The dog is barking, your child is crying, and you burned dinner, so the smoke alarm is blaring. Finally, the noise, the smoke, and the mess become too much, and you lose it, running to hide in the pantry.
Everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time. The cause is usually some form of sensory overload where your five senses are completely overwhelmed with information, making it difficult (or nearly impossible) to process the information you are receiving fully.
For example, your sense of hearing may have become overwhelmed when exposed to the barking, crying and blaring alarm. Or maybe your vision couldn’t handle everything that was going on in the kitchen.
Anyone can experience sensory overload. For some, it’s part of a chronic issue known as sensory processing disorder. On the other hand, it might be related to another condition, such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Regardless of the source, sensory overload tends to sneak up on you quickly. Fortunately, putting the right coping strategies in place can help get your senses under control quickly.
Read on to learn more about sensory overload, recognizing the signs and ways to cope.
What causes sensory overload?
“Adults can develop sensory overload when their senses can’t process all of the sensations the brain is experiencing,” said Eddie Taylor, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Banner Health in Queen Creek, AZ. “This is usually due to a mental health or medical condition. However, it can also occur when you are tired or hungry.”
When the brain is overwhelmed by something, it enters the fight, flight or freeze mode in response. Situations, sights, sounds, textures and smells can trigger sensory overload. Sometimes, more than one sense is overwhelmed.
What does sensory overload feel like? What are the signs?
While symptoms of sensory overload vary from person to person and case to case, usually the telltale signs of your senses being in overdrive are when you need to stop the competing senses to focus on one specific sensory area.
On a physical level, you can experience a racing heart, sweatiness, and dissociation (feeling outside of your own body). Mentally and emotionally, you can feel overwhelmed, close to panic or anger, and unable to think straight. This can cause a fight, flight or freeze response or a strong urge to block some of the input by covering your ears or eyes.
“The symptoms are generally similar to those seen in children with sensory overload,” Dr. Taylor said. “However, children could have more difficulty identifying the concept of being in sensory overload. They usually respond with being frustrated rather than trying to reduce the competing senses.”
Below are a few examples of how sensory overload can impact your senses:
- Sight: After a long day at work, you walk into the house, clutter everywhere, the dirty dishes piled up in the sink, and your partner lounging on the couch watching TV. There are so many visual stimuli that your brain gets overloaded and can’t successfully process what you see.
- Hearing: The first example at the beginning of this article is an example of an auditory sensory overload. There is too much competing noise in your space, and your brain can’t process any more loud noises.
- Smell: When someone joins you in the elevator, smelling like they just showered in perfume. The scent is an assault on your sense of smell that you feel like you might suffocate or throw up.
- Taste: You try escargot (aka snails) for the first time, and you can’t handle the mushy, salty crustacean. The taste and texture cause you to panic and spit it out.
- Touch: Wearing things that are too tight or itchy leaving you feeling trapped and panicky.
How to deal with sensory overload
There are many ways to learn how to deal with sensory overload, regardless of your unique triggers. Dr. Taylor shared ways to cope.
- Practice self-calming exercises. Some strategies include meditation, mindful breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi and calming activities like reading, journaling or coloring, and fidget toys.
- Get proper sleep. Take steps to ensure you are getting enough quality sleep. Invest in items that can help you unwind, like noise-canceling earbuds, a weighted blanket or white noise machines.
- Manage your health. Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water.
- Reduce the number of stimulating activities. If you can avoid a sensory-triggering environment, you can reduce its impact. Cut tags from shirts. Avoid tight fabrics. Try using protective items, like sunglasses or noise-canceling headphones.
- Set boundaries. Setting boundaries is very important if you are often overstimulated. If you find yourself in a triggering situation, it’s OK to leave politely.
- Seek help. If you are struggling with sensory overload, don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional. Many people find therapy can help them navigate anxiety and develop tactics to manage triggering situations.
“Help should be sought from a licensed behavioral health specialist or health care provider when sensory overload becomes unmanageable and affects your daily living,” Dr. Taylor said. “Seeking help while symptoms are present, before becoming functionally impaired, is ideal.”
Depending on your age and triggers, your provider may recommend anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants.
Sensory overload can happen to anyone and can affect a combination of your five senses. If you are struggling or experiencing anxiety and/or panic attacks, it’s important to talk to a health care professional. They can guide you on your options, which may include therapy, lifestyle changes, and coping strategies.
Need help coping with sensory overload?
Call the Banner Behavioral Health Appointment Line at (800) 254-4357.