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How Sensory Input Affects Understimulated ADHD Brains

By Remy Meraz October 11, 2023

How Sensory Input Affects Understimulated ADHD Brains

Have you ever sat through a long meeting, eyes glazing over, feeling like you're just aching for something—anything—to engage your brain? If you're nodding along, you might be familiar with the sensation of feeling understimulated. Now imagine that feeling amplified and sprinkled throughout your daily life. For many with ADHD brains, the struggle with understimulation is a constant companion.

So, what does it mean to be understimulated? Essentially, it's when your brain is crying out for more sensory input, more dopamine, more something to engage with. For people with ADHD, this is particularly critical because their brains are wired differently. They often require more stimulation than others to focus, engage in tasks, and generally feel content. Simply put, the ADHD brain struggles more than most when deprived of stimulating environments or activities.

Sensory input, which is any information our brains receive from our five senses, plays a significant role here. Whether it's a splash of bright color, a catchy tune, or an intriguing texture, these sensory details can shift us from feeling bored and understimulated to alert and engaged. The quality and quantity of sensory input we receive can greatly influence our mental state, especially for those with ADHD.

For the ADHD community, understanding understimulation isn't just an intellectual exercise. It's about crafting strategies for daily life, managing feelings of boredom, and grasping how a differently wired brain functions. Stick around as we explore why ADHD brains struggle more with understimulation and what you can do to cope.

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The Science Behind Sensory Input and ADHD

Ever wonder why a simple walk in a bustling city can feel invigorating for some, yet utterly overwhelming for others? Or why certain people can engage in a task for long periods without a single yawn, while others seem to drift in and out of focus? The answer often lies in how our brains process sensory input.

Sensory input refers to the data our brains collect from the world around us—sights, sounds, smells, textures, and flavors. Every moment, our brains are bombarded with a myriad of stimuli, each competing for our attention. For most people, the brain does an admirable job of filtering relevant information while pushing the irrelevant to the background. However, ADHD brains often process this information a bit differently, leading to unique challenges and needs.

How Sensory Input Functions in General

In a typical brain, sensory input is like the background score of a movie. It's always there but doesn't usually overwhelm the plot. Your brain uses this information to help you navigate the world, make decisions, and even determine your mood. If you're hiking in the woods and hear a rustling, your brain prioritizes that sound, alerting you to potential danger. Meanwhile, it ignores the bird songs, gusts of wind, and perhaps the distant sound of a highway.

The ADHD Brain's Unique Processing

When it comes to ADHD brains, the process is not so streamlined. Imagine if each piece of sensory input demanded your attention simultaneously. The rustling leaves, the bird songs, and even that distant highway suddenly have equal billing, making it difficult to focus on any single task at hand. This easily distracted nature is a hallmark of how ADHD brains struggle with sensory input. In the absence of a reliable filtering system, people with ADHD often seek more stimulation to engage their focus or cope with feelings of boredom.

The interaction between ADHD and sensory input has also been linked to dopamine levels. ADHD brains typically have lower levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in attention, pleasure, and reward systems. Because of this, they often require more stimulating environments or tasks to feel engaged or satisfied.

Understanding the scientific underpinnings of how sensory input interacts with ADHD brains can help both individuals and healthcare providers develop strategies to better cope with daily challenges.


How ADHD Brains Struggle with Understimulation

Ever found yourself flipping through multiple TV channels, even with a remote full of options? Or maybe you've felt an itch to scroll through social media while having a conversation? If so, imagine those sensations dialed up to eleven. For ADHD brains, these are not occasional moments of distraction or boredom. They are pervasive elements of daily life. This article dives deep into the fascinating, often perplexing, ways that ADHD brains struggle with understimulation.

Why ADHD Brains Require More Stimulation

First, let's talk about why ADHD brains are in a constant quest for "more." More stimuli, more challenges, more dopamine. Unlike typical brains, which reach a saturation point for sensory input, ADHD brains often experience a sense of being "understimulated." This leads them to seek out more stimulation to reach a level that feels like equilibrium. To some, this may manifest as taking on different tasks simultaneously. To others, it might mean diving into a high-intensity workout or engaging in a creative project.

