Sensory overload occurs when at least one of the body’s senses is overstimulated. In other words, the incoming information exceeds our brain’s capacity to process and store it. There is no single way that someone can experience sensory overload, although certain people may be more susceptible. Examples of triggers may include things like big crowds, loud noises, or too much information at once.
What Is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload is a lot like having too many tabs open on your computer; it processes all the information at a slower pace and sometimes causes tabs to freeze. In the brain, this translates into how your senses process stimulation. Too much stimulation can cause your brain to interrupt processing, leading to anxiety, fear, and an inability to focus.
The message your brain sends to the rest of the body when experiencing sensory overload is to move as far away as possible from any and all sensory stimuli. It can feel overwhelming, paralyzing, and even induce feelings of panic. Those with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be more likely to experience sensory overload due to preexisting sensitivity to stimuli.
Symptoms of Sensory Overload
The symptoms of sensory overload in both adults and children may include things like irritability, inability to focus, or an inability to sit still; however, in some cases, adults and children experience additional symptoms.
Symptoms of sensory overload in adults may include:1
- Inability to focus
- Sensitivity to stimulus
Symptoms of sensory overload in children may include:2
- Pain threshold that is very high or very low
- Running into doors and walls unintentionally
- Yelling/crying out loud
- Inability to stay still
- Anger outburst
- Poor fine motor skills
- Eating inedible things
What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?
Depending on the affected sense or senses, sensory overload can feel like many different things. It can be an auditory experience, something related to touch, smell, taste-related, or even visual.
This is a sensitivity to sounds, types of sound, volumes, and specific patterns. It can happen at events like concerts, in crowded places, or when everyone is talking over each other. These external sounds become so loud that the individual cannot seem to hear themselves think.
This could be a sensitivity to things that touch the skin, such as certain fabrics or textures. However, it could also include hugs and general physical closeness. Sensory overload of touch can, in some cases, make individuals avoidant of physical affection.
Sensitivity to smell is unique as this sense is tied to the limbic system, which controls how we process emotions and memory storage. That means that certain smells, strong smells, or seasonal smells can lead to sensory overload because there may be a strong emotional connection to it. It could evoke a certain memory.
Sensitivity to taste can be perceived as someone who is a picky eater or someone who likes boring tasting food. It can be a challenge for them to try new foods or foods with lots of flavor or varying temperatures because it overwhelms their sense of taste.
Visual sensitivity can be a reaction to overly bright or flashing lights, which, in turn, can cause someone to lose their spatial awareness. It may feel as if your sense of sight is failing you, or that you can’t rely on your own two eyes.
Impacts of Sensory Overload
Sensory overload causes overwhelming feelings of discomfort. Even for the loved ones of those who are directly impacted, the symptoms can be a lot to handle. In general, the impacts are different depending on age.
Kids who experience sensory overload are often labeled as oversensitive. In reality, they are highly anxious and unsure of how to regulate their heightened emotions. Sensory overload can make day-to-day tasks and activities seem like an enormous challenge for kids, negatively impacting the way they relate to their peers and how they make and keep friends. They may be more prone to being bullied as a result of being seen as different.
Teens who experience sensory overload often suffer from low self-esteem. While some teens learn adaptive coping mechanisms, many don’t have the tools they need to persevere, causing them to struggle internally. They may react in childlike ways like having an angry outburst. When this happens, these teens tend to fall into a pattern of comparing themselves to others, noticing how they don’t fit in, and participating in negative self-talk.2
Adults who experience sensory overload often avoid the situations that could trigger them. This can impact their social and/or professional lives, especially if these triggers are in the context of an aversion to crowds, giving presentations, or mingling with others. These adults may also be more prone to or have a history of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.1
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Conditions Related to Sensory Overload
Some conditions that relate to sensory overload include ADHD, autism, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and sensory processing disorder.
Here are conditions related to sensory overload:1
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Sensory processing disorder
How Sensory Overload Is Treated
There are not many standard treatment options for sensory overload due to the varying nature of the issue; however, psychotherapy treatment can help you deal with your triggers. Underlying issues of anxiety, attention issues, depression, PTSD, OCD, and any behavioral concerns can improve in therapy, and individuals can learn different ways of regulating their emotions to avoid poor reactions to sensory overload.5
The best way to find a therapist for sensory issues is by searching an online directory. Any licensed therapist can be equipped to help people struggling with sensory overload, so reading reviews and looking at clinician bios to understand their scope of practice can give you an idea of whether their experience suits your needs. Many therapists also offer a free phone consultation and virtual/teletherapy visits, both of which allow you an opportunity to get help, even during a pandemic.
Another way to locate a therapist is through a referral from a trusted loved one or physician. Healthcare providers often have access to a network of helpful providers. Going through your physician or specialist is also a great way to keep them in the loop about any treatment options.
How to Deal With Sensory Overload
A great way to deal with sensory overload is to create routines and stick to them. Routines give you something to expect or rely on, taking away any surprise and chance for a trigger or sensory exposure. This helps people regulate their emotions in safe, calculated ways. It also gives individuals time to prepare for certain exposures.
Additionally, discussing triggers with a therapist or a loved one/partner and coming up with a plan to cope or manage is a great way to disarm the sensory threats. Talking through certain scenarios and coming up with solutions before it even becomes a problem is empowering.
Seeking professional help and the right type of specialists or therapists can make all the difference. They can make individualized care plans for treatment and set short-term and long-term goals to help you combat your triggers.
Final Thoughts on Sensory Overload
Sensory overload can be difficult to deal with, but you’re not alone. While it can be upsetting and even isolating, there are treatment options available to help you cope. Talking to a therapist or reaching out to a trusted friend or family member can make a big difference in how you think, feel, and act.
Sensory Overload Infographics