Thanksgiving, Adult ADHD, and Sensory Overload

Health Writer

Credit: Maurafay,

Whether you are planning on having Thanksgiving dinner at a relative’s home or hosting it yourself, if you are an adult with ADHD, the day can present challenges. There is a lot of information out there on how to help children with ADHD deal with sensory overload during the holidays, but adults with ADHD often struggle with this, as well.

Sensory overload is when one or more of your senses are bombarded by different stimuli in the environment. Hypersensitivity can cause your ADHD symptoms to go into overdrive. You can’t concentrate, you feel irritated, you are ready to shut down or have a meltdown, and you aren’t sure which one is going to happen first. On Thanksgiving, "overwhelm" can occur because of the smells, the loud noises from a house full of people, the emotional excitement in the air as the holiday season begins or any number of other sensory stimulation. As much as you might want to spend time with your family, the sensory nightmare can make you want to crawl into a hole and hide.

Here’s what you can do to manage feeling overwhelmed:** Prepare ahead of time.** If you are planning to attend a large family dinner, come up with strategies to help you during the dinner.

  • You might talk to your host before the event and explain how you feel overwhelmed at large gatherings. Ask the host if there is a room that can be made available where you can sit quietly for 10 minutes. You might want to download a 10-minute meditation on your phone to help you relax.

  • Discuss potential problems with your partner. Maybe there is an ongoing personality conflict with a cousin or an aunt who insists that ADHD is a made-up disorder. Maybe you have never gotten along with a sibling. Ask your partner or a trusted relative to be on the lookout for potential problems during the gathering and to rescue you if need be by intervening, focusing attention elsewhere, or asking for your help in another part of the house.

Plan a quiet dinner at home and then join your extended family for dessert. There simply is no reason you need to spend the entire day with your relatives. By shortening the time, you might find that you enjoy the company of your relatives much more.

Take advantage of shortcuts. If you have to bring a dish to the dinner, consider buying one that is premade. If you are hosting, consider having everyone contribute a dish so your responsibilities for cooking are limited, or choose to buy the entire dinner already cooked. The more shortcuts you can employ, the less overwhelmed you will feel.

Create a routine for the day. Whether you are staying home or going to someone else’s house, having a routine or outline of the day can help you feel more in control. Write down what time you plan to leave your house, how long you plan to stay, and fill in any details about your day. Although the day may not go exactly as planned, knowing what to expect can help keep you calm.

Go for a walk. Whether you are hosting or not, find time to take a 10-minute walk outside. Being outdoors, especially in green areas, can help calm your mind and lessen ADHD symptoms. Try to slip out without letting other people know so you don’t have a whole crowd of people with you. Spending time alone should help relieve some of the feelings of overwhelm.

Set boundaries. You know what you can and cannot tolerate. Remember that it is okay to set boundaries for your own self care. If you don’t want to hug everyone, say, “It is great to see you. I hope you understand that I prefer not to be hugged.” If you need to get away for a few minutes, don’t make apologies. Accept that your needs are important. If you only eat certain foods, don’t feel pressured into trying new things or eating what you don’t like because “it's the holiday.”

Wear comfortable clothing. People who have hypersensitivities often feel uncomfortable with tight or scratchy clothing and that feeling can intensify throughout the day. Make sure you are wearing comfortable clothes and shoes.

Focus on one person at a time. Try to avoid large groups of people where conversations can become overwhelming. Instead, flag down your favorite cousin, niece, aunt, or uncle and have a one-on-one conversation in a quiet area of the house. Not only are these conversations less overwhelming, they allow you to have an in-depth discussion and learn more about your relative’s life.

Know when you have had enough. Fatigue can increase feelings of overwhelm. When you feel yourself getting tired, say your good-byes; if the celebration is at your house, gently nudge relatives out the door.

See More Helpful Articles:

ADHD Holiday Help Guide:

Managing Sensory Issues in Children With ADHD During the Holidays

Tips for Managing the Holidays With Adult ADHD

Adults With ADHD: Tips for Holiday Shopping

Managing Overstimulation During the Holidays

Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.