Sensory overload can be difficult for anyone to deal with, which is why it's important to look out for the key signs of sensory overload and know how to manage sensory overload.
Here we explore some key topics around sensory overload, including:
- What is sensory overload?
- Signs of sensory overload in children and adults
- Autism overstimulation symptoms
- How to manage sensory overload
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload is where your brain cannot organize, analyze and process all of the different senses that you are experiencing; meaning an individual can feel discomfort, irritable and restless to touch, taste, sound, smell and sight.
Anybody can experience sensory overload as we all experience sensory inputs from listening to the radio or smelling the perfume that you've put on. However, sensory overload is most commonly associated with children and people with sensory issues, sensory processing disorder or autism.
For some people, receiving a large volume of sensory information all at once will trigger a sensory overload reaction. With sensory overload, individuals can over or under respond to sensory inputs as there's so much information being received, your brain may not be able to organize and prioritize these sensory inputs properly. This may cause your brain to feel stuck while it determines what to communicate to your body which can lead to feelings of panic and a need to escape.
7 Signs of Sensory Overload
The following are the seven most common signs of sensory overload, but it's important to remember that these symptoms can vary between each person; especially autism overstimulation symptoms.
- 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 their surroundings.
- Higher sensitivity levels to textures, fabrics, or clothing tags.
Now let's discuss each of these sensory overload signs in detail:
1. Difficulty Focusing
It can become stressful and overwhelming when someone is struggling to focus and give attention to a specific task in an environment with multiple sensory inputs, which may lead to sensory overload.
If the brain is unable to organize and process the many pieces of sensory information it's receiving; the individual may be unable to concentrate on a specific task which can make it very difficult to focus. This lack of focus can impair their ability to complete work and school assignments in a correct and timely fashion.
2. Surges in Extreme Irritability or Anger
A sensory input that triggers an individual is often something that they consider to be extremely unbearable such as bright lights, busy and crowded rooms, or intense scents. When an individual feels stressed or out of control in a situation, they can become extremely irritable and angry when experiencing sensory inputs that they are oversensitive to. For anger management strategies, our blog post may be helpful if you, or someone you know, would like to know more about calming methods.
3. 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, similar to how people experience 'fight or flight' in certain situations.
People with autism can notice very small details and focus in on tastes and smells that those without autism wouldn't notice. These tastes and smells can cause a sensory overload, which is why it's quite common for autistic people not to want to eat certain foods, with some struggling to eat at all recognizing that the taste and smell will be overpowering.
4. Feeling hyperactive
It is common for those who are oversensitive to their surroundings to feel hyperactive. Suppose their brain is taking in sensory information that they are oversensitive to, it can be difficult for them to take their mind off of this sensory input and can lead to sensory overload and stimming. As a consequence, they may struggle to unwind, relax, and fall asleep.
5. Covering Eyes or Ears
If someone is oversensitive to certain sight-based or sound-based sensory inputs, this can cause distress. As a result, people with sensory overload often cover their eyes or ears to divert from their environment as 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. These situations lead to a common sensory overload symptom where someone shields their eyes or ears in an attempt to block out the sensory input.
Repetitive stimming motions, like flapping hands, swinging around, rocking back or forth or touching objects, are common autism sensory overload symptoms to look out for. These repetitive stimming motions are used as a way for the individual to decrease their feeling of a sensory overload. These motions are usually harmless and help autistic people to deal with their feelings; however, be cautious about stimming motions that can cause harm or pain such as banging their head against a wall.
6. Stress, Fear or Anxiety About Their Surroundings
If someone is oversensitive to certain sensory inputs, then certain environments, or carrying out specific activities, can be extremely challenging and stressful. These situations can lead to high levels of anxiety, fear and distress. Individuals with sensory overload may dread being in such situations and be fearful about feeling trapped in an unbearable environment.
7. Higher Sensitivity Levels
A common symptom of someone who is hyper-sensitive is not 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.
Signs of Sensory Overload in Children
As a child's brain is still developing, sensory overload in children is more common than in adults. Children do not yet have the tools and coping skills to handle the many different senses they are experiencing, which leads to a sensory overload.
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. This may help children to recognize their own triggers and symptoms. The 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 school children with sensory processing issues, there are steps you can take to support them. Parents can provide educators with a list of triggers, coping mechanisms and safe spaces, and share this information with their school teachers as well.
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 five things a bubble tube is used for. Education providers can utilize bubble tubes and similar solutions in schools to accommodate students with sensory concerns.
Signs of Sensory Overload in Adults
Sensory overload in adults is typically less intense than in children as 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 they have to.
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 that sensory overload is a normal experience and that this feeling is temporary. If you are struggling with sensory processing, you can speak with your medical professionals for additional support.
How to Manage Sensory Overload
Although there is no cure for sensory overload, there are strategies you can use to prevent and overcome sensory overload symptoms through communication, sensory products, sensory rooms and bubble tubes.
The most common and obvious technique is to recognize your triggers and how to 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 ways to manage sensory overload 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 or to-do 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 a limit 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.
Sensory overload occurs in everyone at some point; however, if you notice these signs of sensory overload in you or your child frequently, contact a medical professional. Our blog post on the benefits of sensory stimulation explores how sensory products can support those with sensory processing disorder and those with autism sensory overload symptoms.
Hopefully, you now understand more 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. If you have any questions about our sensory products, please get in touch to talk with one of our expert sensory advisors.