Saturday, August 9, 2014

Being a Highly Sensitive Person, ADHD and Managing Overwhelm

This morning-- as has happened untold hundreds of times in my life-- I spent about an hour going through the process of "cleaning my desk so I can do my work." It is something I usually feel compelled to do whenever I have an exceptionally large volume of work I feel like I "need to get done," and I have reached a point of feeling so overwhelmed that I become immobilized by the prospect of even figuring out "where to start."

Even writing these words became part of my "cloud of overwhelm," even though I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to convey, when I walked into my office. But it was not as simple as that, because once I'd organized my desk and was ready to write, I ended up feeling like I had to "sub-organize" the section of my desk where I keep my folders with scraps of paper on which I have jotted down "writing ideas." After all, there might be some "HSP-with-ADHD" type ideas in there that I might be able to use.

It briefly reminded me of a remark HSP therapist and expert Ane Axford once made about being an HSP: "Even my to-do list has to-do lists!"

But wait! There's more! While I was organizing dozens of little slips of paper and interpreting my scribbles from the past 60-days or so, my nose started itching. So I needed to find out what that was about. As it turned out, a "wild" hair from my mustache was poking the bottom edge of one nostril. So I trimmed it off. But then I noticed that my beard was starting to look a little too shaggy, and since I was "there" with sharp scissors, I might as well give myself a trim... because "it needed to be done," right?

At 8:38, I arrived at my desk with a cup of coffee and a clear idea for what I wanted to write, today. At 9:52, I am actually typing these words. One hour and fourteen minutes more or less "up in smoke." Ironically, my present life just "effectively" reflected the root "idea" of what I wanted to write about.

I am a Highly Sensitive Person (or HSP, for short) with ADHD.

After some 17 years of "studying the problem," I have become well aware that "being an HSP" and "living with ADHD" are two very different things.

Sure, the two "interact" and "talk to each other" but their relationship is non-causal. That is, being an HSP is not the cause of my ADHD, and living with ADHD did not "make me" an HSP. It's important to keep that very clearly in mind. At the same time, it is also important to understand how the two interact.

As a point of disclosure-- because some people may be reading this blog for the first time-- I will also point out that my "issue" is the "inattentive" form of ADHD. Thus, I can't experientially speak exactly to how HSPs with the more common (or "traditional") "hyperactive-impulsive" variant of ADHD experience life... although I am well familiar with many aspects of it as my wife is an HSP with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD.

OK, so that gets all the technical and disclosure stuff out of the way.

So how does the HSP experience of ADHD differ from the rest of the world's? My experience suggests that we are more likely to experience the effects of "all this stuff we get involved in" as overstimulating, in addition to simply feeling a crazy pinball machine of "stuff."

The HSP part of the equation "speaks" in the sense that it amplifies my experience of my own scatteredness. One of the core precepts of being Highly Sensitive is experiencing life more intensely... and those HSPs afflicted with ADHD consequently experience the effects of the condition more intensely.

I have long struggled to describe how that feels. Most HSPs-- when they struggle to manage overstimulation-- tend to be dealing with "externals:" loud people, bright lights, too many demands, environmental noise. For me, sometimes quite often the source of my overstimulation comes from my own "inner processes," rather than external stimuli. This morning, I found myself being overstimulated by my own thoughts, rather than by what I actually ("functionally") need to get done today (which is relatively manageable).

On a more practical level, HSPs often benefit from striving for relative simplicity in their lives as a way to keep their stimulation levels optimal... when you live with ADHD, one of the typical effects is the ability to "complexify" everything. "Watering the garden," isn't just about turning on the hose, but becomes an odyssey of 47 distractions and "things that ALSO need to be done." In a sense, the ADHD provides a constant stream of "stimulants" that are all but impossible to turn off.

Even as I write this article, I have experienced that "effect." What was intended to be a brief 300-word commentary about being an HSP and getting overstimulated by ADHD-generated thoughts has turned into a full-blown 1500-word article because "I might as well" add this-and-that, and add hither-and-yon to provide a more useful learning experience for readers.

So what can an HSP with ADHD effectively do to manage the swirling thoughts that lead to "self-generated overstimulation?"

On the whole, the only thing I have found even mildly effective is organization. Specifically, I have learned to "live by" a system of "writing myself notes" about everything I need to do, and every thought that's worthy of later exploration.

How does that "work?" When I sit in a cloud of overwhelming swirling thoughts, it helps me to "catch" a thought and put it briefly on paper-- just 10-15 words. It means I can "remove" it from the swirling cloud. Then I do that... maybe 20-30 times, maybe more. All of a sudden... this abstract cloud of ideas and thoughts have become... a gentle breeze. The thoughts are no longer "bouncing around" inside my head... they have been "transferred" to a neat little pile of notes on my desk... and my head is (more or less) clear to focus on what I really need to do. Any thoughts of "OMG! I lost a valuable idea!" are non-existent, because I recorded all those thoughts. They are NOT lost! They are right here.

As a metaphor, think of it as using your computer and "bookmarking" the 47 interesting web sites you found for "later" rather than trying to keep 47 tabs/windows open, all at once. Your swirling thoughts are "the Internet." You can't keep it all open, all the time... and expect to not cave in under the load.

Last but not least, rather than being an elaborate form of procrastination, the "cleaning my desk" process serves a practical function... it "simplifies" the cloud of swirling thoughts inside my head, and reduces it to neat stacks of papers I can actually visualize, and then deal with in a systematic manner. I may just have "given up" an hour and fourteen minutes... but that effectively will "save me" from having a day on which I actually "lose" six hours of work time to feeling overwhelmed and spinning out of control while being utterly non-productive. Continuing the Internet bookmarking metaphor, think of it as sorting your bookmarks and deleting some it turned out weren't that interesting... or you actually no longer actually need.

There's no doubt that being a Highly Sensitive Person and living with ADHD presents unique challenges... aside from using "tools and tricks" to cope, the best thing you can do for yourself is learn as much as you can, and become familiar with how the two interact... in your life.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Excellent article! I wonder if I have ADHD as well? Sigh* I have a list of 7 things that must be done immediately upon coming home. The first task is to get into a comfortable pair of clothes. Sad, isn't it? I do the least desirable task first. Afterwards, "down time officially begins and I run around laughing maniacally at the thought of no responsibility. My family doesn't have to put up with my nonsense for long on non-social days, as I stay locked in my woMancave, watching kdramas, with a dragon guarding the door, only coming up for air, snacks and bathroom breaks. On my social days I'm quite the extrovert.

  2. Great article- thanks! Its not often ive found the twothings discussed in the way they interact. Can totally relate to the note thin...I often have a 'sprinkling' of dozens of post it notes over my whole work area - quite the art installation!.. until they are all dealt with! Thanks for this :)

  3. Love this!!! Hoping to find more of your writings!!!!! I am def both ADHD and hsp. I am on meds for my ADHD but I need to switch because it's not as effective. Wish I could find a natura way to handle it but so far no luck.

  4. Thank you. This is me. This is one of my three daughters (2 of 3) have ADHD, and the middle(now 9) is just like me: both HSP with ADHD. So getting even her alone out the door to school is not only stalled by putting on her shoes but also may be accompanied by an emotional experience that induce questions which are of the variety that 1.) Have no answer or no simple one 2.) And left unanswered, leads her to an often distraught state of being!!!
    We are creative, both learning good systems, like notes, are our saving grace.

  5. Great read, so very happy that I stumbled upon this. This is me pretty much daily. Thank you