Sensory Overload: Symptoms, Conditions, Self-Help Tips

Sensory overload occurs when you are faced with more sensory input than your brain can process.

If you’ve ever turned off the car stereo so you can focus on what you’re seeing through your windshield, you’ve regulated sensory input.

It might not make sense at first – after all, how can music affect how your eyes work? – but your brain has to process all the input it receives. Eliminating the music you hear makes it easier to react to what you see outside the car.

So what happens when a person is bombarded with multiple types of sensory input that they cannot regulate?

Input to your environment does not stop at your senses. Several areas of the brain process the sensations you feel. When this processing cannot keep pace with new input, the result is sensory overload.

The reasons for this mismatch between input and sensory integration can vary. A busy environment could be the culprit. For example:

  • The person experiencing the overload may be tired or hungry, so their brain circuits may not work as well as usual.
  • Some people’s neurology can be sensitive due to mental health issues or medical conditions.

Sensory overload activates a fight, flight, or block response in which you try to escape triggers. This is when you see signs like meltdowns in children and irritability in adults.

It’s more than just an aversion to loud noises. Sensory overload can affect any of your senses, such as:

  • audience
  • view
  • feel
  • to taste
  • to touch
  • balance
  • awareness of body position

Sometimes more than one sense is overwhelmed. For example, a student at a school assembly might feel overwhelmed by the sounds echoing in the gymnasium, the glare of fluorescent lights, and the movement and presence of all the students around them.

Although sensory overload can happen to anyone at any age, there are many health and developmental conditions where it is more likely to occur.

ADHD

Sensory overload is a hallmark of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Not everyone with ADHD experiences sensory overload and overstimulation, but the risks increase given certain ADHD factors, such as:

  • self-regulation difficulties
  • lack of environmental awareness
  • hyperfocus
  • hyperactivity
  • impulsiveness
  • inattention
  • atypical response to stimuli

Anxiety

The link between anxiety and sensory overload goes both ways. People with anxiety are more likely to experience sensory overload, which in turn can cause anxiety.

Autism

It is estimated that around 90% of people with autism have atypical sensory experiences, according to a 2020 study. This means they may be more or less sensitive to sensory input than allistic (non-autistic) people.

Different neurotypes have different sensory overload thresholds, and an autistic person can be overwhelmed in situations that allist people don’t.

Concussion and post-concussion syndrome

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). It may be followed by post-concussion syndrome, which describes symptoms that persist longer than expected.

Sensitivity to light and sound is a common sign of TBI and can affect quality of life. A study 2019 found a link between TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military personnel due to impaired sensory processing.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a painful condition that affects the whole body.

A 2021 study reports that people with fibromyalgia have a higher sensitivity not only to pain, but also to other sensations, including light, smell, and sound.

And one 2014 brain imaging study of 35 women with fibromyalgia and 25 women without fibromyalgia showed that this hypersensitivity was reflected in different patterns of brain activity between people with and without fibromyalgia. The authors also note that this sensory sensitivity was linked to spontaneous pain.

Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects nerve cells. Sensory overload is a common symptom of MS, and triggers include:

  • too many voices at once
  • noisy and busy environments, such as shops and restaurants
  • tired
  • unknown spaces
  • crowds

PTSD

People with PTSD often experience sensory overload triggered by hypervigilance. It is an ongoing state of anxiety as a defense mechanism against perceived threat. Hypervigilance requires a large amount of sensory input, which can lead to overload.

Sensory overload can make a person more sensitive than usual to inputs from their environment.

For example:

  • Sudden sounds can take your breath away and make you flinch.
  • You have to turn off the lights because your head is starting to hurt.
  • Textured fabric burns your skin and clothing tags make you unbearably itchy.

Symptoms of sensory overload can be cognitive. If you can’t concentrate unless it’s quiet, or if talking above the volume on the TV takes too much energy, your senses may be overwhelmed.

Emotional changes can result from sensory overload. These include:

  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • tears
  • restlessness
  • anger

Children may experience similar reactions, but express them in different ways. A child may have a complete meltdown instead of just being irritable.

If your child is overwhelmed by something, the trigger may not be easy to decipher. Although your child may put their hands over their ears due to their sensitivity to sound, a body awareness issue may be more difficult to identify.

There are no drugs you can use to offset the sensory overload, but there are strategies and lifestyle modifications that can help. It is also beneficial to treat any conditions that arise with sensory overload.

Identify the behavior

The first step in managing sensory overload is to assess reactions in context. This will help you know if the reaction is related to sensory overload. It helps to keep a diary so you can identify patterns.

For example, you may notice that your child is very emotional at the end of group or physical education days at school. Loud, awkwardly played instruments can be overwhelming. Fast-moving bodies paired with squeaky runners, thuds and echoing screams in a gym, all under fluorescent lights, can be too much.

Plan for recovery

On these group and PE days, it can be helpful to keep your child’s schedule clear of extracurricular activities or visits with friends. This could help them recover quietly.

Likewise, if you’re irritable after working alongside construction all day, you can forego evening plans.

anticipate and avoid

Although your child is not allowed to miss physical education at school, the same mandatory attendance does not apply to extracurricular activities.

For example, if the bustle, glare lights, and clutter at the rink are causing a problem, you can compare that to the benefits of skating lessons and consider choosing another activity.

Reduce the impact

If you can’t avoid a triggering sensory environment, you can reduce its impact.

You can try using protective gear, such as sunglasses, earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones. Cutting out shirt labels can help, as well as choosing the right fabric for clothing.

Practice self-soothing

People of all ages can learn self-soothing techniques that can help them through episodes of sensory overload. Some strategies include:

Health care

Sensory overload may be easier to manage when your health is good. A balanced diet, adequate hydration, and restful sleep all contribute to your brain health. This way, your brain can better deal with sensory integration challenges.

Understanding sensory overload makes it easier to manage. If you’re feeling too much sensory input, remember that taking a break from your current activity can ease your stress and discomfort.

If you’re dealing with someone who is acting out, the cause may be sensory overload. The environmental assessment can give you clues about how you can help. For example, you can reduce noise and light levels, or just give them space.

It’s also helpful to remember that sensory overload is not a choice a person makes. It’s no one’s fault, and people who experience it can benefit from empathy and support.

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