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 in a big way.
Here’s a hint: people with both HSP and ADHD 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. It describes approximately 20% of the population who have a heightened sensitivity to subtle changes in their environment, experience, and others.
ADHD and HSP overlap quite a bit. Yet, most don’t realize it.
Dr. Aron was asked about the similarities between the HSP and ADHD. Unfortunately, it seems she doesn’t realize the overlap either.
I appreciated her transparency in sharing that she isn’t an ADHD expert, especially since her answer misrepresented ADHD.
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…
- Easily started
- Tend to just “know” why people are uncomfortable
- in an environment
- It’s unpleasant when a lot is going on around the
- Avoids violence in the media
- Change shakes them up
- They crave low stimulation
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms (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
- 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 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, disorganization, or time management. All three of those challenges make us look like we don’t care.
It’s not true though. Just like HSP is tied to empathy, ADHD and empathy go hand in hand.
Executive Functioning Challenges Complicate the ADHD Picture
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.
ADHDers have an impairment in these skills that leads us to be late, forget important things, and not follow through when we need to.
Those impairments make people feel like we don’t care enough about them because “if you cared you would have remembered.”
Regardless of how it looks, on the inside ADHDers are often incredibly consciencous. We want to do the right thing.
We also tend to care about justice to an intense degree. ADHD and Empathy go hand in hand.
And even though it may not look like it on the outside, this is an HSP ADHD shared trait.
People with Both ADHD and HSP 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 thoughts. OR 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 lost 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.
Of course, the ADHD sterotype is that we’re always bored, all the time. Surprise! We’re more complex than that.
ADHD and HSP: 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 perceived 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.
Sensory Challenges in HSP and ADHD
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, smells, 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 commotion and people watching can really dig a big event. But after an hour or two, the HSP in me is completely drained and needs to be alone to 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! And it’s an HSP thing! Or 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. And 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.
Thank you, Tia. You describe these difficult things very well.
This sounds like me. I think I’m a unicorn.
Tia Michelle says
From one unicorn to another: Welcome! It’s nice to know more of us 😉
Lee Ann says
I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD or HSP but I’m pretty sure I’m a Unicorn. I was just recently thinking I have Executive Function Disorder. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about ADHD and such since my son was diagnosed. I’ll be damned if everything I’m reading doesn’t describe ME since grade school! I’m 32, and its only getting worse for me! I want to make sure my son gets all the help and support he needs to thrive and succeed despite these challenges!
Tia Michelle says
The mark of a great mamma! You’ve probably already come across this, but ADHD is highly heritable so your son probably got it from either you or your partner. If it sounds like you, it might be.
Welcome (potential) fellow ADHD Woman! (And HSP Woman!) I mean, UNICORN!
Pretty sure I’m a Unicorn too! I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child but developed quite a few coping mechanisms (some healthy, most unhealthy) to deal. I’ve recently read about HSP’s for help with my daughters and wondered if mine was a misdiagnosis. But there’s SO much that fits too. Being BOTH seems to make the most sense!
Tia Michelle says
Yes! They have so much in common—even though most don’t realize it! Welcome, fellow Unicorn! Glad you made it here ?
I feel like this has finally fallen into place for me. All culminating in this article ? I thought it was anxiety and depression for years and years. Then I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder ? I tried to embrace it because I finally had something to hang my uncontrollable emotions on but the rest didn’t really fit however much I tried to force it. I’d been aware of Elaine Aron for a while (through Alanis) and knew I had lots of HSP traits but it’s the executive functioning part that I KNOW now is my main problem. It’s a revelation and I just wanted to tell you that ? I also loved that titbit of information on inattentive types, the daydreamer, that’s so me !!! (and my son)
Tia Michelle says
I’m so happy to be helpful, Lindsay! I’m really glad you’ve gotten answers that seem to fit, finally. And glad you’re here, too ?
Verrrry relateable, Tia.
Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult answered a lot of my questions. Medication brought my debilitating anxiety down to a dull roar and helped synchronize the squirrel hoard, but this horn growing from my forehead had me puzzled.
Guess we might as well own it. Bedazzle that horn and unicorn like a bawsss!
Tia Michelle says
YAAASSSS! Bedazzle the horn and unicorn like a boss. That should be the slogan of this entire post! THANK YOU!
Melissa A Bettcher says
I too feel what you are saying! When I was diagnosed it felt like all of a sudden I could hear thousands of tiny clicks as pieces of my life puzzle just fell into place. Medication has also reduce my anxiety levels greatly and I find that some of my HSP symptoms are easier to manage. I can hug people longer and I can handle noise a bit better and am not as distracted by it.
I am totally up for a bedazzled unicorn horn!!!
