Too many people have an obvious misunderstanding of what ADHD really looks like and how it impacts those of us with it. The HSP ADHD discussion really shows that misunderstanding p in a big way. Here’s a hint: both HSPs and ADHDers will often ask themselves before learning more, “Why am I so sensitive?!”
In case you are unfamiliar, the Highly Sensitive Person is a term coined by researcher Dr. Elaine Aron to describe approximately 20% of the population who have a heightened sensitivity to subtle changes in their environment , their own experience, and that of other people. It shares a fair amount of overlap with the symptoms of ADHD.
Dr. Aron was asked about the similarities between the HSP trait and ADHD. I appreciated her transparency in not being an ADHD expert, especially since her answer misrepresented ADHD and what it really looks like in the wild. Unfortunately, many therapists, psychiatrists and other doctors seem to have that same misunderstanding. I know I’ve encountered them; I’m sure you have too.
She said that she thought HSP and ADHD were exact opposites. They aren’t.
Let me explain.
Here are some HSP ADHD similarities and differences.
As you read this, keep these two things in mind:
- Not every HSP person has all of these HSP traits just like not every ADHDer has all of these ADHD traits.
- If it has a star, there’s a little more explanation warranted.
HIghly Sensitive Person Traits
|▶Sensitive to pain|
▶ Sensitive to caffeine
▶ Deeply affected by delicate art, tastes, music, etc…
▶ Easily started
▶ Tend to just “know” why people are uncomfortable in an environment
▶ It’s unpleasant when a lot is going on around them
▶ Avoids violence in the media
▶ Change shakes them up
▶ They crave low stimulation
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Traits (Inattentive and Hyperactive types)
| Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Traits (Inattentive and hyperactive types)|
▶ Difficulty paying attention
▶ Difficulty with prioritizing and time management
▶ Thrive on change
▶ May be fidgety
▶ Craves the right amount and type of stimulation*
BOTH: ADHD HSP Common Traits
|▶ Higher Empathy|
▶ More perceptive
▶ Feel things very deeply
▶ Can get highly overwhelmed by emotion*
▶ Sensations can be very overwhelming*
▶ Other people’s moods deeply affect them*
▶ They have a rich inner life*
▶ Withdraw when overwhelmed*
▶ Aware of subtleties in environment*
▶ Highly creative
▶ Rattled by a lot to do in a short amount of time
▶ Often people pleasers and perfectionists*
▶ Irritated by too many requests at one time
▶ Deeply value Justice
▶ More sensitive to criticism*
▶ High emphasis on avoiding overwhelming/upsetting situations
Do you find it as interesting as I do that the both list is so much longer than either of the other two? Granted, this is not a comprehensive list on either Highly Sensitive Person problems or traits, nor the ADHD life, but it is a pretty thorough overview so my statement stands.
Let’s go over a few of the crossovers in more detail, especially since this is where the breakdown in understanding about ADHD occurs.
Both HSPs and ADHDers can get easily overwhelmed by emotion, rejection, and criticism.
If you know much about the HSP trait, you’ll know this is one of the first things that jump out at you. It’s why they often wonder “why am I so sensitive” and why they’ve been told most of their life that they are overly sensitive. The fact that it’s an HSP trait isn’t a surprise.
That it’s also an ADHD thing, IS a surprise to many, however. It’s called ADHD Hypersensitivity or Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. Researchers argue that mood disregulation is a core part of ADHD (so why it doesn’t show up in the diagnostic criteria frustrates the hell out of me). It’s also why ADHD is often misdiagnosed for a mood disorder or a personality disorder (also according to researchers).
Because the brain connectivity networks that carry information (including emotion information) don’t work well for people with ADHD and they have working memory challenges, a momentary emotion can flood the brain and crowd out any other functions that could help moderate that emotion.
That leads to heighted sensitivity which looks very similar to that same Highly Sensitive Person problem. It’s one of the more challenging parts for both HSPs and ADHDers.
Both HSPs and ADHDers are Aware of Subtle Changes in the Environment
It’s a classic misnomer that people with ADHD don’t pay attention. We DO–just often not to the things that we’re “supposed” to be paying attention to. When I first got diagnosed, my doctor told me that he believed ADHD was named incorrectly. Rather than Attention DEFICIT, he believes it should be called Attention DYSREGULATION. We pay attention, it’s just hard to control what we pay attention to.
That being said, ADHD is thought to have been an evolutionary advantage back in the days of trying to survive and no end up as food for another animal. They are the ones who would hear the random sound of a snapping twig while the others where doing their own thing and launch into defense. We are distracted by anything and everything but when it’s go time, no one can focus like we can. It’s that hyperfocus thing.
So the fact that we get distracted by other noises in the environment or strange movements and objects around us means that we notice things others miss. Ironically, everything about the evolutionary advantage of ADHD is also said about the HSP trait. Interesting, isn’t it?
Both HSPs and ADHDers tend to be consciencous. Even when it doesn’t look like it.
Describing ADHDers as consciencious might shock the people in our lives who get frustrated by our forgetfulness or the consequences of our disorganization or time management challenges. All three of those challenges make us look like we don’t care and we often get accused of not caring because of them. It’s not true though. Just like HSP is tied to empathy, ADHD and empathy go hand in hand.
ADHDers suffer from executive functioning challenges meaning things that other people find “innate” or “easy” are a constant battle for us.
