Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
May 6, 2023

What Triggers Overstimulation in ADHD? How to Cope With Feeling Overwhelmed

Overstimulation occurs when the level of stimulation in your environment overwhelms your brain’s capacity to cope.

ADHD and overstimulation go hand in hand, because ADHD brains take in and process more sensory input than neurotypical brains. The result is a brain that’s constantly whirring and taking in information it deems important– which can lead to stress, fatigue, irritability, and anxiety.

In my practice, I work with clients who have ADHD and want to know what causes ADHD overstimulation– and how to cope with it. Shame can sometimes accompany having an ADHD brain, because people with ADHD are taught from a young age that their brains are somehow wrong or lesser than. Learning more about ADHD and common occurances like overstimulation can normalize your experiences and make you feel less alone and less “broken.”

What triggers overstimulation in ADHD

What Causes ADHD Overstimulation?

Overstimulation is a result of too much sensory input in your brain causing feelings of overwhelm. It can happen anywhere – at work, in social settings, at home, while running errands, etc.

If you have ADHD, you’re probably familiar with what it feels like. Your environment just feels like too much – too noisy, too crowded, too bright – and you become distressed, anxious, and try to escape as quickly as possible. 

This sense of overstimulation can be frustrating because it can seem like you’re the only person who experiences it. It can feel like everyone else is walking around the crowded grocery store doing just fine, and you’re in a panic. 

The reason for your overstimulation in these instances is because of differences in sensory processing. Your brain is busy taking in way more sensory input than the people around you with neurotypical brains. 

People with neurotypical brains are more able to focus on what they need when they’re out at the grocery store – apples, bread, dog food – and filter out everything else.

Your ADHD brain is trying to pay attention to the things you need – apples, bread, dog food – while also focusing on the rest of your environment. The crush of other shoppers, the background music, the people chatting loudly in the aisle next to you, the glare of the fluorescent lighting, the scrape of all the carts on the floor, that deadline you’re running behind on. All of that adds up to an overstimulated brain.

While people with ADHD are often called out for not paying attention, the opposite is actually true. Yes, it can be difficult to focus on the task or situation at hand when you have ADHD. But the reality is that your brain is so busy paying attention to everything in your environment that it struggles to filter out unimportant details. It turns out that what triggers overstimulation in ADHD is not inattention, but rather too much attention. 

Symptoms of ADHD and Overstimulation

When you’re overstimulated, it usually feels like a general sense of overwhelm. 

Here are some potential symptoms of overstimulation:

  • Desire to escape the situation and go somewhere calmer or quieter
  • Irritability
  • Sudden fatigue
  • Inability to focus
  • Restlessness, stress, or anxiety about your surroundings
  • Feeling like your clothing has become too tight, itchy, or uncomfortable

Overstimulation can be specific to one sense, such as hearing. Other times it’s a combination of overstimulation to many senses at once.

What causes ADHD overstimulation

How to Cope With ADHD and Overstimulation

While overstimulation is part of ADHD brains, there are ways to cope with and manage it to an extent. 

A good first step is to begin an awareness practice around what types of stimuli lead to overwhelm in you. Notice what happens in your body when you become overstimulated, and take note of what caused it. Did you go to a party with a bunch of people and lights and background noise, and after half an hour are totally overstimulated? Did you run too many errands in the same day and then crashed afterward? 

Developing awareness for your own overstimulation threshold is a key way to avoid becoming overwhelmed. When you know what causes your ADHD overstimulation ahead of time, you can take action. You may choose to opt out of certain activities if you are already feeling tired, or you can plan for breaks during them. You can pace your activities and events out more slowly throughout your schedule to avoid doing everything all at once. 

Another way to manage overstimulation is to take steps to protect your own senses. For example, if you have to go to the airport but know it’s overstimulating to you, bring earbuds to play soothing music or white noise while you’re there. Wear comfortable clothing that you know won’t start to bother you. Pack snacks you know you like. Bring an eye mask and sit in a quiet corner. Whatever you can do to keep your nervous system grounded will help keep overstimulation at bay. 

Another tip is to reduce things you can control that contribute to overstimulation, such as social media. Too much social media use can increase overstimulation while also ramping up stress, body image issues, perfectionism, and anxiety. Take social media breaks when you can, and notice whether you feel calmer and more grounded during those periods of time. 

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Cope With Your ADHD and Overstimulation

You don’t have to deal with your ADHD and overstimulation by yourself. If you want support figuring out ways to navigate it, I’m here to help.

Together, we’ll help you understand what triggers overstimulation in ADHD for you, learn how to minimize your triggers, and set goals to overcome your challenges.

You’ll learn effective strategies to reduce your levels of overstimulation. We’ll practice soothing behaviors that help you cope when you do end up feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed. And you’ll feel empowered knowing you’re learning how to make peace with your nervous system. 

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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