The world is noisier today than ever before.
Road noise; noise from other people; music and television noise leaking from homes, shops and public buildings day and night. Coupled with the prevalence of light pollution we see in towns and cities, the modern world can be overwhelming for anyone.
This is particularly true for those who are highly sensitive. For people struggling to find balance in the way that they experience the world around them, any excess stimulation can cause extreme discomfort, or even pain.
This guide will investigate sensory overload, and how you can protect yourself and those around you from feeling overwhelmed.
What Is Sensory Overload?
Almost everyone has experienced sensory overload at one time or another, even if they don’t realise what it is at the time.
Sensory overload occurs when one or more of our senses are overstimulated by the environment that we are in. This makes it difficult for our brain to process the information in front of us, leading to discomfort, panic and fear.
Imagine what it feels like to be at a crowded party. The music is loud, a lot of things are happening at once, and you can smell food and different people’s fragrances. Perhaps it’s also uncomfortably warm because of the number of people, or you are being jostled by those around you.
It is natural, in this situation, to feel overwhelmed.
Most people will unconsciously make adjustments to their situation to make it easier to cope, such as slipping outside for a moment, or moving to a quieter part of the room. Alternatively, they may find it uncomfortable but not unbearable, and put up with it until they adjust.
For people with sensory processing issues, this is a far greater issue. Without the ability to adjust, they start to display symptoms of sensory overload.
Common symptoms of sensory overload include:
- a sense of discomfort,
- inability to ignore the sensory input causing discomfort,
- feeling overwhelmed, irritable or agitated,
- sensitivity to materials, surfaces and other textures,
- lack of focus, and
- irritability and restlessness
In children, sensory overload symptoms appear similar to their fight or flight response, presenting as:
- closing the eyes,
- covering the face,
- putting hands over the ears,
- avoiding or running away from situations.
Thankfully sensory overload can be resolved in the early stages, for adults and children alike, and doing so prevents the situation escalating into a full sensory meltdown.
Why Do I Experience Sensory Overload?
Anyone can experience sensory overload at any time in their lives, although it is magnified by a range of different conditions including:
- sensory processing disorder,
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and
- chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME).
In humans, finding the right balance of sensory input is crucial to our physical and psychological comfort.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological model comprising five tiers of human needs. Needs must be satisfied from the bottom of the pyramid to the top. In this order, they are:
- esteem, and
Thus, a balance of sensory input is considered the foundation of human needs. As we get older we become better at filtering out irrelevant stimuli to avoid sensory overload, but it can still happen.
Imagine being at a shopping centre in the middle of summer. It is hot and crowded, so there is no breeze to ease your discomfort. Tinny music is playing over loudspeakers, interrupted with announcements, children are shouting over each other and a baby is crying. Suddenly someone stops directly in front of you without looking, blocking your path.
This type of situation is one where a combination of unexpected or unusual stimuli affect your mood and comfort, making you feel irrationally angry. It is not uncommon, almost anyone put in this situation would have the same reaction, whatever their typical sensory sensitivity.
This is sensory overload. In people who struggle with sensory regulation their triggers are different from the majority of other people, but the feeling is the same.
Could I Experience Sensory Overload Due To Medical Reasons?
Although sensory overload can happen to anyone, as mentioned earlier it can also be a symptom of other medical conditions.
Autism causes the brain to become hypersensitive to sensory input, making it easier to suffer from sensory overload.
Find out more about autism in adults and children here.
In these cases, the brain is often already overworked and overstimulated thanks to the anxiety, stress and fatigue typical to these disorders. This makes it far easier for new stimuli to cause sensory overload, especially during panic attacks.
This reasoning may also explain why those suffering from chronic pain, such as people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, are prone to sensory overload. When the brain and nervous system are hyper-focused on pain, there is little energy left for other sensory information.
One of the main features of ADHD is difficulty paying attention to your environment, which makes it easy for sensory information to sneak past unnoticed and then suddenly register with the sufferer all at once.
People with ADHD also struggle with self-regulation, making it harder for them to habituate when they do feel uncomfortable.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Incorporating sensory processing disorder, and sometimes simply called “high sensitivity”, is a more general term for those who are prone to sensory overload.
The term covers a range of issues with processing external information, from emotions to smells and textures, and is often considered more of a personality trait than a disorder.
This online test can help you to see if you are a high sensitivity person (HSP)
How Can I Protect Myself Against Sensory Overload In Public?
Treatment options for people suffering from sensory overload are still few and far between, as scientists are still trying to understand the condition.
Medication for related conditions may help, such as the medication aripiprazole, which has been found to help with sensory processing in people with autism. However, most doctors recommend instead focusing on a therapeutic treatment plan.
Among the therapies being used for sensory overload, sensory integration is well-respected in therapeutic circles, a method that involves slowly exposing patients (mostly children) to stimuli in order to allow them to adjust.
Interoception therapy is another way sensitive people may learn to manage their triggers. Many people that suffer from sensory overload feel bodily sensations (such as their heartbeat) either very strongly or not at all.
