Sensory overload occurs when you’re faced with more sensory input than your brain can process.
If you’ve ever turned off the car radio so you could focus on what you see through your windshield, you’ve regulated sensory input.
It may not make sense at first — after all, how can music affect the way your eyes work? — but your brain must process all the input it receives. Eliminating the music you hear makes it easier to react to what you see outside the car.
So, what happens when a person is bombarded with multiple types of sensory input that they can’t regulate?
The input from your environment doesn’t stop at your senses. Several areas of the brain process the sensations you experience. When this processing can’t keep up with new input, the result is sensory overload.
The reasons for this mismatch between input and sensory integration can vary. A busy environment might be the culprit. For example:
- The person experiencing the overload might be tired or hungry, so their brain circuitry might not work as well as usual.
- Some people’s neurology might be sensitive because of mental health conditions or medical issues.
Sensory overload activates a fight, flight, or freeze response in which you try to escape triggers. This is when you see signs like meltdowns in children and irritability in adults.
It’s more than just an aversion to loud noises. Sensory overload can affect any one of your senses, such as:
- body position awareness
Sometimes, more than one sense is overwhelmed. For example, a student at a school assembly could feel overwhelmed by the sounds echoing in the gym, the glare of the fluorescent lights, and the movement and presence of all the students around them.
Even though sensory overload can happen to any person at any age, there are many health and developmental conditions where it’s more likely to occur.
Sensory overload is a characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Not all people with ADHD experience sensory overload and overstimulation, but the chances increase given certain ADHD factors, such as:
- self-regulation difficulties
- lack of awareness to surroundings
- atypical response to stimuli
The connection between anxiety and sensory overload goes both ways. People experiencing anxiety have a higher chance of experiencing sensory overload, which in turn can cause anxiety.
It’s estimated that about 90% of autistic people have sensory experiences that are atypical, according to a 2020 review. This means that they can be more responsive or less responsive to sensory input than allistic (nonautistic) people.
Different neurotypes have different sensory overload thresholds, and an autistic person might be overwhelmed in situations that don’t affect allistic people.
Concussion and post-concussion syndrome
A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). It may be followed by post-concussion syndrome, which describes symptoms that linger longer than expected.
Light and sound sensitivity is a common sign of TBI and can affect quality of life. A
Fibromyalgia is a pain-causing condition affecting the entire body.
A 2021 study reports that people with fibromyalgia have higher sensitivity not just to pain, but to other sensations too, including light, smell, and sound.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition that affects nerve cells. Sensory overload is a common symptom of MS, and triggers include:
- too many voices at the same time
- loud and busy environments, such as stores and restaurants
- unfamiliar spaces
People with PTSD often experience sensory overload triggered by hypervigilance. This is a state of continuous anxiety as a defense mechanism against perceived threat. Hypervigilance demands a high amount of sensory input, which can result in overload.
Sensory overload can make a person more sensitive than usual to input from their environment.
- Sudden sounds may take your breath away and make you flinch.
- You need to turn down the lights because your head is starting to ache.
- Textured fabric burn your skin, and clothing tags itch unbearably.
Sensory overload symptoms may be cognitive. If you can’t focus unless it’s pin-drop quiet, or if speaking over the TV volume takes too much energy, your senses may be overwhelmed.
Emotional changes can result from sensory overload. These include:
Children may experience similar reactions but express them in different ways. A child may have a full meltdown instead of simply being irritable.
If your child is overwhelmed by something, the trigger may not be easy to decipher. While your child may put their hands over their ears because of sound sensitivity, a body awareness issue might be harder to identify.
There aren’t any medications you can use to offset sensory overload, but there are strategies and lifestyle modifications that can help. It’s also beneficial to treat any conditions that occur with sensory overload.
Identify the behavior
The first step in dealing with sensory overload is to assess reactions in context. This will help you know if the reaction is related to sensory overload. It’s useful to keep a log so you can identify patterns.
For example, you may notice your child is very emotional at the end of band or PE days at school. Loud, clumsily played instruments can be overpowering. Quickly moving bodies paired with squeaking runners, thudding feet, and echoing shouts in a gym, all under fluorescent lights, can be too much.
Plan for recovery
On those band and PE days, it can help to keep your child’s schedule clear of extracurricular activities or visits with friends. This could help them quietly recover.
Similarly, if you’re irritable after working next to construction all day, it’s OK to forgo evening plans.
Anticipate and avoid
While your child might not be allowed to miss PE at school, the same mandatory attendance doesn’t apply to extracurricular activities.
For example, if the hustle, glaring lights, and echoes at the skating rink are causing an issue, you can weigh this against the benefits of skating lessons and consider choosing another activity.
Reduce the impact
If you can’t avoid a sensory-triggering environment, you can reduce its impact.
You can try using protective items, such as sunglasses, earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones. Cutting out shirt tags can help, as well as choosing the right fabric for clothing.
People of all ages can learn self-calming techniques that can help them get through episodes of sensory overload. Some strategies include:
- meditation and mindfulness training
- breathing exercises
- counting to 10
- an exit strategy to change your environment
- a calming activity, such as reading a book
- sensory fidgets like a squeeze ball
Sensory overload may be easier to manage when your health is good. A balanced diet, adequate hydration, and restful sleep all contribute to your brain’s health. This way, your brain can cope better with sensory integration challenges.
Understanding sensory overload makes it easier to manage it. If you’re experiencing too much sensory input, remember that taking a break from your current activity can ease your stress and discomfort.
If you’re dealing with a person who’s acting out, the cause may be sensory overload. Assessing the environment can give you clues to how you can help. For example, you can reduce noise and light levels, or simply give them space.
It’s also helpful to remember that sensory overload is not a choice a person makes. It’s no one’s fault, and people who experience it can benefit from empathy and support.