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What is sensory overload? Know how to deal with overstimulation

December 28, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is sensory overload?

What causes sensory overload?

What does sensory overload feel like?

Sensory overload and anxiety

How to deal with sensory overload

You probably already know that we have at least five senses — touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste — though some say we have many more. These senses are crucial to our day-to-day lives as they link us to the world around us.

But what happens when our senses become too much for us to handle? This is what is known as sensory overload.

Let’s discuss some tips on how to deal with sensory overload and what this experience feels like.

What is sensory overload?

This overstimulation of the senses can be overwhelming and exhausting. Thankfully, there are coping strategies for sensory overload.

For example, your sense of hearing may become overwhelmed when exposed to very loud music. Or your vision could feel overloaded when exposed to bright fluorescent lights.

Anyone of any age can experience sensory overload from time to time. However, it is particularly prevalent in children. This is because children's brains are still developing and learning how to sort through different kinds of stimulation. 

Studies show that 1 in every 6 children have sensory processing difficulties. In certain groups, this prevalence can even range from 80–100%.autistic-girl-solving-a-puzzle-what-is-sensory-overload

Adults with undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism may also be especially prone to sensory overload. Yet, they may not be aware of why they are overwhelmed by certain stimuli until they are officially diagnosed by a professional. 

There are still many barriers to this process. One of which is the under-diagnosis of women due to male-centric diagnostic criteria.

Adults with certain medical conditions may also be more likely to experience sensory hypersensitivity. These conditions include: 

  • Fibromyalgia 
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome 
  • Tourette’s syndrome 
  • Multiple sclerosis

What causes sensory overload?

So, what is sensory overload on a neurological level? 

The human brain functions like a highly complex organic computer system. Your senses relay information from your surrounding environment to your brain. In turn, your brain interprets this information. It then instructs your body on how to react to these stimuli.

Sometimes, there is competing sensory data coming to your brain from your environment. Your brain may struggle to interpret all of this information at the same time.

In some people, it feels as though their brains have become ‘stuck.’ Their brain becomes unable to prioritize which pieces of sensory information it should focus on first.

When this happens, your brain becomes overwhelmed. It will send signals to your body, instructing it to get away from the more overwhelming pieces of sensory input it is receiving. 

Essentially, your brain feels trapped by the high volumes of input it’s picking up on. Your body begins to panic in a bid to try to protect you from overwhelming stimuli.

Some of the most common causes of sensory overload include:

  • Exposure to bright lights. Bright, fluorescent, or flashing lights are common triggers for many sensitive people. Particularly if these lights are accompanied by loud music or large crowds of people.
  • Loud noises. Any loud noise can trigger sensory overload. This is especially true for loud sounds that come from multiple sources at the same time. An example of this is many people talking.
  • Certain textures. Many people with autism or ADHD are averse to certain food and tactile textures. People who are sensitive to textures tend to avoid foods that are slimy, mushy, or rubbery. They also steer clear of textures that are rough. For example, they may avoid scratchy fabrics and sandpaper.
  • Crowded spaces. Crowds provide the brain with vast amounts of tactile and sensory stimulation. This can quickly become overwhelming.

girl-looking-onto-a-crowd-what-is-sensory-overload

What does sensory overload feel like?

The symptoms of sensory overload vary from person to person. 

Some people may be overwhelmed by loud traffic noises. Others may be overwhelmed by multiple conversations going on at the same time. Some may become extremely restless when exposed to certain food textures. Others will prefer to stay put and manually block out loud noises or bright lights with their hands.

When asking, “What does sensory overload feel like?”, it’s important to recognize that we all react differently to different types of stress. However, there are a few reactions that are common to the general experience of sensory overload. These include:

  • An urge to cover your ears and eyes. This is a physical way to block out overwhelming sensory input and ‘reset’ your senses. Some people may use noise-canceling headphones or eye masks to shut out external stimuli as well.

boy-covers-ears-in-back-seat-of-van-what-is-sensory-overload

  • Restlessness. Restlessness and fidgeting are signs of physical and sensory discomfort. People who are experiencing sensory overload may want to get as far away from the unpleasant stimuli as possible. They will want to leave the immediate area to go somewhere quieter or less overwhelming.
  • Extreme discomfort. Some people who are overstimulated may experience extreme emotional or even physical discomfort. They may display extreme irritability, anxiety, or fear. Some may voice their discomfort by crying or throwing tantrums. Or, they may even show aggression.
  • Panic. People who are in extreme discomfort from overstimulation may show many of the common symptoms of a panic attack. Especially if they are not able to get away from the stimuli causing their discomfort.
  • Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. The strain on your mental health from sensory overload can leave people feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. You may need to rest socially, mentally, and physically by spending plenty of time alone. This way, you can recharge and avoid burnout.

