Everyone may have experienced a feeling of confusion and irritation while being in a crowded place. It may be due to our brain’s incapability to simultaneously process all the sensory information. Sensory overload is an issue several people face, and it is crucial to know about it. This blog focuses on addressing what sensory overload is and various ways to manage it.
What is sensory overload?
Sensory overload happens when the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste – are overstimulated. One may feel uneasy or even panicky when one’s brain goes into fight, flight or freeze mode due to being overloaded with information that is difficult for the brain to process.
What are the causes of sensory overload?
The human brain works like a sophisticated, beautiful computer system that analyses sensory information and determines how one should respond. But when there are conflicting sensory data, the brain can’t process it all at once. Some people may experience this as feeling stuck because their brains cannot prioritise which sensory data to pay attention to. The signal to leave some of the sensory input a person may experience is sent by the brain to the body. As a result, the body begins to panic.
Numerous conditions, such as noises or images, can cause sensory overload. Different things can overwhelm different people. Sensory overload may occur when one is exposed to loud music or noise, crowded locations, emotionally charged individuals or groups, drastic changes in the environment (temperature, light, etc.), unwanted or unexpected physical interaction like hugs, a lot of traffic, scratchy or uncomfortable clothing, strong smells, and more.
What effects does sensory overload have on an individual?
A simple sense of irritation from some stimulus is not the same as sensory overload. Instead, it’s an overwhelming or overstimulating feeling that may be unmanageable. Different triggers and symptoms are frequently experienced by those who have this problem. The following are some symptoms of a sensory overload reaction:
- Anxiety and difficulty in relaxing
- Tantrums in children
- Physical unease and agitation
- Urge to cover eyes and ears to conceal the source of the input
- Fear, dread, or panic
- A desire to leave the circumstance that is causing the sensory overload
Children frequently throw tantrums or have meltdowns in response to sensory overload, which caregivers may mistake for bad conduct. Differentiating between stress brought on by a sensory overload with anxiety and a behaviour issue can be made easier by identifying the cause of a child’s reaction.
When to seek medical help?
A person must seek medical help when sensory overload is debilitating and hinders daily activities.
Who is at more risk of experiencing sensory overload?
There are a few conditions that are frequently connected to sensory overload. Some of them are:
Autism: Situations with a lot of sensory information can be overwhelming for those with autism or those on the autistic spectrum. While the exact cause of this is unknown, some research indicates that teaching autistic children how to avoid intense sensory overload may help them avoid being exposed to situations and stimuli that could be triggering.
Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): According to studies, over two-thirds of kids with ADHD suffer from oppositional defiant disorder and anxiety. People with ADHD also face trouble focusing and may find it particularly difficult to recognise and process sensory information. Anxiety and sensory overload can both be easily induced in such people.
PTSD and all types of anxiety: In stressful conditions, those with post-traumatic disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, or both are more likely to experience sensory overload. Sometimes a particular event causes it. For example, a person who worked as a soldier in a war field may get overwhelmed or anxious in the presence of fireworks or crackers. A person with severe social anxiety may discover too many sensory inputs in a crowded stadium or auditorium to comprehend and may feel overwhelmed and worried.
Other cases: Medical professionals have recognised that conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Tourette’s Disorder can make patients more susceptible to sensory overload and anxiety, although the connections between the two are not entirely evident and are currently under investigation.
Some people can experience sensory overload and anxiety even without these disorders. In the end, anyone may experience overstimulation and an extreme reaction in response to an unexpected or overwhelming scenario.
How can people with anxiety manage sensory overload?
One can avoid sensory overload or control the anxiety it may cause in several ways.
Self-care: It’s easier to boost oneself up in an overwhelming or unanticipatedly challenging situation if one is well-fed, well-rested, and hydrated. If one notices that the level of anxiety is increasing, one can also invest in strategies such as meditation, mindfulness, and breathing to assist in de-escalating.
Consult a physician: A healthcare provider can direct a person toward mental health services by recommending treatment sessions to deal with anxiety issues due to sensory overload. The doctor can also prescribe any potentially helpful medications. The healthcare provider may also prescribe an antidepressant or some other anti-anxiety medicine, depending on the age, specific triggers, and any underlying illnesses that the patient may have.
Therapy: Often, therapy is highly beneficial for overcoming anxiety and learning coping mechanisms in children and adults.
Prevent triggers: When one is aware of the specific sensations, circumstances, or stimuli that can potentially overwhelm, one can take steps to avoid them. Being honest with one’s friends and family will enable them to assist in avoiding these triggers. They may help by arranging parties and movie screenings in an environment that is friendly to the patient’s mental well-being.
It is feasible for someone with sensory overload to lead a full, healthy life with the help of medical and mental health specialists and the development of self-care strategies. Additionally, minimising stress reactions to sensory overload responses can be achieved by recognising and treating any additional concomitant conditions. Many people can avoid or mindfully navigate them with medicines and assistance from loved ones, even though some situations can be triggering.