The Connection Between Boredom and Understimulation in ADHD

You might wonder, what's the big deal about feeling a little bored? For most people, boredom is a temporary feeling, easily resolved by switching activities or environments. But for those with ADHD, boredom can be more than just an occasional nuisance—it can be a constant, nagging discomfort that makes even mundane tasks seem unbearable. The struggle isn't just about feeling bored; it's about an inability to engage with everyday tasks due to understimulation. When the ADHD brain doesn't get enough stimuli, it's like a car running on fumes. It can move, but not efficiently, making even simple tasks feel like uphill battles.

Understanding the role of understimulation in the daily lives of people with ADHD can be transformative. Not only does it offer a more nuanced view of what it's like to navigate the world with ADHD, but it also paves the way for tailored strategies to help manage these challenges. In the sections that follow, we'll delve into the science behind these phenomena and offer actionable advice for managing understimulation.


Examples of Feeling Understimulated in Everyday Scenarios

Have you ever sat in a meeting, only to find your mind racing a mile a minute while you desperately try to focus on the presenter's words? Maybe you've been at a social gathering, surrounded by laughter and conversation, yet you find yourself disengaged, wondering if you left the stove on or replaying scenes from your favorite movie. You might even feel this way while stuck in traffic during a long commute, the minutes stretching endlessly before you. For people with ADHD, feeling understimulated in such everyday scenarios is not an occasional inconvenience—it's a frequent hurdle that significantly impacts daily life.

Mundane Tasks and the ADHD Struggle

When it comes to mundane tasks, like doing the laundry or filing paperwork, people with ADHD often struggle more than others. These tasks require sustained attention and offer little in the way of sensory input or stimulation. While the average brain might find some satisfaction in completing these everyday tasks, the ADHD brain frequently finds them intolerable. This isn't just a lack of interest; it's an intense feeling of being understimulated that makes focusing on the task at hand excruciatingly difficult. This struggle is not just a personality trait; it's a neurological predisposition that demands more dopamine to engage effectively.

Feeling Bored at Work, Social Events, and During Long Periods of Inactivity

The discomfort doesn't stop with chores. It extends to social obligations and even moments of supposed leisure. At work, for example, ADHD brains may find it difficult to remain engaged in repetitive or unstimulating tasks, leading to procrastination or distraction. In social settings, feeling understimulated can lead to zoning out or fidgeting. Even during long periods of inactivity, like waiting in a line, the craving for more stimulation can become unbearable.

The problem with being understimulated isn't just about feeling bored. It affects one's ability to perform tasks effectively, engage in meaningful relationships, and maintain a balanced emotional state. Because the ADHD brain's reward system is wired differently, the struggle for adequate stimulation is constant, causing a heightened sense of boredom and an ongoing battle to remain engaged.

Understanding this pattern allows for better coping strategies, more effective time management, and ultimately, a more fulfilling life. As we delve further into this subject, you'll find tips and strategies to manage these challenges more effectively.


Coping Mechanisms: What to Do When Understimulated

Imagine the clock on the wall moving at a snail's pace while you sit through a monotonous work meeting, or the constant itch to check your phone when hanging out with friends. These are moments where you might be feeling understimulated, a state that isn't merely inconvenient but can be downright debilitating for people with ADHD. It affects their ability to focus, engage with tasks, and even maintain relationships. If you're among the many who grapple with the repercussions of understimulation, you'll be pleased to know that there are effective coping mechanisms to help manage these challenges.

Strategies to Cope with Understimulation

When you find yourself easily distracted or mentally wandering, it's time to call upon some coping strategies tailored for those with ADHD. Here are a few you can consider:

  • Engaging in Micro-Tasks: Divide a task into smaller, manageable parts to make it less overwhelming. These smaller, "bite-sized" tasks can be more engaging and provide a sense of accomplishment as you complete them.
  • Sensory Boosters: If you're working at a desk, consider sensory aids like stress balls, fidget toys, or tactile surfaces to give your sensory input a small but impactful boost.
  • Change of Scenery: Sometimes, a simple change in your environment can offer a stimulation lift. It could be moving from a quiet room to one with light background music, or taking your work outdoors for a bit.
  • Active Breaks: Short periods of physical activity can help reset the brain, offering a brief moment of engagement and stimulation.

