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AD/HD and Hypersensitivities: The Princess and the Pea Syndrome

Contributed by: Terry Matlen, ACSW and Mary Jane Johnson, PCC, ACT

 

It’s 12:30 a.m and you force yourself off the computer and head for bed. Your alarm will go off in exactly 6 hours so you know you’ve got to get some good solid rest.

As you trudge into the bathroom to wash up, you begin to get more awake rather than sleepy. The tang of the toothpaste in your mouth and the roughness of the bristles jar your oral senses. As you search for your softest, most comfy pajamas, you realize you’ve left them in the washing machine and have nothing remotely as pleasant to sleep in. So you grab your 2nd favorite pair of PJs. But they just don’t feel right. The tag on the collar starts to make your skin itch and ache at the same time. You begin to scratch. And scratch.

12:45 a.m and you collapse into bed. But you forgot to stretch out the sheets tautly and now you feel ridges of fabric ripping across your back, legs and arms. You get out of bed to pull them more tightly and jump back in. You are aware of bumps and irregularities and just can’t get comfortable. The room is too hot. Or maybe too cold.

As you try hard to empty your brain of all your thoughts, worries and ruminations, you hear something. It is so loud, you wonder if it’s coming from under your pillow. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. You realize the sound is not coming from the pillow; it’s across the room. Your husband has purchased a new clock! And it’s not digital. The noise pierces through your brain and you want to throw it out the window. Instead, you take it downstairs and put it under the couch. Even placing it in the next room wouldn’t keep that horrible sound from reaching your sensitive ears.

1:15 am and you’re still awake. Some odd odor is bothering you and you can’t identify the source. It becomes stronger and stronger and you suddenly realize that a skunk has entered the house and sprayed the dog. You wake your husband up urgently to search for the poor victim so you can a) bath him immediately or b) throw him out of the house.

But the dog is at your side, not having moved the entire evening. You realize that the skunk is somewhere outside. You’ve been fooled again by your hypersensitive olfactory organ.

You hold your nose, place your arm over your ears and finally…FINALLY fall asleep. At precisely 6:30, your clock radio screams out an old Monkees tune and you wake up in a combined state of fog/fright, not knowing where you are, even though you’ve lived in the same house for 12 years. The awful song is now stuck in your brain and you WANT to take the Last Train To Clarksville. You start your day the same way you have for 35 years: being totally overwhelmed by your own senses. All of which are so finely tuned, that you feel like a piano string so tightly woven, just ready to pop.

Mary Jane Johnson, in her 1998 article titled: “Having ADD And Being Hypersensitive: Is there a Connection?” shares a fascinating exploration of AD/HD nuances that we don’t often read, hear or talk about. We know the common AD/HD symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity. Or inattention, distractibility. But little is mentioned of the AD/HD and hypersensitivity connection. Sari Solden was one of the first to address it in her book “Women with Attention Deficit Disorder”.

But until I began reading about AD/HD- particularly AD/HD in women- I thought I was just an over-sensitive baby who had no backbone, no spine. I thought I was the only one who had an exaggerated startle response to the slightest noise. A sneeze from the back of a restaurant could cause me to jump a foot straight up from my chair. Not fun when you have a glass of red wine in your hand.

Since reading more about AD/HD, and talking to my clients and friends with AD/HD, I’ve come to learn just how common hypersensitivities are in people with AD/HD. I’ve since learned that I’m not crazy for hating:

  • Walking on a sticky floor
  • Synthetic clothes
  • Panty hose
  • Florescent lights
  • Light touch to my skin
  • Perfume
  • Tags in my blouses
  • Getting caught in the rain
  • Malls
  • Amusement rides
  • Nail polish

Mary Jane, in her article, talks about her aversion to clothes with fitted waistbands, various food textures (tomato sauce is fine. Tomatoes are verboten!).

She and I share an aversion to loud TVs, unsolicited touch, large crowds, and more. She lists many more from a survey she took of attendees at the 4th annual ADDA conference that was held in Washington, DC back in 1998. It’s quite interesting to see what adults with AD/HD listed as trouble spots. You can read her survey results at http://www.add.org/articles/hypersen.html

In working with adults with AD/HD, I will usually ask if they are bothered by hypersensitivities and often they are amazed to hear that they are not alone. Perhaps you too are bothered by the things listed above and never realized the connection between that and having AD/HD.

What To Do

First, recognize that this is part of your own neurology. You are simply more sensitive to your environment and your own “skin”. Instead of trying to tough it out, find ways to make your life more comfortable.

Here are some ideas to help you manage your hypersensitivities:

  • If high heels are simply too painful to deal with, dump them for comfortable flats.
  • If the sound level is too high at home or at work, purchase special headphones that block out noise or consider white noise machines.
  • If you have trouble falling asleep because of all the noise bouncing around inside OR outside your head, turn on a small fan or purchase a small bubbling fountain to sooth you to sleep.
  • Try wearing soft, loose fitting clothing, particularly soft knits or cotton.
  • If jewelry is bothersome but you must wear a watch, consider a loose bracelet watch
  • If you become overwhelmed with too much stimuli, take yourself out of the situation. Go to a quiet place, close your eyes and take some deep breaths.
  • After work, take off all clothing and jewelry and put on a loose fitting robe to help calm and center yourself.
  • Have regular massages if you find that enjoyable (personally, I hate them!)
  • Get out in nature as much as possible.

The main point is to stop fighting what you can’t control and find ways to ease you into your days with as much comfort as possible. Remember, you’re not “weird”…it’s just your wiring.

Helpful Resources

“The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron (Broadway-1997)
“Too Loud, Too Bright, To Loud, To Tight: What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world” by Sharon Heller PhD (Harper Collins – 2002)
“Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD” by Terry Matlen, MSW (Specialty Press-2004)
“Women with Attention Deficit Disorder” by Sari Solden, MS, MFCC (Underwood Books-1995)

Copyright Terry Matlen, MSW and Mary Jane Johnson, PCC, ACT

Terry Matlen, MSW., ACSW, is a psychotherapist and consultant specializing in AD/HD in adults. She is the author of “Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD”, director of http://www.addconsults.com and myADDstore.com and serves on the board of directors of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). A popular presenter at local and national conferences, Ms. Matlen has a passion for raising awareness of the special challenges for women with AD/HD and the unique issues parents face when both they and their children have AD/HD.
Mary Jane Johnson, ACT, PCC, is a Professional Certified Coach that works with women who have ADD and are struggling with organization and time management. She was on the founding board of ADDA (1989) and is currently Vice President of Programming.

Posted on March 11, 2005