Have you ever felt completely out of focus, overwhelmed, or like you need to sink into your own mind from all the noise and hubbub around you? You might be experiencing sensory overload.
But, sensory overload experiences can vary and triggers are different depending on the person, especially if you are autistic or have ADHD. While it can be a scary experience, the good news is there are ways to help you take back control.
Here’s everything you need to know about sensory overload.
Sensory overload means you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can handle. Your senses like smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound tell your brain about your environment, and your brain interprets the information and controls your reaction.
But if you take in too much information from your senses, your brain just can’t make sense of it at all or focus on what’s going on.
Sensory overload symptoms depend on the person. One person may be sensitive to loud noises and flashing lights, while others are bothered by strong odors. The most common sensory overload symptoms include:
- extreme irritability
- difficulty focusing and feeling restless
- feeling overwhelmed or stressed
- anxiety or fear
- covering your ears or eyes to block out any sensory input
- sensitivity to fabrics, clothing tags, or other textures
- an inability to block out any sounds, smells, or other type of sensory input
Sensory overload is caused by your brain’s inability to cope with too much sensory information at one time. Situations like bangin’ concerts, a loud restaurant, or being stuck in a large crowd at an airport can all trigger sensory overload.
What causes the brain to react in this way isn’t well known, but it could be your brain structure, specifically if you have a sensory processing disorder. One study suggests that kids with sensory processing disorders actually have a different brain structure, which might affect sensory processing.
However, sensory overload can be a rare or occasional experience. And, if you have it, it doesn’t mean you will have structural brain differences.
What could trigger sensory overload?
The main triggers for sensory overload are usually strong or noisy. Main triggers include:
- noises coming from multiple sources at one time
- flashing, bright lights (especially with music or loud noise)
- strong scents, such as from candles, fragrances, or food
- tactile stimulation from crowds
- a combination of all of these things at once
Sensory processing disorder
Sensory processing disorder is a neurological disorder where people respond differently to sensory information. The brain has trouble processing information from your senses, leading to episodes of sensory overload.
It’s common for sensory issues to accompany autism spectrum disorder, which affects communication and behavior. The sensory issues in autism can involve both hyper-sensitivities (over-responsiveness) and hypo-sensitivities (under-responsiveness) to things like sounds and touch.
A 2015 study showed that adults with ADHD have an extra hard time filtering out irrelevant auditory information like small sounds.
In 2011, 11 studies among children with ADHD showed that there was an increased sensory sensitivity for sensory modalities (think: light, sound, taste, temperature, and smell).
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) episodes can also involve sensory overload. Anticipation, fatigue, and stress can all contribute to the experience, which can make senses feel heightened during and lead to sensory overload.
Other, less common conditions linked to sensory overload include:
- generalized anxiety disorder
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- Tourette syndrome (TS)
- multiple sclerosis
Sensory overload can be pretty common in kids, but doesn’t mean they have a related condition. Children’s brains are developing and learning how to process sensory stimulation. This means kids are more likely to experiences sensory overload compared to adults.
Frequent sensory overload symptoms, however, may indicate a kid has a sensory processing condition. Other signs of these conditions include limited expression of emotion, lack of eye contact and delayed speech development.
Though sensory processing issues tend to get better with age, they can persist into adulthood. This is more likely if you have a diagnosed medical condition that is known to accompany it.
Sensory overload isn’t an official mental health disorder, so you won’t get a formal diagnosis for it like you would anxiety or ADHD. With the help of your doctor or a therapist, however, you can figure out if you have a related condition or identify your triggers.
Try keeping a journal of any sensory overload symptoms and triggers to share with your doc. To get a better idea of how you experience sensory overload, your doc will most likely ask you questions about what triggers your symptoms.
There isn’t an official treatment to “cure” sensory overload. But, there are ways to help you plan and manage frequent episodes.
Occupational therapy is usually used with children who have sensory overload to help them learn to manage their triggers. Research has also supported a therapy called sensory integration for autistic kids.
For adults, similar therapy approaches can help people identify ways to help minimize and avoid sensory overload triggers.
If you’re diagnosed with a sensory overload-related condition (more specifically autism), you may be prescribed medication like aripiprazole (Abilify) to help reduce your symptoms.
You’re healthcare provider or therapist can help you come up with a plan that’s right for your situation.
Starting to feel overwhelmed from a sensory overload trigger? Sensory overload can be managed with certain techniques, like:
- avoiding loud events, flashing lights, certain smells, or big crowds
- asking those around you to turn down music or turn off bright lights
- journaling about your experiences
- taking breaks
- getting enough sleep
- drinking enough water
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- avoiding or removing yourself from situations that make you stressed or anxious
Though it’s not a condition in its own right, sensory overload can be a scary experience that can cause huge distress. It often occurs with other related conditions such as autism and ADHD, but sometimes there is no link to a disorder.
There is no cure for sensory overload, but there are lots of ways to manage and reduce it, both at home and with the help of a doctor.