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Discussing the Role of Dopamine and the Reward System

Understanding the role of dopamine in the brain, especially in those with ADHD, is key to formulating coping strategies. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that essentially acts as the brain's "pleasure chemical," and it's vital for feeling engaged and motivated. ADHD brains struggle with dopamine regulation, often requiring more of it to feel stimulated. Therefore, tasks or activities that boost dopamine can be powerful tools in keeping your focus and energy levels up.

Adjusting the reward system in your daily life to include more immediate and consistent rewards can help you cope with feelings of understimulation. For instance, setting small goals and rewarding yourself upon reaching them can effectively make a tedious task feel more motivating.

By employing these coping strategies and understanding your brain's dopamine-dependent reward system, you can mitigate the struggles that come with being understimulated. In the following sections, we'll explore more nuanced ways to navigate these challenges.

How Environment Matters for Sensory Input

Picture this: You're at your desk, surrounded by clutter, the room dimly lit and absolutely quiet. You're trying to focus, but the stifling atmosphere makes you feel like you're sinking in quicksand. This isn't just a random occurrence; it's a common situation for those who find themselves feeling understimulated, particularly in ADHD brains where sensory input plays a crucial role.

The Importance of Creating an Engaging Environment

An engaging environment isn't just a luxury; it's a necessity, especially for those with ADHD who frequently feel understimulated. By incorporating sensory elements such as colors, textures, and sounds, you can enrich your space in a way that enhances your cognitive functions.

  • Visual Stimulation: Hang artwork or use vibrant colors that speak to you.
  • Auditory Elements: Soft background music or nature sounds can improve focus.
  • Tactile Experience: Consider a desk with a textured surface or using fidget tools.

How Changing Your Environment Can Lead to Better Focus and Less Boredom

If boredom and a lack of focus are your constant companions, tweaking your environment might just be the game-changer you need. ADHD brains struggle with tasks that don't inherently provide stimulation, making it easy to drift off mentally. Here are some suggestions:

  • Switching Spaces: Sometimes a simple change in location can break the monotony and rejuvenate your brain.
  • Natural Light: Make use of natural light as much as possible. It can uplift your mood and enhance concentration.
  • Declutter: A clean space helps reduce stress and allows for better mental clarity.

Real-world Strategies for Staying Engaged

Ever felt like time comes to a standstill during mundane tasks? Perhaps you've felt a nagging sense of boredom creep in while you're in the middle of what should be an engaging activity. These are more than just fleeting feelings; for ADHD brains, these instances of feeling understimulated can be a persistent struggle. If you often find your brain craving more stimulation, you're not alone. Let's explore some effective strategies for keeping your brain engaged and well-fed on the stimulation it so desperately needs.

Tips for Keeping Your Brain Stimulated in Different Tasks

Staying engaged is an art and a science. By incorporating variety into your daily life, you can stimulate different aspects of your brain and body. The idea is to diversify the tasks you do to fend off under stimulation.

  • Task Switching: Rotate between different tasks to keep your brain from feeling bored.
  • Micro-breaks: Short, regular breaks can refresh your brain and make the task at hand more bearable.
  • Music and Sound: Curate playlists designed to energize your brain during specific tasks.

The Role of Energy and Motivation in Avoiding Feeling Understimulated

It's not just about the tasks; your personal energy levels and motivation also play pivotal roles. The reward system in the ADHD brain often craves more dopamine to feel engaged, which is why mundane tasks or long periods of repetitive work can lead to boredom and a lack of focus.

  • Energy Boosts: Short bursts of physical activity can increase your energy and dopamine levels.
  • Goal Setting: Establishing small, achievable goals can help maintain your interest and motivation.
  • Social Engagement: Sometimes talking to a friend or colleague can provide the stimulation needed to get through a task.