Great article. I have a strong family history of ADHD, my daughter is treated for it, and I have it as well. Being an RN for most of my career, (mostly in the ER) it was the perfect environment for me. I am now a Nurse Practitioner and it’s a different level of care. After 2 years of trying to manage my symptoms, herbal remedies, and changing some of my regular meds I started Adderall. My anxiety and irritability level dropped way down and I am able to see more patients because I have a clear plan of action that comes to me. I have always been a HSP. This article really put some pieces together. I know I’m not the only one who smiles back at the actors while watching TV. Makes my husband crack up. Thanks again. I’m going to forward this article on to my daughter. Would you mind if I share this with a few of my patients?
Tia Michelle says
Feel free to share, Shauna! I’m glad it was so helpful. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who smiles back at characters on tv…or freaks out when something bad is about to happen to them, or it’s about to be awkward or….lol Ahh the HSP life, right?
The unicorn you describe is no mystery. You’re describing autism.
Tia Michelle says
Hi Lena. I’m not explicitly describing Autism here, though some with autism may find this relateable. The Unicorn is the crossover of those of us with ADHD who are also highly sensitive. Not every ADHDer is highly sensitive but a fair number of us are. I imagine there may be similar crossovers with autism and being highly sensitive 🙂
Hey. Everything you describe sounds like Aron’s further aspects of HSP when she discusses the highly sensitive extrovert and the HIGHLY SENSITIVE HIGH SENSATION SEEKER, living with one foot on the gas, one foot on the brake. I cannot help but feel it is exactly the same thing, rebranded. Thoughts?
Tia Cantrell says
Hi Jo! Not exactly the same thing. But a lot of people with ADHD are also HSP. Can’t say they are exactly the same though because there are certainly people with ADHD who do not fit the HSP bill and don’t identify with it at all. Plus, I doubt most HSPs who don’t also have ADHD struggle with the extent of messiness and disorganization that we ADHD ladies tend to struggle with. If I have one more “messy person” tell me they are the exact same way and then get in my car and are blown away that I actually meant it was really messy… I swear ?
lol, this is a winning quote – “If I have one more “messy person” tell me they are the exact same way and then get in my car and are blown away that I actually meant it was really messy… I swear ?”
can totally relate. And found this page because I was wondering the same thing, HSP/HSS was my self-diagnosis last year and then only this year I started finally reading up about ADD (inattentive), because I only had that stereotype of hyperactive child for ADHD and knew I wasn’t that so never bothered to find out. But the mess! that’s always been there. and with so much difficulty in the pandemic year with concentrating on finishing projects/sleep/organizing myself/depression, I spent most of my therapy just trying to process what that was all about and finally studied up a bit more. perhaps that could be my silver lining for 2020. anyway thanks for the article, my enneagram 4ness likes being a unicorn 🙂
When I read Aron’s remarks about ADHD I felt the exact same way, besides a gut feeling that they were not opposites and an appreciation for the fact the she identified that ADHD was not her area of expertise, I also thought…”Well, I’m pretty sure I’m both, sooo…???”
Having just recently discovered the HSP categorization and how I fit in, I found this article to be spot on in so many ways. Your thoroughness of covering the ADHD symptoms, especially the nuanced ones, and how you overlaid that with HSP traits made me more secure in knowing I have BOTH and it’s OK. I’ve had ADHD all my life but wasn’t diagnosed until college because I never had the typical school performance issues that are common.
So, a big thank you from one unicorn to another 🙂
Tia Cantrell says
Hi Abby! I’m so glad this article was helpful! And I love meeting other unicorns. Further proof that we do exist even if people don’t quite realize it. They’ll learn one of these days! ?
Thank you for sharing this, I was curious about similarities and differences between ADHD and HSP when I found your article. One more component in the mix (while knowing there are most certainly many more) is “The Highly Sensitive Person Who Is Also A High Sensation Seeker”, and how this might contribute to a cousin of the unicorn 😉 with/without ADHD. It is explained here by Elaine Aron, this was instrumental for me as I learned about HSP to also include the other factor https://hsperson.com/the-highly-sensitive-person-who-is-also-a-high-sensation-seeker/ (there is a test at the end). Thank you and looking forward to the continued exchange 😉
Tia Cantrell says
Aaahhhhhhh,the HSS sounds soooooo much like the combined/hyperactive presentation of ADHD, doesn’t it? Getting bored, hating routine, getting restless, not wanting to be home for too long, despising having nothing to do for any length of time… They have a high overlap. I’m curious if HSP tends to overlap most with the ADHD Inattentive presentation or part and HSS overlapping more with the hyperactive presentation of ADHD. HSS definitely has a higher overlap with the Hyperactive piece but this is the first time I’ve considered whether or not HSP has a greater overlap with Inattention. Thank you for commenting! You’ve really sparked my interest with this! I love when that happens ?
