ADHD Stimming: Why It Happens and How to Cope – ADDA – Attention Deficit Disorder Association

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Do you catch yourself making the same sounds or movements repeatedly? 

Maybe you hum a random song, bite your nails, or absentmindedly spin a pen on your desk to help you pay attention while working.

You might chew on your pens or rock back and forth in your seat when you’re anxious.

This phenomenon is called stimming, and it’s a normal part of living with adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The signs of ADHD can look different from person to person, especially stimming, which makes it tricky to spot.

What Is ADHD Stimming?

ADHD stimming is when a person with ADHD displays self-stimulatory behavior by repeating certain sounds and movements unconsciously. There are many different examples, including lip biting, rocking back and forth, humming, teeth grinding, or chewing gum.

But why do people with ADHD stim? 

A single reason can’t explain this, but experts believe it’s likely linked to how the ADHD brain works. Stimming is a response to challenges that people with ADHD have in situations that require sitting still, paying attention, or managing emotions.

Attention and Boredom

Research suggests that the imbalance of a chemical messenger in the brain called dopamine can affect how folks with ADHD perceive reward and satisfaction.[1]

Due to this, ADHD can make it much harder to pay attention to activities that don’t interest you. You might stim to combat boredom in a dull environment, or help focus when completing uninteresting tasks.

Self-Soothing

Sometimes, stimming might result from:

  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Stress

In such situations, this behavior could be a way to self-soothe and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Releasing Energy

There’s also what’s known as happy stimming. This occurs when you need to find an outlet to release and express your excitement.

Neurodivergent people are more likely to engage in stimming, but the main reasons this happens vary depending on their diagnosis.

As an example, autism stimming most often occurs when a person is trying to manage their emotions and thoughts or cope in an overstimulating environment.[2]

In contrast, a person with ADHD may stim either to handle their emotions or help them pay attention since ADHD often makes it challenging to stay focused.

Sensory Overload

Because of how the ADHD brain is wired, individuals may be hypersensitive to the sensory information they receive, causing them to experience sounds and sensations more intensely or for longer.[3]

As a result, an ADHDer may be quickly overwhelmed and overstimulated by surrounding stimuli, such as:

  • Bright lights
  • Loud noises
  • Crowds

Stimming may be one way to cope with ADHD sensory overload, as it can help reduce the anxiety and pressure linked to this phenomenon.

ADHD Stimming: Characteristics and Examples

Many people exhibit self-stimulating behaviors, such as biting their nails, shaking their legs, or playing with their hair. These behaviors may overlap with ADHD stimming in some ways.

That said, ADHD stimming is typically more severe than fidgeting in “neurotypical” people. It also occurs more often and may even interfere with some ADHDers’ daily activities.

Person organizing drawing supplies

The following are some examples of what ADHD stimming may look like.

  • Sight: Visual stimming stimulates your sense of sight and often helps tackle feelings of boredom. Examples include repetitive blinking, drawing, arranging objects, or flipping pages.
  • Verbal: A person may hum, repeat words, click their tongue, clear their throat, or whistle to minimize boredom, manage feelings of anxiousness, or stay focused.
  • Auditory: Some people may listen to the same song repeatedly. Other times, they might mimic noises in their surroundings.
  • Touch: ADHDers may catch themselves playing with their hair, grinding their teeth, biting the inside of their mouth, or picking at scabs or the skin around their fingernails. Sometimes, they may fidget with their clothes, rub their fingers together, or clench their fists. The main reasons for these self-stimulatory behaviors are to focus and self-soothe.
  • Smell: Olfactory stimming can help people calm their nerves. It often involves sniffing items that have a particular scent. For example, this might be the smell of a perfume your loved one uses or the familiar scent of freshly-washed clothing.
  • Vestibular: Vestibular stimming usually involves balance and movement. This might look like tiptoeing, rocking back and forth, pacing, head shaking, leg shaking, or spinning in a circle.