The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.
So if you have ADHD, you have executive function impairement meaning this set of processes that help you manage yourself and the things you need to function in life (ie planning, organization, working memory, self and emotion regulation, etc…) do not function as well as other people’s. There’s an impairment there that leads to chronically being late, forgetting important things, and not following through when we need to. It makes people feel like we don’t care enough about them because “if you cared you would have remembered.”
It looks even worse to others in our life when we factor in the interest based nervous system that can suddenly sharpen our focus on something we really really like. “So you were able to focus for an entire hour on that painting you did but you can’t remember to pay the bills?” “You can focus on video games for hours but not even hear the question I asked you?” They may have trouble believing that we have both ADHD and Empathy or ADHD and still care very deeply.
This is the nature of ADHD. It’s not something we have chosen or have the power to turn off or on. If it had to do with what was important to us, we’d definitely be paying the bills because no one wants to be homeless.
Regardless of how it looks, on the inside ADHDers are often incredibly consciencous. We want to do the right thing. We’re empathic and caring of other people’s struggles (especially because we’ve been through enough shaming over our own challenges) and we care each and every time we accidentally let someone down. We tend to care about justice to an intense degree. ADHD and Empathy go hand in hand.
Even though it may not look like it on the outside, this is an HSP ADHD shared trait.
Both MAY have Rich Inner Lives.
With ADHD, this can be hit or miss. We may have the personality that has difficulty entertaining themselves with their thougths. We may have the personality that can be lost in thought for hours. I once drove 3.5 hours in the car before realizing that I had been driving in complete silence. I was caught up in thought. My theory is that this is more common the higher you are on the inattentive scale. Inattentive ADHD is often referred to as the day dreamer for a reason.
This is another misnomer for ADHD that we’re just bored all the time and can’t do anything internal without running and jumping and bouncing off the walls. That’s true for SOME of us, but not all. The truth is, if you’ve met one ADHDer…You’ve met ONE ADHDer. Not all of us.
A difference in Stimulation
HSPs tend to crave low stimulation. When there’s too much going on in their environment, they often find themselves needing to withdraw into a quiet dark room to recooperate. ADHDers are a bit different here. We don’t want understimulation nor overstimulation–another area we’re a bit misunderstood.
We ADHDers need the right TYPE and AMOUNT of stimulation and the specifics of that vary for each and every one of us. Some of us (ahem, me) can’t focus if there is even the tiniest noise in my environment (though, thankfully medication has improved this). Others can’t focus with silence and have to have a tv or music playing in the background. We can definitely be overstimulated but the remedy is not always a quiet dark room. Sometimes it’s exercise, sometimes it’s just getting away from that one environment and finding one that fits our stimulation needs better.
Then there are the HSP ADHD Unicorns.
That is, those of us who are both. Yes, ADHD and being an HSP can absolutely coexist. The combination can be wonderful and confusing all at the same time and probably looks very different for each of us.
Double the empathy can be a wonderful gift and a horrible curse. HSP and ADHD are both prone to anxiety and being overly empathetic can definitely provoke said anxious dementor. Both are prone to sensitivity with percieved rejection or criticism. Double the dose is a nightmare.
When change BOTH excites you and scares the hell out of you it can be an incredibly confusing experience. Or when you startle easily but you are also distracted by something else, the potential reaction from practical jokes can make you a great target for practice.
Did I mention sensory overwhelm is common to both HSP and ADHD? Especially since sensory processing disorder is frequently diagnosed with ADHD. All the sounds. All the smells. All the fabrics and tastes and textures. Oh my lord.
But being more empathic, sensitive to your surrounds and the people around you can also mean that you have greater ability to help others. Greater ability to connect with others. A double dose of creativity and value for justice along with the ADHD hyperfocus potential can make you a powerhouse if you harness it.
Having both is a balancing game. I love a party or large event…for a little while. The ADHD part of me that loves all the comotion and people watching can really dig a big event. But after an hour or two, the HSP in me is completely overwhelmed and drained and needs to be alone and sleep for the rest of the day. Learning to balance the two is a challenge. If I time it right, I can avoid the overwhelm. If I miscalculate, I’m out of commission for a little while to recover.
In other words, it’s not always either, or. Sometimes it’s an HSP ADHD thing.
So if you’ve ever wondered why am I so sensitive, look at HSP, ADHD, or BOTH!
It’s an ADHD thing. It’s an HSP thing. It’s and HSP ADHD thing. Seriously.
These two are not nearly as different as people think. And showing how much they have in common can really help people have a better understanding of what ADHD REALLY looks like. I’ve often said that many therapistis and psychiatristis have a basic understanding of ADHD but need this kind of nuanced understanding to really be effective with us.
The overlap between ADHD and HSP covers some of that nuanced view. ADHD is waaaaaaayyy more than just a school performance issue.
Are you an ADHDer? An HSP? Perhaps an HSP ADHD Unicorn like me?
Let me know!
PS: Wanna know more about HSPs or work through some of the hypersensitivity from being an HSP or an ADHDer? Here are a few of my absolute favorite workbooks:
⬆Those are affiliate links, btw. If you buy one of those, Amazon pays me a small commission but it doesn’t cost you anything extra. I only sell things I find helpful and I’ve used all three of these workbooks myself. If you buy one, I hope you love it like I do.