ADHD Behaviors on Overdrive: Anxiety, Overwhelm and Sensory Flooding

Does this sound at all familiar? He’s up and out of his seat, talking incessantly, making seemingly unrelated comments and asking questions a mile a minute. “Your hand has a cut on the finger. The window is dirty. Why is the heater coming on? What are we doing now?  How do you know we need cereal?”…… In the midst of you answering one question, there is another, and another. Frustration mounts, there doesn’t seem to be a way to satisfy his endless stream of questions or mollify the anxiety you feel building in him. What is going on?

Sensory Flooding! Yes, like a sensory tsunami, equally unstoppable in the moment. Let me explain –

At the base of the brain where it connects to the spinal cord are the brain stem and the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Most of our nerves pass through the brain stem and RAS on their way to other parts of the brain. The brain stem is in charge of processing information regarding basic survival – breathing, digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, our awake/sleep cycles, etc. The RAS is a filtering system. It filters the massive amounts of information that come through our senses. It filters according to motivation and emotion and tells us where to place our attention. If the information is unneeded we don’t pay attention to it, sometimes we don’t even register it. There’s just too much going on to attend to it all.

For example, if a woman is pregnant, she suddenly sees more pregnant woman. Moreover if she is deciding on what kind of stroller to buy, she sees strollers everywhere. Are there suddenly more pregnancies going on or more strollers being sold? No, of course not! They were all there before, honestly! But the RAS is filtering for these and directs her attention to them at a very basic level. It is the ultimate Google search, and it happens automatically.

When the RAS is overwhelmed, the filters cannot process the influx  and information floods through all at once, unsifted, creating a sensory tsunami; an inability to sort out where to focus. Everything is important, there are no relative priorities and the on/off switch is stuck “ON.”

What causes the RAS overwhelm? Stress generally. Sensory systems that cannot efficiently process the signals they get causing a fight/flight/fright reaction. This, in turn, causes the body to go into survival mode while the RAS flood gates are locked on open – creating Attentional Chaos!

What do you do to help your child and yourself when Attentional Chaos takes over? Here are a few ideas –

  1. Remove him from the stressful situation
  2. Give him input so he knows physically where his boundaries are – hugs or squeezes to his arms and legs, firmly and gently will do the trick
  3. Allow him to be in a comfortable safe place and to not participate – a break – not a time out
  4. Breathe with him – in and out, focusing on the breath
  5. Have him drink water
  6. Move – run, jump, play and segue into rhythmic activity to bring the body/brain back to balance

As you trace back to changes in schedule, expectations, clothing, family events, etc. that may have been stressful – not bad, just  more than he can process efficiently – you may be able to figure out the trigger. You may need to trace back a couple of weeks.

Most importantly, your understanding and acceptance of him/her will allow you to be calmer and more creative in finding solutions, controlling your reactions and ultimately helping your child.


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