Interoception helps sensitive people to become more mindful of their bodies through activities such as one minute of exercise followed by another minute attempting to count your heartbeat without putting a finger to your pulse.
Strengthening this awareness of the body’s processes can make people feel more in control and grounded.
A more immediate way of managing sensory overload is to identify ways in which you can reduce sensory input in triggering situations.
Planning and taking steps to reduce these triggers can help bring you confidence as well as giving you a solution when you feel overwhelmed.
Some examples of things you could do include:
- Keep yourself to the peripheral of crowded gatherings. Not being at the centre of a group can help you to direct your attention more easily, as the stimuli is not coming from all directions.
- Take a list with you when you are out. This gives you something to focus on that can keep pulling you back to the task at hand and grounding you to a specific journey.
- Wear noise-cancelling headphones. Many people with sensory sensitivities say that this is one of the most effective ways for them to manage outdoors. Taking away the constant barrage of loud ‘outdoor’ sounds can help you to stay focused.
- Stay healthy. Get plenty of sleep, stay hydrated and eat before you go out so that your brain is functioning at full capacity
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is essentially a meditation practice that, over time, you can learn to take out into the world with you to help ease anxiety and sensory overload.
- Pre-plan your trips and events. Talk to friends, co-workers and acquaintances in advance so that they are aware you may slip away early
What Home Improvements May Help Prevent Sensory Overload?
Designing your living space to avoid triggers and create a calming environment provides a valuable place of rest for those prone to sensory overload.
Keep your space as minimal and tidy as possible, with smaller items organised and put in to boxes and drawers, and keep decorative clutter to a minimum. These small areas of visual stimulation may not seem much, but can really make an impact on your level of comfort over time.
Keep rooms at a comfortable level of light and use lamps instead of fluorescent lighting, as this is less overwhelming to the senses. Fluorescent lights also have a habit of flickering or buzzing, which exacerbates the sensations of sensory overload.
You might even think about limiting the number of electrical appliances in your home, and having minimal exposure to the ones that you do have, as electrical signals can be overwhelming.
Choose neutral tones for your walls and floors – busy patterns and bold colours can be very triggering. You should also maintain a neutral atmosphere in your home, so, not too hot or cold, not too bright or dark.
Close windows and doors to the rooms that you are in, and turn down music or television sets so that the sound registers at an easier level for you to cope with. Something as simple as a conversation coming in from another room, or music filtering through from a neighbour, can act as a low-level irritant that leads to overstimulation over time.
You might also ask to split chores with other members of your household so that they take care of noisier or more overwhelming tasks, such as vacuuming or taking the bins out, while you handle washing up and laundry.
Be aware that some fragrances can be overwhelming, even if they are pleasant, so keep it minimal in your home.
Some sufferers of sensory overload choose to use unscented products like soap and laundry detergent in their homes to minimise the combination of smells at play.
Workplace Modifications To Help With Sensory Overload
While sensory overloaded can be difficult, many sufferers are still able to live fairly normal lives. However, this does mean that every area of your life needs to be adapted for your comfort, which can be a little more difficult to coordinate at work.
Suggest to your employer that they make a few small adjustments to make your work day easier. If you struggle with distractions, something as simple as placing your desk away from the flow of walking traffic could greatly improve your focus and wellbeing.
Your colleagues may need to be reminded that your sensory issues make it difficult to concentrate on too many things at once. They should try to break down tasks for you to make them more manageable and reduce stress, allowing you to perform better.
There are also things that you can do for yourself.
Keep your workspace clean and tidy, just as you do with your home, and wear noise-cancelling headphones if you can to block out the sensory overload from general office sounds and other people talking.
Some people find it easier to wear a hat or sunglasses in order to deal with the harsh lighting in many workplaces, but you may also find that your employer is amenable to changing the lighting if it makes the environment more comfortable.
Remember, you may not be the only employee that has sensory issues!
Finally, consider working from home for some of the week, if possible. You could also discuss flexible working with your employer.
Summary of Useful Links
See below some of the links referred to in this article, if you would like to read more about sensory overload.
- Sensory Processing Disorder Self-Test – https://www.additudemag.com/sensory-processing-disorder-symptoms-test-adults/
- Fight or Flight – https://asensorylife.com/fight-or-flight.html
- Sensory Processing Disorder – understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/understanding-sensory-processing-issues
- Autism – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autism/
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chronic-fatigue-syndrome-cfs/
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/
- Sensory and Autism – https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/sensory-overload-in-autism-may-stem-from-hypervigilant-brain/
- The Highly Sensitive Person Test – http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test
- Sensory Integration – https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/treatments-approaches/therapies/sensory-integration-therapy-what-you-need-to-know
- Interoception – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19411243.2020.1743221
- Mindfulness – https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
- Habituation – https://explorable.com/habituation
- Symptoms of Autism – nhs.uk/Conditions/Autistic-spectrum-disorder/Pages/Symptoms.aspx
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder – https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder
- What is it Like to be a Highly Sensitive Person? https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/what-its-like-highly-sensitive-person-hsp
- Flexible Working Policy – gov.uk/flexible-working/overview