Every day, each of us experiences sensory inputs – from listening to the radio while getting ready in the morning to smelling the perfume you’ve put on before heading out the front door. Nowadays, we are experiencing more sensory inputs than ever before; technology is continuously sending us sounds and messages throughout the day, and the environments we exist in are more fast-paced. Sometimes, experiencing an excessive amount of sensory information can cause a sensory overload.
What is sensory overload? What causes sensory overload?
Anybody can experience sensory overload; this is when your brain cannot organize, analyze and process all of the different senses that you are experiencing.
When your body receives sensory information, your brain processes this information and relays to your body how to react. For some people, receiving a large volume of sensory information all at once will trigger a sensory overload reaction. With so much information being received, your brain may not be able to organize and prioritize it properly. This may cause your brain to feel stuck while it determines what to communicate to your body. This stuck sensation can lead to feelings of panic and escape.
Sensory overload is more common in children, people with sensory issues, and people with Sensory Processing Disorder.
7 Signs of Sensory Overload
Symptoms of sensory overload vary case by case, but these are the most common symptoms that you can look out for:
- Difficulty focusing.
- Surges in extreme irritability or anger.
- Restlessness and discomfort.
- Covering eyes or ears.
- Feeling overly excited or hyperactive
- Stress, fear, or anxiety about surroundings.
- Higher levels than usual of sensitivity to textures, fabrics, or clothing tags.
When someone is struggling to focus on a specific task in an environment with multiple sensory inputs, it can become stressful and overwhelming for them. This may lead to sensory overload. If their brain is unable to organize and process the many pieces of sensory information it is receiving, the individual may be unable to concentrate on a specific task. This can impair their ability to complete work and school assignments in a correct and timely fashion.
Surges in Extreme Irritability or Anger
A sensory input that triggers an individual is often something that they consider to be extremely unbearable. Examples include bright lights, busy and crowded rooms, or intense scents. When they experience sensory inputs that they are oversensitive to, it can cause extreme irritability or anger because of how stressful and out of control they find the situation. Our blog post on anger management strategies may be helpful if you, or someone you know, is struggling with these situations.
Restless and Discomfort
If somebody is hypersensitive to specific sensory inputs, it can cause extreme discomfort and lead to sensory overload. For example, someone eating out at a restaurant may be overwhelmed by the different food smells, the clanging of dishes, loud music and loud diners. As a result, the individual may experience restlessness, which can manifest physically through fidgeting, finger flicking or foot tapping. The individual may also feel the need to bolt from the environment as an escape.
Covering Eyes or Ears
If someone is oversensitive to certain sight-based or sound-based sensory inputs, this can cause distress. They may not understand what is happening or be in a position where they cannot leave or change the situation. For example, many people with sensory processing issues cannot tolerate really loud music or extremely bright, fluorescent lighting. This leads to a common sensory overload symptom where someone shields their eyes or ears in an attempt to block the sensory input.
It is common for those who are oversensitive to their surroundings to feel hyperactive. If their brain is taking in sensory information that they are oversensitive to, then it can be difficult for them to take their mind off of this sensory input and can lead to sensory overload. As a consequence, they may struggle to unwind, relax, and fall asleep.
Stress, Fear or Anxiety About Their Surroundings
Anxiety can be a sign of sensory overload. If someone is oversensitive to certain sensory inputs, they are more likely to experience stress and anxiety. Being in certain environments, or carrying out specific activities, can be extremely challenging and stressful. They may dread being in such situations and be fearful about feeling trapped in an unbearable environment.
Higher Levels Than Usual of Sensitivity to Textures, Fabrics, or Clothing Tags.
A common symptom of someone who is hyper-sensitive is not being able to withstand certain touch-based sensory inputs. They may be hypersensitive to certain textures (including food textures), specific fabrics, or clothing tags rubbing on their skin.
Sensory Overload in Children
Sensory overload in children is more common than in adults because children’s brains are still developing. Children also do not yet have the tools and coping skills to handle the many different senses they are experiencing.
In order to help children through these times, parents and teachers can recognize the factors and environments that trigger a child. Over time, you can explain these triggers to help the child better understand why they feel like they do. Over time, this may help children recognize their own triggers and symptoms. Self-realization of symptoms can be reassuring to children who come to know what they are feeling and experiencing is valid and will pass.
Just because a child experiences sensory overload, this does not automatically mean that they have a related condition. However, if a child is experiencing sensory overload frequently, then they may have a sensory processing condition, and you should consider consulting with a medical professional.
For children with sensory processing issues, there are steps you can take to support them. You could integrate calming sensory solutions, such as bubble tubes, into your child’s bedroom to help them remain relaxed while increasing brain development. If you’re unsure about what a bubble tube is, have a look at our post explaining 5 things a bubble tube is used for.
Educators can employ similar solutions in schools to accommodate students with sensory concerns. Parents can provide educators with a list of triggers, coping mechanisms and safe spaces, and share this with their school teachers as well.
Sensory Overload in Adults
Sensory overload in adults is typically less intense than in children; adults can often better understand their triggers and have more experience with coping mechanisms. However, adults can still experience struggles, like anxiety, if they are in a triggering environment. If you do experience anxiety due to processing issues, there are steps you can take to try and relieve those feelings, like breathing techniques and exercising.
Sensory overload in adults can also be extremely lonely and isolating as it can prevent adults from engaging in social interactions and entering social spaces unless absolutely necessary.
Ultimately, sensory overload may also negatively affect adults in their work environment. An adult who experiences hypersensitivity may struggle to focus on their work tasks, feel restless, or feel overwhelmed by their working environment.
If you are an adult who experiences sensory overload, it is important to remember it is a normal experience that is temporary. If you are struggling with sensory processing, you can speak with your medical professionals for additional support.
Ways to Prevent and Overcome Sensory Overload Symptoms
Although there is no cure for sensory overload, there are strategies you can use to prevent and overcome sensory overload symptoms.
The most common and obvious technique is to recognize your triggers and avoid them. However, this is not always possible, so it’s an excellent idea to be proactive and think about how you can reduce sensory inputs when you find yourself in triggering environments.
Some examples include:
- Wearing noise-cancelling headphones – this is something that can be useful when shopping or working in a busy office.
- Write lists to focus on tasks – like a grocery list.
- Ask people to accommodate you – you could ask for the music to be turned down in a store, or lights to be dimmed in your office.
- Research and visit stores that offer sensory-friendly shopping hours.
- Set limits for how long you will spend in such environments – you could let a host know that you need to leave their social event early.
It is also important to give yourself time to rest and recover after being in overwhelming environments and to stay well-rested and hydrated to help your brain function at its optimal level.
Hopefully, this answers some of your questions about sensory overload. If you or your child are struggling with sensory overload, it may be helpful to pinpoint triggers and identify clear coping mechanisms which may include sensory products and sensory rooms.