Have you ever felt like your head was going to explode from loud noises and bright lights piercing through your brain? Do big crowds and parties with music blaring overwhelm you?
When your brain receives more input from your five senses than it can process and organize, you may experience sensory overload. Maybe you can’t focus on what’s happening around you and you become restless and wound up. You could also feel the need to close your eyes, cover your ears and escape the situation. What’s more, it can take a lot of energy to process all those sensory stimuli, leaving you tired and brain fogged.
So what is sensory overload?
Sensory overload can happen to anyone, but some of us are more sensitive to sensory input than others. Children and adults with autism, ADHD and mental health disorders like PTSD are more likely to experience sensory overload than the general population. Sensory overload is also a common problem in people with chronic illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis (MS) and stroke survivors.
In these cases, the brain’s filter which identifies and then ignores irrelevant sensory information doesn’t work properly. Your mind becomes unable to tune out less important things like background noises, strong perfumes and busy decorations. As a result, your brain experiences ‘mental flooding’ and sends warning signals to your body to escape the sensory input.
What are the symptoms of sensory overload?
The symptoms of sensory overload vary from person to person. Some people are more sensitive to sounds, while children with autism, for example, often struggle with different textures and tastes.
Common symptoms include:
- inability to ignore sounds, smells and visuals
- having difficulties to focus due to competing sensory input
- sensitivity to textures, fabrics and clothing tags
- irritability or restlessness
- feeling wound up, stressed or anxious
- feeling the urge to cover your eyes or ears
- avoiding or running away from specific places and situations.
How do you deal with sensory overload?
At this time, there are no diagnostic guidelines nor medical treatments available for sensory overload. The best thing you can do is to learn how to prevent mental flooding and how you can deal with sensory overload when it does occur.
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How to Prevent and Cope with Sensory Overload
1. Identify triggers and recognize early symptoms
Often, not all sensory stimuli cause mental overwhelm. Maybe you’re sensitive to invasive smells from spicy foods and fragrant body lotions. Or perhaps your brain goes into overdrive when you’re in motion, especially unfamiliar movements like boats and amusement park rides. Sometimes it’s the accumulation of sensory input, like lively parties with loud chatter, background music and flashing lights. Once you know your triggers, you can try to avoid them or ‘dose’ your sensory input to reach comfortable levels of stimulation.
Next, try to recognize early warning signs. What do you feel when you’re starting to experience sensory overload? In trigger situations, pay attention to the sensations in your body and mind. These early symptoms could be your cue to take action to prevent sensory overload from getting worse.
2. Understand how sensory overload works
Learning how sensory overload works for your specific condition can help you prevent and manage sensory overload. But remember that everyone is unique. What triggers or helps others, might not work for you.
Also be aware that every situation is slightly different . Sometimes it may feel like there’s no logic at all. Why are you able to handle a concert well, but the background noise in restaurants drives you crazy? Try to look closer: maybe it’s because you have to multitask and juggle conversations with your dinner companions in the midst of many distractions, whereas you can fully focus on the music at a concert. Details like the acoustics, comfortable seating and time of day could also play a part.
3. Develop coping strategies that work for you
No matter how hard you try, you can’t always prevent sensory overload from happening. There are birthday parties you want attend, shopping that has to be done, the artist you really want to see, not to mention the stimulation in your workplace. Here are some general and situation-specific ideas on how to deal with sensory overload when it does occur.
General coping strategies:
- Prepare yourself for (over)stimulating activities. Take pre-emptive rest before attending a birthday party or theatre show. Even more important: give yourself permission to (temporarily) remove yourself from busy situations at the first signs of sensory overload.
- Schedule alone time. If you’re easily overloaded, you probably need some quiet time each day to wind down and recharge.
- Don’t over-schedule and plan plenty of rest in between appointments and activities. Having regular routines may also help you to be in the ‘best shape’ to prevent sensory overload.
- Practice meditation and mindfulness. It’s very helpful to fall back on these calming techniques when your senses get overwhelmed. You can learn how to do relaxing breathing techniques and take mindful micro-breaks throughout the day.
- Reduce your overall stress levels. Make time to wind down with soothing activities like nature walks, a warm bath or adult coloring books.
- Optimize your surroundings. At home, look into the best lighting for you and decorate with neutral colors. Reducing clutter could also help you avoid sensory overload. Kids sensitive to sensory overload may enjoy sitting on bean bag chairs that take the shape of their body. Check out this helpful guide from Architectural Digest on how you can modify your home for sensory-sensitive individuals with a few small changes.
- Make sure rest is a priority. Being well-rested may not stop sensory overload from happening, but it does help you to better deal with it. If you struggle to get enough sleep, you could try weighted blankets. Weighted blankets simulate a comforting hug, and this sensory tool is often recommended for anxiety and autism.
- Don’t handle large groups of people very well? Meet up one-on-one with your friends and choose a quiet venue. You could also ask someone over to your house to avoid unnecessary sensory input.
- Listening to someone talk non-stop can be tiring, especially in a room filled with people. Try to avoid making conversation while doing something else, because multitasking requires even more brainpower. And don’t feel bad about (politely) excusing yourself after a while, and quietly grabbing yourself a drink before talking to someone else.
- Attending a wedding or another special occasion? If possible, take frequent ‘sensory breaks’. Stretch your legs, get some fresh air or hide out in the bathroom for a few minutes at a time.
- Make sure you’re well-rested and well-fed before going out. Being tired, stressed and hungry can all make you more susceptible to sensory overload.
- Replace FOMO with JOMO – the joy of missing out. You don’t have to sign up for every activity and say yes to every invitation. Instead, prioritize: which activities do you really want to do?
Shops, restaurants and other public places:
- Avoid crowded places. Don’t join the Black Friday craziness or go to a busy beach on a sunny holiday. When planning an activity, pick a time and day when it’s likely to be quiet. Less noise, less distractions and less lines!
- Come prepared. Make a list of what you want to buy and go ‘speed shopping’. Instead of aimlessly wandering through the high streets, take a more goal-orientated approach to save mental energy. And if you’re highly sensitive to sensory overload while shopping, the Internet is your best friend.
- Wear ‘protection’. Putting on your sun glasses outdoors or wearing reusable ear plugs at the movie theatre could reduce the amount of sensory input coming at you.
- Remove yourself from the situation when you start to get overloaded. Find a quiet spot or retreat to your car if you need to wind down and recharge.
- If you work in an office, there are a few ways you can minimize sensory overload. Set up your desk in a quiet corner, with your boss’s permission of course. If you have control over your work hours, consider coming in early, when it’s still quiet. You could also put on noise-cancelling headphones when you have to do focused work. Finally, you can discuss working from home one day a week to prevent sensor overload.
- Don’t keep too many tabs open – neither on your screen, nor in your brain. Multitasking requires a lot of brainpower, leaving you with less capacity to process sensory input.
- Take brain-recharging breaks. Not all employers acknowledge this, but you can’t crank out high-quality work for 8 hours straight. To be actually productive, your mind and body need time to recharge. Alternate your mentally-stimulating work with more physical breaks, like a short walk or desk stretches.
You don’t have complete control over your sensory input, but hopefully these 19 coping strategies give you the tools to stop sensory overload in its tracks.
I’d love to know, what are your best tricks to prevent and manage sensory overload in all kinds of social situations?
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