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March 31, 2014
by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Adult ADHD: Other Soft Signs and Related Issues

March 31, 2014 04:55 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW  [About the Author]

ADHD in adults has many symptoms. The ones that are usually associated with ADHD may be easily recognized, but there are others that look like or create additional problems that can rise to the level of separate psychiatric disorders if not managed carefully.

As an Adult ADHD specialist and an adult with ADHD, I am quite familiar with these soft signs. They are not usually found in literature like the DSM-V, but experts in the field of ADHD write and teach about them. This is another reason it is so helpful to see an Adult ADHD specialist if you need help learning to manage the symptoms. Specialists have more training than just 1-2 seminars about ADHD.

To find a true Adult ADHD specialist, you might want to ask questions about the person’s training and experience in the area of Adult ADHD. You might ask them how much specific training they have in adult ADHD (different from children’s ADHD) and how many clients they treat with Adult ADHD? Ideally, you can find someone who has significant experience and training in this field.

Other Lesser Knows Symptoms of Adult ADHD

Some adults with ADHD may have recognized the ‘soft signs’ of ADHD in childhood and adolescence, but many do not acknowledge these (or confuse them with other problems) until adulthood. The following list is probably not all inclusive, but a good overview of the most common soft signs in the literature.    

·         Hypersensitivity/ Sensory Overload – Some people with ADHD find they are very emotionally sensitive. They feel their feelings very strongly, and often take on the feelings of others. These folks are like sponges who absorb the emotions around them. They are often considered highly sensitive people, as defined by Elaine Aron, PhD.

Some people with ADHD are very sensitive to touch and the feel of certain fabrics and tactile experiences, ie. the texture of some foods. These people find it difficult to tolerate tags in their clothes, the feel of specific foods in their mouths, scratchy or otherwise uncomfortable fabrics. Tight clothing or the way it feels to wear shoes that have laces can be a miserable experience for some people with ADHD. Personally, I could not eat baby food and still don’t eat many foods with that texture. I also had quite a reaction to getting my hair brushed, wearing tight clothes, tags in clothes and other experiences.

Many people feel claustrophobic in crowds or areas where there is a lot of noise, light, etc. Places like airports, stadiums and others where there are too many people, lots of noise, bright lights and chaos can be overwhelming for us – yes, I have this symptom, too.

There are a number of related psychiatric disorders that may overlap in symptoms. Some people with Adult ADHD have enough of the symptoms to meet the criteria for diagnosis with a coexisting disorder, like social phobia, anxiety, panic-attacks or sensory processing disorder. Others find that if they can learn skills to manage or minimize these situations, they can deal with it using specific skills and techniques. They often do not meet the criteria for a separate disorder, but suffer from these ADHD-related symptoms nonetheless. For those who have clinical anxiety, it will need to be treated by someone who understands both anxiety disorders and ADHD.

·         Overwhelm or Overstimulation – Many adults with ADHD describe feelings similar to anxiety that are related to hypersensitivity. For those whose symptoms do not meet the criteria for a separate disorder, overwhelm and overstimulation are often more accurate descriptions of the problem. Laypersons throw around terms like anxiety and panic attack without much thought or awareness) of the criteria for diagnosis. If a person with ADHD experiences these symptoms in isolated incidents, learning how to manage the symptoms is usually preferable to taking on an additional diagnosis and highly addictive anti-anxiety medication.   

·         OCD-like coping skills – Some people with ADHD develop obsessive-compulsive type coping skills to manage the chronic disorganization and feelings of overwhelm. These behaviors are a way of compensating with the messiness of ADHD, but can also create a lot of anxiety if the person becomes rigid in his/her approach to coping. An example would be someone who can’t begin homework or a project until everything is in the exact proper place on the desk. In those cases, a type of paralysis can develop preventing them from doing anything productive other than obsess about getting things in order.

True OCD is driven by anxiety – it is a form of anxiety disorder. OCD-like skills used to cope with ADHD is different, but may result in anxiety. The messiness of ADHD creates anxiety for some people when it reaches a certain point of being out-of-control. For many, this is a way of building up enough energy to actually start on a project or chore. We literally allow enough time and chaos to ensue that we create stress.

When the stress reaches a crescendo, we finally stop procrastinating and act – often due to a looming deadline that we can no longer ignore. Other times it is because the chaos reaches the point of anxiety or frustration. Feelings of anxiety may be the result – even though it is self-imposed or created. Managing it requires learning to deal with the underlying ADHD symptoms of procrastination, time management, executing tasks (instead of planning for extended periods and not acting). Some experts call this type of anxiety cognitive anxiety – thinking without acting on your thoughts aka ruminating.

·         Hyperfocus – Although it may be hard for us to get focused, once we get into something that triggers the dopamine we often get so focused we find it hard to stop or change tasks. This usually happens when we are doing something we really enjoy. For many that is watching certain shows, playing video games or listening to music. It happens to me with writing when the topic is something I know well and feel passionate about (which is why this article is getting so long!).

·         Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria – Definitely not in the DSM-V, but a term coined by William Dodson, MD, one of the top experts in the field of ADHD. Dodson describes this as akin to atypical depression, which means it is not truly depression but dysphoria, a term that means difficult to bear. In essence, Dodson has found with his patients a common theme of people who describe an internal state of arousal that prevents them from simply relaxing and enjoying life (hyperarousal vs. hyperactivity – remember after adolescence most of us show few symptoms of hyperactivity). The other commonality they reported is feeling devastated by failure or rejection – see the first item in this list about hypersensitivity.

This is an important distinction because Dodson links it to the differences in the ADHD nervous system, which he describes as hyperaroused. (Elaine Aron has found the same thing in people who are highly sensitive – a difference in central nervous processing). The literature if full of accounts of highly successful people with ADHD who report feeling ‘dysphoric’ when they experience failure or rejection. Behaviorists would have us believe that this reaction in adulthood stems from earlier experiences that trigger the emotions. Dodson says it is in the hard-wiring, and that about half of his patients have shown improvement with medication. It is worth noting as those who have this issue may want to consider talking to their medical provider about it now that they realize it may be ADHD-related.  

It is important to know that some of these issues can be managed by learning to manage and/or treat ADHD effectively. Treatment of ADHD is complicated – much more so than just taking a pill. Learn more about it in Adult ADHD: Recommendations for Management and Treatment.


Matlen, Terri. "Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Sticky!" ADDitude Magazine, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Dodson, William, MD. "Devastated by Disapproval." ADDitude Magazine, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

About the Author

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

I am a clinical social worker, therapist and writer. Currently, I offer online therapy and coaching services to people in Colorado and Wyoming. As a provider for the CO Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and the National MS Society, my expertise in counseling people who have disabilities and chronic illness is considerable. I have written for,,,, and contribute to several other online health and mental health sites.

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Denver, Colorado
United States
Phone: 303-910-2425
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