October 27, 2020

5 Surprising Truths about Women, ADHD & Sensitivity.


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Every morning, I take a small white pill and I wait.

Within about half an hour, my brain becomes more focused. The parameters of my day appear crisper.

If I asked you to envision someone with ADHD, you probably wouldn’t imagine a frazzled, middle-aged mom who keeps misplacing her debit card (pro tip: it’s always under the front seat of the car). Instead, most of us associate ADHD with energetic, impulsive little boys. We likely think of Ritalin as a drug that college kids buy so they can pull all-nighters.

But for me, and for many girls and women, ADHD looks like hypersensitivity. Like late blooming. A stalling out on fulfilling our deepest dreams. A receipt-strewn car, a cluttered kitchen, an ever-shifting pile of unfinished projects. Blank spaces in our minds where basic facts about topics like history and science should sit.

ADHD isn’t just about hyperactivity or a struggle to focus or a lack of impulse control. It’s an impairment in the area of the brain that controls our executive functioning. Skills like organization, task initiation, working memory, motivation, processing speed, decision making, and emotional regulation can all be negatively impacted by ADHD.

October is ADHD awareness month, and I wanted to share some lesser-known ways that ADHD can show up.

Many people with ADHD are highly sensitive—in all the different interpretations of the word.

Growing up, I heard, “You’re too sensitive” all the time.

My sensitivity manifested in a myriad of ways: in the mornings before school, my mom had to gradually turn the dimmer on the light in the dining room because my eyes were so sensitive to light. Family and friends often felt like they were walking on eggshells around me because I took any form of feedback as criticism. Even my immune system seemed to be on overdrive, as I was allergic to cats, dogs, pollen, mold, and a handful of foods. Going to crowded places like a mall or concert left me overstimulated and foggy-brained.

As a young adult, I felt misunderstood. My sensitivity could be a challenge, but also a gift—I was a loyal friend, a thoughtful daughter, an empathic, creative soul. Now I think—maybe I actually was too sensitive. As in, maybe my brain simply wasn’t capable of filtering out the excess, of letting go of information and stimuli that wasn’t needed.

Many people with ADHD are easily overstimulated. For instance, going to the mall is my version of hell. After I finally stumble out the doors, I’ll need to be treated as if I just ran a marathon: wrap me up in one of those foil blankets, hand me a warm cup of tea, and put me in a quiet, womb-like room. Maybe I’ll even take a pacifier.

My brain, without the help of medication, just doesn’t know how to filter out the extra sensory stimulation. It takes it all in—the noise, the lights, the crowds of people, the thousands of items for sale, competing for attention—and then it short circuits.

Rejection can feel like death.

In the past few years, the topic of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, a term coined by Dr. William Dodson, a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD, has lit the ADHD community on fire. Look, nobody enjoys rejection. But for those who experience RSD, it doesn’t just feel like rejection—it feels like a decisive, negative stamp on our worth as a human being. And rejection-sensitive dysphoria isn’t always even about real rejection—even perceived rejection can trigger an overwhelming sense of failure and unworthiness.

Case in point—in sixth grade, I passed a note to a cute boy in my band class asking him out. I never received a response. I also never asked a boy out again after that—the perceived rejection was far too overwhelming. The lack of response—a perceived rejection—left me feeling crushed, unattractive, and even worthless.

In my younger days, perceived rejection ruined several friendships, too. If I thought someone was mad at me or was paying too much attention to another friend, I’d shut down and ignore them. Any faint whiff of rejection crippled me.

Our emotions can feel like an external event.

I’ve always felt like my emotions were something that happened to me. I experience feelings as an external force like the weather—fast-changing, intense, undeniable, and often stormy. It’s possible that people with ADHD experience their emotions more intensely because we often have trouble with our working memory. Whatever we’re feeling right now feels like the only thing we’ll ever feel, and the emotion can overpower our ability to put our current feelings into perspective.

Many of us are misdiagnosed with other mental health diagnoses.

I’ve been treated for depression and anxiety since I was 20. I’ve tried multiple antidepressants and have spent the majority of the past 25 years in therapy. And yet, ADHD in women is still so misunderstood that not a single one of my highly skilled therapists brought up ADHD. Like me, many women are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and bipolar before realizing that ADHD is at play.

To be fair, I do have anxiety and depression—both are often found to be comorbid with ADHD. But once I started treating my ADHD, I finally understood one of the primary reasons I’d been depressed and anxious for so long. I’d spent decades believing I was smart, but that I just wasn’t trying hard enough to be successful. If I could only be less lazy or spacey, more focused, and disciplined, I could function at a higher level and achieve my goals, from finally finishing writing a book to driving a car that doesn’t look like goats live in it.

Medication can help—and can even be part of confirming a diagnosis.

Even after being positive that I had ADHD, for years, I shied away from trying stimulants as a treatment because I also have anxiety, and I was worried that stimulants would amplify it. When I finally decided I had little to lose by doing a trial of meds, I was shocked to discover that medication actually lowered my anxiety.

The meds turn down the volume in my brain so I can experience one thought at a time. It’s easier to focus and to stay on task when I’m doing boring or unpleasant chores. I no longer feel panic when I drive on the highway because I can just focus on driving instead of getting over-stimulated by all the noise and sights. I’m able to stay more present during difficult conversations, where I used to just shut down.

If I’d had any lingering questions about whether I actually had ADHD or not, my reaction to the medication erased them. My mental health provider said that my body’s reaction to the dopamine-boosting meds confirmed my diagnosis.

And, with the medication and therapy targeted at improving my executive functioning skills on board, I’m learning basic skills that always eluded me, like organization and prioritization.

It’s been nearly a year since I started treatment for ADHD. Sometimes I feel sad that I wasn’t diagnosed earlier—maybe you’d have written a stack of books by now, I think some days. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken you 10 years to get a four-year degree. But most days, I’m tiptoeing towards acceptance of my complicated brain wiring. And with treatment, I’m learning to better harness my sensitivity into creativity, to view it as a gift that I might not have if I didn’t ADHD.


Another excellent read: 4 Mindful Choices for Getting Unstuck from our Emotional Sh*tstorms.


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