Loud Introverts Unite

Jillian Enright

Loud Introverts Unite!

...but from a distance, please.

ADHD, Social Anxiety, and Sensory Sensitivities

Written by Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

I am a loud introvert.

There, I said it.

My entire life I was told I was an extrovert, and I agreed — after all, I don’t appear shy, and am usually fairly talkative.

People saw an outgoing, social person, but what they didn’t see were the after-effects. If I spent more than a couple of hours socializing, I would get home and do two things:

  1. I would experience a high degree of retrospective social anxiety, going over every interaction in my mind, critiquing every word I said. Did I talk too much? Did I say the wrong things?
  2. Then, I would crash. Exhausted from hours of masking, being “on”, and trying to read others and adapt based on their responses, I would need a full day to recover.

After so many experiences like this one, I started to withdraw. I was tired of feeling socially inept and burnt out from trying to fit in. After our son was born and I spent more time at home — because newborn — I found solace in the solitude, so I kept on with that trend.

I started calling myself “antisocial”. It turns out I actually have ADHD, anxiety, and am a “loud” introvert. Who knew?

Not me, not until I was 36 years old.

Identity Crisis

I also thought for a while that I didn’t like kids anymore, except for my own. I love kids and am great with kids. I have always worked with children and youth, starting from babysitting as a young teen, volunteering at summer camps, and then getting my CYW diploma and working as a Child & Youth Worker in my twenties. It is a huge part of my life and my identity.

Suddenly spending time in play groups, even dropping my son off and picking him up at daycare, made me feel uncomfortable. When he was little, whenever a new adult entered the room, a group of young children would crowd around to show off their cool sticker or new shirt, speaking loudly and invading personal space.

I thought I didn’t like children anymore, but it turns out I have sensory processing sensitivities. This refers to the tendency of some individuals to process stimuli and information more strongly and deeply than others (Grimen & Diseth, 2016).

I like children — children are awesome, actually — I just don’t like being crowded, nor being in loud, busy environments.

The benefit of figuring that out is now that I understand why I respond the way I do, I can self-advocate, and I can adapt both my behaviour and my environment to better suit my sensory needs.

For example, if I stop to speak to a group of young children, I might sit in a chair rather than crouching down so I feel less crowded. I can also very gently ask the children to please take turns telling me about their awesome new toys and promise that I will see every single one of them, but one at a time. Children respond really well to this as long as you keep your word.

I can also communicate my needs in a way that makes it about me and not the children, so they don’t internalize or personalize my issues as being their fault. It is a developmentally normal response for children to interpret the behaviour of others as being caused by them.

Feeling a sense of control

My son is now 8, so of course, I speak to him differently than I did when he was 5. He also has ADHD, and he seeks certain sensory input. He loves banging things, which I’ve learned is a huge trigger for me. I hate it.

Instead of yelling “STOP THAT BANGING!” as I used to do, I can now say “buddy, I really don’t like banging, can you please do that outside?” Alternatively, I can move myself to somewhere quieter, or put in my ear buds and listen to some music. To some degree, I can take control over myself and my environment, so that I feel less overstimulated.

Some symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder listed on the STAR institute for Sensory Processing Disorder’s website are:

  • Easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli
  • Slow in starting my day
  • Use an inappropriate amount of force when handling objects
  • Often bump into things
  • Deeply moved by the arts or music
  • Often begin multiple new tasks simultaneously and leave many of them incomplete

Ahem. I may have chosen these six because I most relate to them.

There are many symptoms listed, divided into categories for age groups and developmental stages, for the full list visit SensoryHealth.org.

I currently have nine different unfinished stories in my drafts. When doing household tasks, I always start one, get sidetracked into another, and so on and so forth. They all get done eventually, but never in a linear fashion — as I said in a recent article, people with ADHD rarely do things in a linear fashion, apparently that goes for many people with SPD as well.

