD also report that exercising is a great way to “burn off extra energy,” as they call it. This is likely due to the hyperactivity element of ADHD: many people with ADHD feel like they have excessive energy that needs to be expended somehow. Often, this energy manifests as fidgeting, especially if they find themselves in a setting where they’re expected to stay quiet and still. Exercising throughout the day – and exercising intentionally, at that – can help reduce this fidgety energy and help people with ADHD to focus more consistently on their work or tasks throughout the day.

There are also specific activities geared towards both the mind and body that can help with reducing and managing the symptoms of ADHD. In fact, multiple recent studies have shown the efficacy of such activities for helping people with ADHD. One popular example is the mindfulness exercises. With these exercises, the person with ADHD does a series of short, meditative practices that help them to re-center and calm both their body and their mind. In addition to practicing mindfulness, using brain gym activitieshas also been shown to be effective in treating ADHD. Brain gym activities also require the person to slow down and take stock of their mind and body. They’re also encouraged to take stock of how they’re doing in terms of focus and attention. By taking this step back to assess, they can give their brain a bit of time and space to get into a better place to process sensory input. This leads to a chain reaction that ultimately ends up with the reduction of ADHD symptoms and better focus throughout the day.

Conclusion

ADHD is a condition that recent research suggests stems from sensory overload and/or under-stimulation of the brain. There are several symptoms of ADHD, and they can be seen differently from person to person. This is because the symptoms are largely dependent on a person’s tolerance to sensory overload and excessive sensory input. Sensory overload and the brain processes that deal with sensory input are major players in the cause of ADHD, although the specific and exact causes of ADHD haven’t been determined yet. ADHD can be treated and managed with a variety of methods, including exercise and physical activity, as well as with mental exercises such as brain gym and practicing mindfulness.