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What is Sensory Overload?

Post Written by Kailey MarcAurele

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by everything around you that you almost feel paralyzed?

Sensory overload happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process. It could be a multitude of things – multiple conversations going on in one room, flashing overhead lights, or a loud party. All of these can produce the symptoms of sensory overload.

What Causes The Sensory Overload?

When there’s competing sensory information, your brain cannot interpret it all at the same time. For some people, this feels like getting stuck – your brain can’t prioritize what sensory information it needs to focus on.

Your brain then sends your body the message that you need to get away from some of the sensory input you’re experiencing. Your brain feels trapped by all the input it’s getting, and your body starts to panic in a chain reaction.

Who is at Risk?

In terms of mental health conditions, sensory overload tends to happen to people with:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
    • Sensory information competes for your brain’s attention. This can contribute to symptoms of sensory overload.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD
    • Anticipation, fatigue, and stress can all contribute to a sensory overload experience, making senses feel heightened during panic attacks and PTSD episodes.

Other conditions that sensory overload are associated with are:

  • Autism
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Tourette Syndrome

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

  • Difficulty focusing due to competing sensory input
  • Extreme irritability
  • Restlessness and discomfort
  • Urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes from sensory input
  • Feeling overly excited or “wound up”
  • Stress, fear, or anxiety about your surroundings
  • Higher levels than usual of sensitivity to textures, fabrics, clothing tags, or other things that may rub against skin

What Sensory Overload Feels Like For Me

If you’ve experienced sensory overload, you’re not alone. Sensory overload is something that I have experienced firsthand.

I come from a big family and honestly, although I love them, they are pretty loud and they tend to all talk over each other during our family events. There were so many times that I would get anxious and really irritable. Sometimes at these events, I would get so stressed out and uncomfortable, I would literally go hide in the basement just to get away from the noise.

For me, I always had a really hard time doing my work in the library and sometimes even in the classroom because even the sound of people writing would stress me out and make me unable to focus. In the library, there were conversations going on, the sound of typing, the sounds of backpack zippers, etc….all at once. And not only could I not focus when I was hearing all these VERY normal sounds you expect to hear in a library, but I would also get furious. The sound of people typing would make me so angry and I would have these off the wall thoughts about how I wish everyone would stop typing because I couldn’t focus.

When the sensory overload happens, I tend to just shut down. I can’t focus. I get irritable and everything starts to piss me off. It probably makes me sound like an asshole saying everyday sounds quite literally drive me insane, but all of them at once are just too much for me to handle.

Because of this, I’m the most comfortable at home where I can control the environment and what’s’ going on around me. I don’t like going to loud, crowded places. Loud sounds, convos, and environments are probably one of my biggest triggers. Those are the kind of places where I tend to shut down.

I used to think I had ADHD because the sensory overload would cause me to lose my focus. When I told my therapist this, she told me that anxiety can make it hard to focus too. That had never occurred to me, but considering the constant intrusive thoughts in my head throughout the day, it makes sense why focusing would be hard.

Take Aways

Experiencing sensory overload doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. It just means there’s too much going on around you and your brain is having trouble sorting through what it needs to be focused on. Your brain being overwhelmed is what causes the panic.

If you’re experiencing sensory overload, the following may help:

If you need help now, but you’re not sure where to start, check out our resources page.

One Reply to “What is Sensory Overload?”

  1. MR says:

    Occupational therapy can also help with sensory processing issues, helping connect & regulate the imbalance between different senses that is pretty common in autism and other issues. It was super effective for some preschoolers and elementary school students I know who have autism.

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