ADHD and SPD

If you’ve noticed a lot of SPD symptoms also sound like ADHD symptoms, you’re not wrong. Research has demonstrated that atypical sensory processing is more common in both ADHD (Panagiotidi et al., 2018) and ASD(Dellapiazza et al., 2021) populations than in neurotypical people.

Researchers have posited that these sensory processing deficits likely contribute to some challenging behaviours associated with ADHD (Molagholamreza et al., 2016).

Many people associate sensory processing issues exclusively with Autism, but further research is highlighting the significant impact that sensory issues also have for people with ADHD (Mimouni-Bloch et al., 2017).

A 2017 study by Bijlenga and colleagues found that sensory hypo- and hypersensitivity may be viewed as key features of adult ADHD, regardless of any autistic symptoms (Bijlenga et al., 2017).

In a more recent study, researchers found no significant difference between atypical sensory processing in people with ASD and with ADHD (Dellapiazza et al., 2021).

There’s a short leap between SPD and introversion. Sensory processing sensitivity involves high levels of sensitivity to subtle stimuli and being easily overwhelmed by external stimuli (Benham, 2006), and introverts demonstrate avoidance behaviours to inhibit overstimulation (Walker, 2020).

Neurodiversity and Social “Norms”

Because those of us with sensory processing sensitivities experience the world as a constant barrage of overwhelming sensory stimuli, we’re much more likely to feel anxious being out in the wild.

There is a greater societal expectation of female-presenting individuals specifically, to adapt themselves to fit in to social norms, which are based on the experiences of the neurotypical, cis-gendered majority (Nerenberg, 2021).

Many people with ADHD make an effort to suppress disruptive, hyperactive, impulsive, and disorganized behaviour because they understand that such symptoms violate norms of expected “femininity” (da Silva et al., 2020).

This camouflaging (or masking) has been shown to increase rates of both generalized and social anxieties in the neurodivergent population (Hull et al., 2021). Hiding our symptoms also makes it more difficult for us to be accurately diagnosed. It is estimated that as many as three quarters of women with ADHD are undiagnosed (Walters, 2018).

ADHD and anxiety are also highly co-morbid, meaning they are frequently diagnosed together (Jarrett et al., 2016). Research has shown that co-morbid ADHD and anxiety actually change the presentation of ADHD, making it more difficult to diagnose (D’Agati et al., 2019). Anxiety can cause some people to suppress their ADHD symptoms, similar to camouflaging or masking.

ADHD and Social Anxiety

People with ADHD have higher incidences of bullying victimization (Fogler et al., 2020), emotional trauma, and social anxiety disorder (Koyuncu et al., 2016).

Given that the general population carries expectations based on their neurotypical experiences, neurodivergent people are often given the message — both directly and indirectly — that they don’t measure up in some way or another (Nerenberg, 2021).

Many neurodivergent people end up attributing their struggles to character or moral defects in themselves, and suffer low self-worth and poor self-concept as a result (Barkley, 2015).

Another consequence of having ADHD is anxiety about, and avoidance of, situations that have historically been unsuccessful or troublesome (Barkley, 2015). Spend enough time feeling like an outcast, like you don’t fit in, or painstakingly picking apart every single thing you said in your last social encounter, just to find potential faults… well, it makes perfect sense that we would want to avoid repeatedly reliving those painful experiences.

Here’s the Good News

I don’t always have good news for those who read my articles, but this time I do. The good news is that once you learn about yourself, your neurodivergence, and what works best for you, then you can begin to feel more comfortable in your skin.

When you accept yourself and start seeing some of your differences as positives (not all of them, we don’t have to love everything about our brains, no one does), when you learn to appreciate your unique neurology, then you can begin to unmask. When you unmask, you can then find your community, they are the people who will accept and appreciate you for who you really are.

They are the people worthy of your awesomeness and the people whose opinions are worth caring about. This is much easier said than done, I know, I’m still very much on that journey myself — but it does get better, every step of the way.