Sensory overload and anxiety

Sensory overload and anxiety are intrinsically related to one another. Sensory overload can easily cause stress and anxiety

When we feel anxious, our bodies undergo a chemical stress response. This stress response causes changes throughout our bodies. These changes give us an emergency energy boost when we perceive that we are in danger. Our stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are stimulant hormones.

This stress response heightens most of the body’s senses. It stimulates the nervous system and certain parts of the brain. It also stimulates the body. These changes can heighten the body’s sensory reception. Which in turn can lead to a vicious cycle of sensory overload and anxiety in the future. 

The more overwhelmed you are by your senses, the more stressed you become. And the more stressed and anxious you are, the more prone you are to further sensory overload in the future.

Many people report experiencing heightened senses when they are anxious or stressed.

woman-lying-down-covering-her-eyes-what-is-sensory-overload

When you feel anxiety too often, your body may not have enough time to recover from stress response changes. This incomplete recovery can cause a state of ‘stress response readiness.’ This is better known as stress-response hyperstimulation

Chronic hyperstimulation can cause ongoing changes throughout your body. These include continually heightened senses, which can lead to chronic sensory overload.

Managing your anxiety may be the key to managing sensory overload. Especially if you experience chronic stress or feel constantly anxious for long periods of time. 

It’s also important to manage anxiety to limit the negative effects that stress hormone production has on your physical health. Chronic stress can leave us more prone to developing lifestyle diseases such as: 

  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Type II diabetes 
  • Stroke

How to deal with sensory overload

There are many ways to learn how to deal with sensory overload, regardless of your unique triggers. Here’s how to help sensory overload.

1. Seek professional help

If you are struggling to deal with sensory overload, don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional. Many qualified psychologists and occupational therapists have plenty of experience with treating sensory dysregulation. 

These professionals use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy and sensory integration. They reduce patients’ reactions to stimuli and provide them with healthy coping mechanisms. 

Professionals may also be able to diagnose underlying conditions, such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder.

2. Practice self-care

Self-care is extremely important for people who deal with chronic sensory overload. 

Make sure that you are giving yourself enough time to rest and recharge. This is particularly important after stressful situations or if you have a high-stress career.

woman-listening-to-music-on-heaphones-what-is-sensory-overload

Think about investing in items that could help you unwind, such as noise-canceling headphones or a weighted blanket. There are also stress trackers and sleep trackers that can help you monitor your sleep cycles and stress levels. This information can help you in your recovery from sensory overstimulation.

3. Set boundaries

Setting boundaries is also very important for the chronically overstimulated. If you find yourself in a situation that is triggering you, remember that you have every right to politely take your leave. Do so and find somewhere quieter and less stressful. 

If you are triggered in a work setting, explain to your peers that you are feeling overstimulated and need to excuse yourself from the room. If you are invited to a place where you know you may become overstimulated easily, thank the host for thinking of you. But respectfully decline their invitation.

4. Mindful breathing

There are many mindful breathing exercises that help anxious people with sensory overload. Practicing deep breathing for 3–10 minutes twice a day will set the rhythm for your breathing. Plus, it will increase your lung capacity, allowing you to breathe more deeply. 

Diaphragmatic breathing also: 

5. Create safe environments with less stimuli

Your home and, ideally, your workplace should feel safe to you. They should also be as free from overwhelming stimuli as possible. You can achieve this by working with your specific triggers to reduce their impacts as much as you can. 

woman-on-laptop-in-a-quiet-space-what-is-sensory-overload

For example, if you are overwhelmed by fluorescent lights, fit your home and office with soft, warm, natural lighting. If you struggle when you hear loud noise, invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones and play gentle, relaxing music. 

6. Journaling

Journaling your sensory overload symptoms and experiences will help you keep track of your triggers and your responses. 

Once you have a written record of these events, you can work with a coach or another professional. Together, you can address your main triggers and improve your stress response.

7. Reach out to friends and family

The support of your loved ones will always be crucial. But this is especially true when you are feeling overstimulated and unsafe. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend or family member if you are feeling stressed or disorientated. Or if you need someone to speak to about your experiences. 

We also recommend building a support system with other people who are prone to sensory overload. They may have some helpful tips to share that will empower you to take control of your own experiences.

Understand sensory overload to help yourself and others

Sensory overload may not be an officially recognized medical condition. But it does have very real implications for our mental and physical health and overall well-being

Understanding what sensory overload is and being able to spot the symptoms are the keys to identifying your triggers. This can help you and others facing this condition.

Contact a BetterUp coach today to learn more about constructive methods of coping with sensory overload, stress, and anxiety.

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Published December 28, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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