Some people can experience sensory overload which is caused by an excessive amount of sensory input. In this guide, you’ll learn what sensory overload is, the causes and symptoms of it, and how to prevent and manage it.
What is sensory overload?
Everything you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste creates sensory input that is received by your brain. Sensory overload happens when there’s more sensory input than your brain can process.
The different types of sensory input are:
- Sounds/noise (auditory input) e.g. loud music, a washing machine, people talking, or a clock ticking
- Lights (visual input) e.g. bright or flashing lights, vibrant imagery, or busy environments
- Texture (tactile input) e.g. the texture of certain foods, the feeling of clothes, feeling hot
- Movement, direction, or position (vestibular input) e.g. being in a fast vehicle, feeling trapped in a crowded space, or being in an uncomfortable position for too long
- Smells (olfactory input) e.g. perfume, air fresheners, or certain foods
People with the following health conditions may have more frequent or intense periods of sensory overload:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Some common symptoms include:
- Extreme discomfort or pain
- Feelings of stress, anxiety, or fear
- Poor focus, fatigue, and tiredness
- Racing mind, and restlessness
- Difficulty communicating and expressing emotions
- Heightened sensitivity
Six ways to manage sensory overload
- Quieten auditory input. In some places, you can control the noises around you; for instance, you can turn the TV off or pause the washing machine at home. In places where you can’t control noise levels, try using earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. They might not give you complete silence, but you’ll still be able to hear what’s going on around you without being overwhelmed by the different layers of noise.
- Blocking visual input: If you have light sensitivity, then try wearing sunglasses or a hat that can dim the light. If screens are overstimulating, try decreasing the brightness with blue-light-blocking glasses, or enabling dark mode on your computer. You can also try black-out curtains or blinds for windows. For times when you can’t do any of these things, see if you can sit somewhere dark or wear an eyemask for a little while.
- Quiet spaces: When you’re in an environment that’s crowded or has too many people then find yourself a quiet space. For example, your teachers can help identify a quiet place for you to go to when you’re at school. Or if you’re going to an event, contact the organisers to find out if there will be a quiet zone available and where you can find it.
- Stimming: Repetitive bodily movements like leg shaking, hand-flapping, rocking back and forth, or making sounds are examples of self-stimulatory behaviours, also known as ‘stims’. Stimming, or fidgeting, can help manage sensory overload, but it’s important to do so in healthy ways and in a safe environment. Other examples include using fidget toys, singing out loud, or drinking/eating something.
- Calming activities: You can help your brain recalibrate and recharge your social battery by doing calming activities. What you find calming is unique to you, but it can include things like meditating, listening to music, reading, watching a favourite tv show, wearing cosy clothes, or lying under a weighted blanket to name a few.
- Getting grounded: If you feel yourself starting to get overwhelmed, then it’s good practice to try and get grounded. For instance, you can put your back against a wall or sit with your feet flat on the ground. Then, trace your environment through your senses by identifying anything you can see, hear, smell, feel, or taste.
The causes, symptoms, and intensity of sensory overload can vary depending on the person and situation. So what works for one person, may not work for another. By learning what symptoms and triggers you or a loved one may have, you can try various ways to prevent and manage sensory overload. Over time, you will find what works best in different situations.