The hustle and bustle of modern life can be too much to cope with at times and can cause what is known as sensory overload. Sensory overload can have a huge impact on a person’s day to day life, it occurs as a response to too much sensory stimuli at one time, the triggers themselves vary for different people but could be any kind of sensory input, for example; bright lights, strong smells or loud noises. The stimuli may be something that others do not even notice or have no reaction to, but people with sensory overload are unable to process all of the information at one time making the situation intolerable. In this article, we are going to take a look at the signs of sensory overload, common triggers and how to help the situation.
What is Sensory Overload?
When there is more sensory input than your brain and nervous system can process at one time it causes sensory overload. When someone is experiencing this it means they cannot cope with the amount of sensory stimulation at that moment and will often remove themselves from the situation if possible or try to stop the input by covering their eyes/ ears etc. This can happen when there is a lot going on to the point where it is intolerable, confusing and causes anxiety. Sensory overload is something that can affect everyone, the triggers vary from person to person and some people are more sensitive to it than others.
There are associations between sensory overload and a variety of conditions including autism, ADHD, PTSD and sensory processing disorder. This is something we will take a closer look at later.
Sensory Overload in Children
Sensory Overload is often associated with children but adults can suffer from it too. It is more commonly seen in young people as they are still developing and learning how to process different sensory input. A child who is experiencing sensory overload may display very strong reactions and at times, it can be difficult to recognise the reasons for the outbursts. Recognising the signs of sensory overload in your child will help in managing and preventing it from occuring. Discussing ways for your child to explain and deal with the feelings of sensory overload will help them to recognise and cope with the situation too. Some children benefit from working with an occupational therapist, an occupational therapist can help a child (or adult) identify and manage their triggers.
If the sensory overload is occuring frequently it may be a symptom of another condition. If you are concerned or unsure, speak to a doctor who will be able to help with diagnosis, advice and treatment.
Signs of Sensory Overload
Although symptoms vary for different people, these are some of the most common signs of sensory overload:
- Inability to focus
- Urge to shield eyes/ ears/ face from sensory input
- Anxiety, nervousness, stress, or fear
- Sudden mood change
- Glazed over look/ falling asleep unexpectedly
- High sensitivity to fabrics/ tags/ textures
Conditions Associated with Sensory Overload
As we mentioned, anyone can experience sensory overload. There are also links between it and certain health conditions. The most commonly associated conditions are listed below:
- Autism – people with autism experience sensory information differently, this is often linked with hypersensitivity and as a result, sensory overload is more likely to occur.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – as someone with ADHD may not be as aware of the sensory input around them, they may not realise that they are being overwhelmed until it is too late and they are experiencing symptoms of an overload. Sensory information will be battling for the brain’s attention which can contribute to sensory overload.
- Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – both of these conditions may also increase the likelihood of sensory overload as stress and anticipation can make the sensory input feel more intense and contribute to sensory overload. As people with sensory overload can become anxious about everyday activities it can be mistaken for an anxiety disorder, and vice versa. It is important to find out what the root cause of the issue is as this will help you to more effectively treat the problem.
There are reports of sensory overload being more common for people with conditions relating to sensory processing and nerve impulses too. People with Fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Sensory Processing Disorder may also experience sensory overload as a symptom.
Potential Causes & Common Triggers
The triggers will vary from person to person as each individual has different sensory overload experiences. Due to this, there are countless possible triggers and scenarios. However, we have listed some of the more common triggers people experience. This may help you to identify what is causing you or your child’s sensory overload, an important step to avoiding or preventing it in the future.
- Scratchy, uncomfortable clothing material
- Greasy or strong fragranced skin products
- Physical touch – being patted, hugged, poked
- People accidentally touching you
- Touching unusual things
- Loud work environment
- Sound of footsteps when people walk around
- Loud music
- Several people talking at once
- Sound from multiple sources
- Hand dryers in public bathrooms
- Sirens/ traffic
- Deodorants, skin care products, cleaning products with strong fragrance
- Strong aromas
- Bright lights
- Visual clutter
- Crowded places
- Strobe lights
- Busy/ multicoloured displays
- Unfamiliar surroundings
- Textures of certain foods
- Feeling of a toothbrush
- Strong/ unpleasant tastes
How to Help
Sensory overload is becoming increasingly common in our fast-paced society but not only that, the causes are also getting harder to avoid. Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent sensory overload. The quickest way to ease the symptoms is to remove yourself from the situation and give yourself a break from the sensory input, but we know that is not always an option so let’s take a look at a few other ways to lessen the symptoms.
Learn the triggers
By identifying the sense triggers you will be able to find ways to lessen their effects or even avoid them. Learning what it is that triggers sensory overload may take time but recognising the similarities in situations can help you to understand the cause. Once you know the triggers you can avoid them, understand your limits and take time out to rest before an event or situation you feel may cause sensory overload.
Prepare for situations that could cause sensory overload
When you know the cause of the overload, you will be able to take steps to prepare and reduce the likelihood of being triggered. Asking to close doors to reduce noise pollution, turning the music or lights down or keeping separate from crowds may help avoid too much sensory input at one time. You may choose to wear dark glasses or noise cancelling headphones to help combat too much sensory information. Having some prepared coping strategies can help reduce anxiety and put you back in control of the situation.
It’s not unusual for a combination of factors to trigger symptoms so when you are in a situation that is overwhelming, it may be most effective to remove yourself from the situation altogether in order to reduce the sensory input and give yourself (and your brain) a break.
Keep Well Rested
To help your brain function at its best, try to keep well rested and hydrated. It is also important to give yourself time to recover after experiencing sensory overload. You will probably feel very tired and resting or at least having some time alone will help you to recover.
Treatment of Associated Conditions
If sensory overload is occurring as a symptom of another condition, you may see an improvement by treating the associated condition.
Living With Sensory Overload Summary
There are many things that may trigger sensory overload, particularly in the modern world. For example, a public bathroom with fluorescent lights, automatic hand dryers and cleaning chemicals can be a nightmare for someone who experiences sensory overload. It is important to recognise what it is that triggers the symptoms as this is the best way of moving forward. Once you know what the triggers are it gives control of the situation back to you. You can then find ways that lessen the chances of sensory overload and take steps to prepare for certain situations.
Remember that sensory overload can happen to anyone. Understanding the challenges will help you to deal with them more effectively. If you think your child is experiencing sensory overload, remove them from the situation. Once they are calm, take the time to sit with them and discuss how they are feeling. A doctor or occupational therapist will be able to provide advice and support too.