Fabienne Meuleman says
Thank you Tia 🙂 and you are welcome… We are doing that for each other! Looking forward to the unfolding of the discoveries 😉
Hi Tia, 100% Unicorn here 🙂 Just wanted to drop a note to let you know how much I appreciate your website – this article especially. I’ve tried so hard for so long to understand (for myself) and justify (for others) all of the nuances you’ve described here so perfectly as the confluence of ADHD and HSP. It all struck me as shockingly familiar, but the sensitivity to noise and startling very easily really stood out to me – those are 2 odd things that I REALLY struggle with but hadn’t correlated to my ADHD until now. Thanks again and stay well 🙂
Well, this was interesting! I have been diagnosed as an HSP with ADHD and anxiety. Everything you say here makes sense to me. I have so much to learn and now I understand that, yes, I am different. Also, that’s okay. I just wish I could connect better with people. I am aware I like to delve deep and struggle with the inanity of small-talk, but that’s what society requires so I tend to avoid social occasions unless it’s with people I know very well and care about. It has been exhausting and caused a lot of pain and stress in my life, all the way back to childhood, but I will keep pushing forward with the hope that I find peace and a better sense of self.
Thank you for writing this piece. It was a great help.
Danise Loftis says
Yes! I’m a unicorn ????!!! Thank you for explaining this. I’ve felt this was the case for me but, it’s a relief to have some validation
Thank you for your transparency! A trait desperately needed and sorely missed!
We have recently been finding out the hard way about my husband’s “quirks.” He is 54 and for the last few years, things have gotten worse through some environmental triggers. We knew he is adhd. Just a few months ago, we received info about his father’s side of the family that he never knew. They are all HSPs. This explained a lot!
In the meantime his doctor put him on an SSRI which has cause much alarm to me due to the emotional blunting caused by the SSRI. Slowly the medication is not keeping the negative emotions at bay and they are returning. Would you have a comment about what medication or “tools” would be more helpful?
Gabi Csima says
It is so good news for me that there are some people like me! I am over 57, and I have just recently assessed (not even officially – it was a workplace assessment through the Lexxic) that I have ADHD. Besides, I am extremely sensitive, and, always in my life, I have been mocked because of this hypersensitivity. However, I have just heard about the HSP though your article above. Besides the ADHD and – in my opinion, 100% HSP – I am a perfectionist as well. Consequently, I always have anxiety, as I am almost never able to be so good as myself or my leaders would like me to be, or at least, I think, I am not as good as they expect me to be.
So, based on your definition, I am a non-native speaker, anxious perfectionist unicorn, so I would need some help, suggestions, etc. from your site and articles 🙂
Thanks very much for sharing your experiences, your knowledge and your offering some suggestions, indeed,
Tia, thanks for putting this all together so thoroughly. I’ve only known about HSPs for a couple of years, but instantly recognized than I am one. I’ve known about ADHD for many years, but have resisted being evaluated until recently. (I have almost every trait on your lists for HSP, ADHD, and all the traits under the list for Both.) Finally being able to recognize these two sides to myself has been very liberating. As a male, I guess that makes me a unicorn stallion…
Chinmayee Karande says
First I got to know about empaths and then HSPs. But I always thought there is something wrong with my brain.???? I haven’t read about ADD much. But I can relate to HSADD thing. Reading it is a relief.
Wow, when I learned about HSP I was like, are they sure they aren’t talking about ADHD? But when I looked into it at first it seemed it was at odds like you pointed out, but for me it didn’t make sense because I feel like my ADHD is directly connected to my hypersensitivity go smells, sound, emotion etc. It’s the overwhelming constant input that makes it so hard for me to focus ! I am totally a unicorn, thank you for answering this question I was ruminating on….
I’m going on 52 yrs old and thanks to your enlightening article I am thrilled to find out I too am a UNICORN!!! I cannot thank you enough for helping me connecting HSP and ADHD! I’ve recently learned about HSP and although I connected to most of it, it didn’t cover everything I experienced… until your article helped me to connect on ALL aspects!! Looking SO forward to getting help in sorting my life which has always been a battle for me to get a grasp on in so many areas that never made sense to me!! Thank you Tia ????
Wow!!!!! I feel Like I was Drawn to this page for a reason!! I could cry. I’ve been having the hardest time dealing with ADHD and recently realizing I’m an empath or hsp. I truly thought something was wrong with me. 🙁 I think I experienced adrenal fatigue and now suffer with depression and anxiety. I’m also slowly finding self care remedies to get back to myself but with my own spa business, 4 kids and pets. I have Very little time for me.. thank you for this post it’s nice to know I’m not alone in this world.