Do you feel discomfort and dread at the thought of situations most people consider ordinary?
If environments like schools, offices, or the grocery store make you feel frazzled and stressed, or even bloated and painfully tense, a tango between sensory overload and anxiety could be the cause.
Sensory overload is a broad term that generally means one or more of your five senses has become overstimulated.
While anyone can experience sensory overload on its own, it’s also connected to specific traits and conditions:
- Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). People with higher levels of SPS, or heightened awareness and reactions to their environment, are also known as highly sensitive people. Being highly sensitive is a personality trait, with about 1 in 5 people fitting into this category.
- Sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPD is usually diagnosed in childhood, although adults can also get a diagnosis. It involves either much higher or much lower responses to sensory input than most people experience.
- Autism spectrum disorder. Autistic people are
more likelyto experience both SPD and anxiety.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with all types of ADHD may also experience higher rates of sensory overload than people without neurodevelopmental conditions.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experiences of trauma that cause PTSD can create more hypervigilance, or awareness of your surroundings. People with PTSD may experience more sensory overload and anxiety in response to sensations that remind them of past trauma.
- Anxiety disorders. Many anxiety disorders, but particularly generalized anxiety disorder, have been
linkedto sensory processing issues.
Sensory overload can cause strong emotional and physical reactions to:
- bright lights, chaotic movement, or a cluttered environment
- rough, tight, or itchy clothes
- loud noises, voices, or music
- scents including chemicals and perfumes
- foods with strong flavors
- hot or cold temperatures
What does sensory overload feel like?
- overwhelm that makes you want to either shut down or have a meltdown
- irritation or rage
- tension in your face, neck, shoulders, or back
- having either too many thoughts in your mind, or none at all
- dissociation, or being separated from yourself and your surroundings
Can sensory overload cause panic?
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that may cause panic attacks. A panic attack happens when you’re suddenly overcome by a strong sense of fear, along with physical symptoms including dizziness and trouble breathing.
It’s possible for sensory overload to cause a panic attack. This could be because much overlap
While it’s not impossible that living with an anxiety disorder could make you more prone to overstimulation, many people with sensory processing difficulties and anxiety report that high sensitivity rather than anxiety is the root of their symptoms.
This may be different from the relationship between sensory processing challenges and other conditions like PTSD or neurodevelopmental conditions, where the condition causes high sensitivity.
A primer on anxiety disorder
Anxiety disorders come in a few forms, but many of their symptoms are the same.
Sensory overload causes its own set of effects, and understanding these differences could help you figure out if you’re experiencing one or both.
|Dread or panic||✓|
|Fear of losing control||✓|
|Bloating, nausea, or IBS||✓||✓|
|Need to get away from sensory input||✓|
|Strong reactions to physical sensations||✓|
Does being highly sensitive make you prone to anxiety?
Higher sensitivity can cause difficult-to-manage emotional responses. And over time, this higher “difficulty level” of managing the responses can lead to more anxiousness or an anxiety disorder.
When sensory overload and anxiety overlap, you may need to handle symptoms differently than if you were experiencing anxiety without high sensitivity.
This is because high sensitivity isn’t learned — instead, it’s a trait that comes with specific brain differences. So, while exposure therapy may be a helpful tool for overcoming some forms of anxiety, it may be less likely to override anxiety that stems from developmental differences.
Minimize triggers (and plan ahead)
Reducing triggers in your day-to-day life is one way to lower your chances of experiencing sensory overload. This doesn’t mean avoiding important tasks — it just means making your environment work for you.
Higher sensitivity just means you’re part of a smaller subsection of people, and most environments might not be constructed with you in mind.
Changing your environment to match the level of sensory input you’re most comfortable with could look like:
- making your home a scent-free zone
- keeping clutter under control
- choosing comfortable or loose-fitting clothes
- using forms of lighting that are gentle on the eyes, like lamps
It could also help to make as many of these adjustments as possible at work or wherever you spend a lot of time. For example, you might choose to work from home if that’s an option for you.
Still, you’ll sometimes need to be in environments that are more likely to cause sensory overload. Even then, planning ahead could help you reduce their sensory impacts. For example, you might bring noise-canceling headphones or sunglasses to help minimize some overstimulation.
Relaxation techniques can help you manage two responses to sensory overload: strong emotions and anxiety.
When you’re feeling overstimulated, it could help to try:
- deep breathing
- aromatherapy (if the scent isn’t adding to the overload)
- listening to calming music
Relaxation practices also help soothe your nervous system, meaning they may relieve some of the physical effects of overstimulation.
Practice emotion regulation
Research from 2014 suggests that because being highly sensitive can make you more aware of emotional and physical discomfort, it can be a lot harder to manage these feelings and reactions, which can quickly become overwhelming.
Signs sensory overload and anxiety are causing trouble with emotional regulation include difficulty:
- identifying and accepting your emotions
- knowing how to respond to your emotions
- feeling “out of control” about your emotional responses
- accomplishing tasks when you’re feeling low
This is where an extra helping of emotion regulation skills may come in handy. On your own or with the help of a mental health professional, you can develop skills to:
- allow and accept uncomfortable emotions
- tolerate and navigate stressful situations
- process and move past difficult emotions more quickly
If you’re prone to sensory overload, you might be more sensitive than most people — and that’s OK!
Being highly sensitive can come with conditions like anxiety. Still, it’s possible to manage the challenges of sensitivity while remembering to let its strengths, like appreciation of subtlety and high empathy, shine.