(c) Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

References

Barkley, Russell A. (2015). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis & Treatment. The Guilford Press.

Benham, Grant. (2006). The Highly Sensitive Person: Stress and physical symptom reports. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(7), 1433–1440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2005.11.021

Bijlenga, D., Tjon-Ka-Jie, J., Schuijers, F., & Kooij, J. (2017). Atypical sensory profiles as core features of adult ADHD, irrespective of autistic symptoms. European Psychiatry, 43, 51–57. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.02.481

D’Agati, E. Curatolo, P. & Mazzone, L. (2019). Comorbidity between ADHD and anxiety disorders across the lifespan. International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, 23:4, 238–244. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13651501.2019.1628277

da Silva, A.G., Malloy-Diniz, L.F., Garcia, M.S., Rocha, R. (2020). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Women. In: Rennó Jr. J., Valadares G., Cantilino A., Mendes-Ribeiro J., Rocha R., Geraldo da Silva A. (eds) Women’s Mental Health. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-29081-8_15

Delgado-Lobete, L., Pértega-Díaz, S., Santos-del-Riego, S., Montes-Montes, R. (2020). Sensory processing patterns in developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and typical development. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2020.103608

Dellapiazza, F., Michelon, C., Vernhet, C. et al. (2021). Sensory processing related to attention in children with ASD, ADHD, or typical development: results from the ELENA cohort. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 30, 283–291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01516-5

Fogler, J. M., Weaver, A. L., Katusic, S., Voigt, R. G., & Barbaresi, W. J. (2020). Recalled Experiences of Bullying and Victimization in a Longitudinal, Population-Based Birth Cohort: The Influence of ADHD and Co-Occurring Psychiatric Disorder. Journal of Attention Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054720969981

Grimen, H. L., & Diseth, Å. (2016). Sensory Processing Sensitivity: Factors of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale and Their relationships to Personality and Subjective Health Complaints. Comprehensive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165222816660077

Hull, L., Levy, L., Lai, MC. et al. (2021). Is social camouflaging associated with anxiety and depression in autistic adults?. Molecular Autism 12, 13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-021-00421-1

Jarrett, M. A., Wolff, J. C., Davis, T. E., Cowart, M. J., & Ollendick, T. H. (2016). Characteristics of Children With ADHD and Comorbid Anxiety. Journal of Attention Disorders, 20(7), 636–644. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054712452914

Koyuncu, A., Çelebi, F., Ertekin, E. et al. (2016). Attention deficit and hyperactivity in social anxiety disorder: relationship with trauma history and impulsivity. ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders 8, 95–100. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12402-016-0189-2

Mimouni-Bloch, A., Offek, H., Rosenblum, S., Posener, E., Silman, Z., Engel-Yeger, B. (2017). Association between sensory processing disorder and daily function of children with attention deficit/hyperactive disorder and controls. European Journal of Pediatric Neurology, 21(1), 171. https://www.ejpn-journal.com/article/S1090-3798(17)31416-2/fulltext

Molagholamreza Tabasi F, Aliabadi F, Alizade Zarei M, Qorbani M, Rostami R. (2016). Survey of behavioral problems and sensory processing in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Iranian Rehabilitation Journal, 14(1), 63–68. http://irj.uswr.ac.ir/article-1-633-en.html

Nerenberg, Jenara. (2021). Divergent Mind. Harper Collins.

Panagiotidi, M., Overton, P., Stafford, T. (2018). The relationship between ADHD traits and sensory sensitivity in the general population. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 80, 179–185. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2017.10.008

Walters, A. (2018), Girls with ADHD: Underdiagnosed and untreated. The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 34: 8–8. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbl.30337

Walker, D.L. (2020). Extraversion — Introversion. In The Wiley Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (eds B.J. Carducci, C.S. Nave, J.S. Mio and R.E. Riggio). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119547143.ch28

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of ADHD 2e MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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