It can sometimes be difficult for people to notice that they stim because it may be done subconsciously. If you aren’t sure, you can ask a friend or family member whether they’ve noticed you demonstrating these behaviors.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Stimming for People With ADHD

In some cases, ADHD stimming may lead to physical injuries. Take, for example, bleeding from picking the skin around your fingernails or biting the inside of your mouth.

At other times, this behavior may be time-consuming. For instance, you might engage in visual stimming and spend hours arranging objects or drawing.

Some stimming behaviors could also be disruptive to people around you, like tapping your fingers or humming in a library.

That said, stimming can be harmless in many cases and does not necessarily need to be stopped. 

Boredom

Living with ADHD is challenging, and stimming may be helping you manage in situations you find difficult. It might help you soothe your nerves, relieve stress, or tolerate boredom a little longer.

If the behavior doesn’t hurt you or those around you, there likely isn’t a need to curb or suppress it – especially if it helps you cope with your ADHD symptoms.

How to Keep Stimming From Interfering With Daily Life

If your stimming leads to injuries, or you’re uncomfortable with how it makes those around you feel, there are different approaches you can take to reduce or manage it.

Identify Triggers and Find Ways to Reduce Them

The next time you catch yourself stimming, take note of the trigger. Was it a repetitive work task or a long presentation? Was there too much noise or too much silence?

Explore what your most common triggers are and find ways to minimize them. For example, you could add more stimulation to a boring task by working in a new environment like the library or a quiet café. Or, if loud parties overwhelm you, make a plan to leave earlier.

Devise Strategies to Improve Focus

Since ADHD makes it challenging to pay attention – stimming may be a mechanism you use to stay on track.

If your stimming leads to physical injuries or is disruptive to your classmates or colleagues, you could instead try these tips to improve your focus and motivation:

  • Schedule 10-minute movement breaks in between long tasks
  • Use a Pomodoro timer or productivity app to stay on track
  • Use the body-doubling technique for accountability
  • Break down big tasks into smaller goals
  • Keep your workspace organized

Find Workarounds or Alternatives

You don’t have to stop stimming entirely. Instead, you could find less disruptive alternatives or workarounds for your stimming habits.

For instance, rather than chewing on your nails or biting the insides of your mouth, you could try a few deep breaths to release stress.

Tapping your fingers or spinning a pen could be replaced by less disruptive ways to stim, such as:

  • Playing with textured clothing
  • Noiseless fidget toys
  • Doodling
drawing notepad

Seek Professional Help and Treatment

ADHD medications can help you manage your ADHD symptoms and improve your focus, reducing the need to stim. You can also try therapy sessions to help you recognize disruptive or harmful behaviors and replace them with healthier ones.

Additionally, an ADHD coach may help you work on other ways to manage stressful situations, reduce your stimming triggers, and improve your focus and motivation.

Not All Forms of ADHD Stimming Are Negative

ADHD stimming may be a practical way to boost concentration and process emotions.

In many cases, this behavior is harmless and, in fact, beneficial. So don’t be too hard on yourself the next time you catch yourself chewing on the end of your pen!

However, if you feel that stimming disrupts your daily life, it’s always best to seek help. With proper support and treatment, you can effectively manage it.

You can find support and advice on managing ADHD stimming through the ADDA+ community. By joining ADDA+, you’ll gain access to expert-driven resources, webinars, courses, and a supportive community to help you thrive.

References

[1] Blum, K., Chen, A. L., Braverman, E. R., Comings, D. E., Chen, T. J., Arcuri, V., Blum, S. H., Downs, B. W., Waite, R. L., Notaro, A., Lubar, J., Williams, L., Prihoda, T. J., Palomo, T., & Oscar-Berman, M. (2008). Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 4(5), 893–918. https://doi.org/10.2147/ndt.s2627

[2] Kapp, S. K., Steward, R., Crane, L., Elliott, D., Elphick, C., Pellicano, E., & Russell, G. (2019). ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming. Autism: the international journal of research and practice, 23(7), 1782–1792. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319829628

[3] Lane, S. J., & Reynolds, S. (2019). Sensory Over-Responsivity as an Added Dimension in ADHD. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 13, 40. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2019.00040

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