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What to know about ADHD and sensory overload

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Sensory symptoms and ADHDCausesManaging sensory issuesTreatmentSummary
People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can often experience sensory overload from their environment. Several steps can help prevent this from affecting day-to-day life.
Medically reviewed by Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
Updated on

Sensory overload occurs when a person experiences sensations around them to a heightened extent. This happens when the body’s five senses — touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing — are overstimulated from their environment.

This can lead to reactive behavior, and an inability to manage emotions or actions. This can be common in people with ADHD, as their brains have a different structure than typically functioning brains

For example, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) — which carry signals around your body —are known to be deficient in ADHD brains. This deficiency affects the ADHD brain from perceiving and responding to environmental stimuli.

ADHD sensory issues respond to various treatment methods, such as avoiding common triggers and taking ADHD medications.

What sensory symptoms are present in ADHD?

An image of 2 friends sitting down in a crowded room to depict sensory overload.
Maskot/Getty Images

Generally, sensory issues can make it difficult to filter out certain stimuli in the environment. This may commonly include loud noises or bright lights, but sensory overload shows an association with all five senses.

When this happens, it can trigger the fight-or-flight response, affecting your ability to function and resulting in high levels of stress.

As a result of this, you may experience the following symptoms:

These symptoms may manifest as avoidance or withdrawal in social situations.

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What can cause sensory overload in ADHD?

Sensory overload can result from the ADHD brain being increasingly distracted by stimuli, as well as an inability to modulate behavior as a result of it.

It can affect the body’s five senses in the following ways:

  • Sight: This can include bright, flickering, or strobing lights. The sight of large crowds of people — linked to overstimulation of the other senses — can trigger it. 
  • Smell: This doesn’t only relate to bad smells, but can include any strong odors that may overstimulate the brain, such as perfumes and cleaning products. 
  • Touch: Physical contact, especially if unsolicited or experienced in a crowd of strangers, can cause sensory overload in the ADHD brain. People with ADHD may also be sensitive to touching certain fabrics, which is known as tactile sensitivity.
  • Taste: Picky eating is common in children and adults with ADHD because they often experience “oral defensiveness” — a hypersensitivity to the texture of certain foods in the mouth.
  • Hearing: No one enjoys loud noises, but for people with ADHD, it can cause distraction, severe irritation, and mental stress. This can also include repetitive sounds.

Trying to process too much information simultaneously, such as listening to the radio and reading at the same time, can also prompt sensory overload.

This is why multitasking may sometimes be difficult for people with ADHD and why it might be helpful to avoid boisterous environments when focus is necessary.

How can you manage sensory issues and ADHD? 

Many lifestyle measures can help people cope with the sensory issues associated with ADHD.

It can be helpful to start by working out what triggers typically cause the sensory overload — whether that be a particular fragrance, for example, or headlights of oncoming cars while driving at night.

Once you determine your triggers, you can try listing several ways to consistently avoid them. That could be switching your detergent, or avoiding driving at night. It might be helpful to work with close friends and family and get their support in determining these modifications.

You can try out sensory aids that can help limit the effect of certain triggers. For example, using soft fabrics for those with tactile sensitivity or aromatherapy to combat certain fragrances that trigger overstimulation.

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Treatment options for ADHD

Several ways of addressing the stimuli and preventing the ADHD brain from getting overstimulated include:

  • Relaxation techniques: Mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises can help promote calm and support the brain’s ability to process stimuli.
  • Therapy: Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are an effective treatment for ADHD symptoms, especially anxiety and inattention associated with sensory issues. 
  • Medication: More robust treatment tools for ADHD include both stimulant and nonstimulant medication prescribed by a doctor. Examples of ADHD medication include:

If you need help covering the cost of medications, Optum Perks free Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.


People with ADHD can often experience sensory overload from their environment. This can cause their brain to go into flight-or-flight mode and affect daily functioning.

Several ways to prevent sensory issues from negatively affecting your experience of life include:

  • identifying and avoiding your triggers
  • incorporating practices such as yoga and meditation into your routine
  • CBT
  • ADHD medication

If you find that ADHD is affecting your day-to-day life, consider speaking with a healthcare professional. They can work with you to find the best treatment options.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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