Case Studies: ADHD Brains that Overcame Understimulation

Ever find yourself stuck in a cycle of boredom, feeling your eyes glaze over while performing everyday tasks? You're not alone. Understimulation is a hurdle many ADHD brains grapple with, but it's not an insurmountable one. In fact, there are real-life warriors out there who've battled the chronic sense of boredom that often accompanies ADHD, and they've come out victorious. Intrigued? You should be. We're diving deep into compelling case studies that explore how individuals with ADHD managed to turn the tables on their understimulated brains.

Real-life Examples of Individuals Who Successfully Managed Their Symptoms

These aren't hypothetical strategies from a textbook; these are real stories from individuals who've walked the talk. They offer invaluable insights into how they felt during their ADHD struggle and the effective strategies they implemented.

  • The Entrepreneur: Used micro-breaks and task diversification to keep his energy levels high.
  • The Student: Combined her passion for art with her studies to keep her focus intact.
  • The Parent: Used sensory input techniques to manage long periods of repetitive tasks at home.

Strategies They Used, How They Felt, and What Changes They Made

Each individual had their unique set of struggles but they all shared one thing: the determination to not let their ADHD brains be defined by understimulation. By tweaking their environments, using reward system hacks, or even introducing more dopamine-releasing activities into their daily lives, they saw dramatic shifts in their ability to engage with life.

  • Mindfulness Techniques: Focused on the present to prevent feelings of boredom.
  • Technology Aids: Utilized apps and gadgets to add an element of fun to mundane tasks.
  • Social Support: Engaged in group activities that offered natural stimulation and a sense of accomplishment.

So, if you've been searching for real-world strategies to manage feeling understimulated, look no further. Let's delve into these inspiring stories and discover actionable solutions for a more engaging life with ADHD.

Final Thoughts: Maintaining Stimulation for a Balanced ADHD Brain

We've journeyed through the complex landscape of ADHD brains and their unique relationship with sensory input, understimulation, and boredom. To encapsulate, ADHD brains process sensory input differently, and as a result, are often prone to feeling understimulated during everyday tasks. While the struggle is real, the hope is even more tangible.

Engaging environments and carefully crafted strategies can turn the tide. Whether it's altering your workspace, incorporating breaks filled with dopamine-releasing activities, or leveraging technology to gamify mundane tasks, the key lies in maintaining a balanced level of stimulation. The reward system plays a critical role here, and with the right tweaks, can be your ally in this journey.

The case studies we examined showcase that constant engagement isn't just a "nice-to-have" but rather a life-changing approach that substantially elevates your quality of life. With the right sensory input and focus strategies, you can go from merely coping to actively thriving.

Life with ADHD need not be a series of monotonous events and energy-draining tasks. By consciously integrating these techniques into your daily life, not only will you ward off the struggle with understimulation, but you'll also discover a more fulfilling and engaging existence.

Read more about: Well-being

About Remy Meraz

Remy Meraz, co-founder, and CEO of Zella Life, is a visionary leader who leveraged corporate glass ceiling challenges as a woman of color to drive systemic change.

While leading and cultivating high-performance teams from VC-backed startups to Fortune 500, she consistently faced obstacles such as inadequate mentorship, lack of psychological safety, and non-personalized training. Taking matters into her own hands, she turned to executive coaching and NLP training. This life-changing growth experience led to breaking leadership barriers and a passion for cognitive psychology.

Motivated by her experiences, she co-founded Zella Life, an innovative AI-driven coaching platform bridging the talent development gap by enhancing soft skills and emotional intelligence (EQ) in the workplace.

Her vision with Zella Life is to transform professional development into an inclusive and impactful journey, focused on the distinct needs of both individuals and organizations. She aims to promote advancement and culture change by ensuring every professional's growth is acknowledged and supported.

Today, Remy is recognized as an influential innovator, trainer, mentor, and business leader. Under her leadership, Zella Life has delivered significant measurable outcomes for numerous well-known brands. This track record of positive outcomes garnered attention and funding from Google for Startups and Pledge LA, establishing Zella Life as a pivotal force in the learning and development arena tackling and resolving fundamental talent development issues for organizations of all sizes.