What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload

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What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload occurs when one or more of your five senses becomes overstimulated. For instance, a person’s sense of hearing may become overloaded when music is too loud or their vision may be impaired if lights are too bright.

Anyone can experience sensory overload, but it is most common with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, or sensory processing disorder

Symptoms 

Symptoms of sensory overload will vary from person to person. While some people may experience only mild symptoms resulting in slight feelings of discomfort, some people report symptoms that are so intense that they are unable to function until their senses normalize.

People may experience only auditory overload, while others might experience it visually. In some cases, more than one of your senses might feel overloaded. However, there are some shared symptoms anyone living with the condition might experience. They include:

  • Irritability 
  • Anxiety 
  • Stress
  • Lack of focus 
  • Agitation 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Difficulty sleeping 

Causes

When the brain receives more information through your senses than it can process, sensory overload occurs. In some cases, more than one of your senses might feel overwhelmed at the same time.

Sensory Overload Triggers

Auditory

Your sense of hearing might become overloaded if you're surrounded by loud noise (e.g. a concert or sports game) or if you're hearing multiple sounds at once.

You may find certain sounds overstimulating but not react at all to others. While some people report only mild discomfort, some people experience pain when sounds are too intense.

Touch

Everyday things like the feeling of your clothes or a person touching you could feel overwhelming. The texture of certain materials might also make you feel uncomfortable (i.e. some people don't like certain fabrics). Some people might even find a certain touch or the feel of certain things painful.

Sight

Many people experience some kind of sensitivity to light especially when they are subjected to harsh or overwhelming amounts of light.

Smell

A person whose sense of smell is over-responsive or highly sensitive might find strong smells like perfume overwhelming.

You are likely to notice smells others might not. Some people can begin to feel unwell if they're around too many strong smells. You might even avoid places with strong smells like kitchens, bathroom, or certain stores. Some people may refuse to eat certain foods due to the way they smell.

Taste

Your taste buds can be overwhelmed by foods with strong flavors or specific spices. The temperature of certain foods might also trigger sensory overload. Foods that are either too hot or too cold can also be overwhelming to your sense of taste.  

Conditions That Heighten Sensory Overload

People with certain medical conditions are more likely to experience sensory overload. Sensory overload can be triggered by conditions such as: 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

A common symptom of people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder is heightened sensory sensitivity. People with PTSD often experience flashbacks of the traumatic event they lived through. Sometimes these flashbacks are triggered when their senses are overwhelmed.

For example, a person living with PTSD as a result of getting shot might be triggered by loud banging sounds. The heightened responsiveness of their senses often causes them to be on high alert even in scenarios where they don’t need to be.

Sensory Processing Disorder

People with sensory processing disorder receive and respond to sensory inputs in a different way from most people—they might either be under-responsive or over-responsive.

Sensory processing disorder is more common in children than in adults. A 2013 study attributes sensory processing disorder, which causes sensory overload in children, to a difference in their brain structure. According to the researchers, children with this condition have reduced white matter in their brain, which affects sensory behavior.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

People with ADHD, whether it’s the inattentive, hyperactive, or combined type, might experience sensory overload. People with this condition are also more likely to develop anxiety when their senses are constantly overwhelmed.

Research also shows that stimulants—a form of ADHD medication—may trigger visual oversensitivity in children with ADHD.

Autism 

Sensory overload is common in people who have autism because they often have sensitive sensory systems.

Some of the most common forms of sensory overload, in people with autism, are auditory and visual. This means they are often triggered by loud noises and bright lights. 

Diagnosis 

There are two tests medical professionals may use to identify cases of sensory overload. They are the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) and the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM) checklist.

In many cases, being on the lookout for the most common symptoms of sensory overload is the easiest way to identify it.

Sensory Overload in Children

Children may be either over-responsive or unresponsive to sensory inputs. In fact, 1 in 6 children is reported to have sensory processing difficulties. It’s more common for children to be over-responsive.

Children who experience sensory overload often react by crying, screaming, or becoming aggressive.

If your child is having a particularly difficult time coping with the condition, you might want to speak to a pediatrician. While an adult might simply remove themselves from a situation triggering their sensory overload, children may not be able to do so or may not be able to fully communicate what they're experiencing.

As many everyday situations can lead to sensory overload in children, here are some child-specific symptoms of sensory overload:

  • Crying and screaming 
  • Covering their faces or plugging their eyes 
  • Shutting their eyes and refusing to open them
  • Completely shutting down 

If your child shows these behaviors, it’s important to use a quiet voice to placate them. Take note of their triggers and attempt to eliminate them before an overload occurs in the future.

Treatment 

There is currently no particular medical treatment for sensory overload, however, there are many ways to help manage the condition.

One of the most effective ways to cope with the condition is to recognize your triggers and learn how to avoid them. You can do this by keeping a diary and making a note of each time it occurs. 

For people who experience sensory overload as a result of other conditions, medications which help treat these conditions might also reduce the frequency or severity of sensory overload. 

Sensory Diet

For children with sensory overload, a doctor might recommend an occupational therapist, to help. An occupational therapist helps children who have sensory sensitivities, by creating a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a schedule of sensory activities tailored to your child's needs. It’s designed to help your child manage their sensory inputs and cope with triggers that might overwhelm their senses.

Coping

The most effective way to live a healthy life when dealing with sensory overload is to develop coping mechanisms. Some coping methods include: 

  • Stick to a routine to create stability. If your sensory overload is caused by unavoidable triggers in your day-to-day life, sticking to a routine might help you plan how to deal with an upcoming overload. While you might not be able to prevent it, you might be able to manage its severity. 
  • Identify triggers to learn how you can avoid them or prepare for them.
  • Practice meditation to help your mind relax when you are feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Optimize your living space to remove things (e.g., bright or harsh lights, loud speakers) that trigger sensory overload.

A Word From Verywell 

Sensory overload happens when your brain is overwhelmed from the input of information from your senses. Living with sensory overload can be difficult, but identifying your triggers and using coping mechanisms that work for you can help ease your discomfort.

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