Sensory overload happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process. Multiple conversations going on in one room, flashing overhead lights, or a loud party can all produce the symptoms of sensory overload.
Anyone can experience sensory overload, and triggers are different for different people. Sensory overload is associated with several other health conditions, including autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia.
Symptoms of sensory overload vary by case. Some common symptoms include:
- difficulty focusing due to competing sensory input
- extreme irritability
- restlessness and discomfort
- urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes from sensory input
- feeling overly excited or “wound up”
- stress, fear, or anxiety about your surroundings
- higher levels than usual of sensitivity to textures, fabrics, clothing tags, or other things that may rub against skin
Your brain functions like a beautiful, complicated computer system. Your senses relay information from your environment, and your brain interprets the information and tells you how to react.
But when there’s competing sensory information, your brain can’t interpret it all at the same time. For some people, this feels like getting “stuck”; your brain can’t prioritize what sensory information it needs to focus on.
Your brain then sends your body the message that you need to get away from some of the sensory input you’re experiencing. Your brain feels trapped by all the input it’s getting, and your body starts to panic in a chain reaction.
Anyone can experience sensory overload. Sensory overload is also a common symptom of certain health conditions.
Scientific research and firsthand accounts tell us that people with autism experience sensory information differently. Autism is associated with hypersensitivity to sensory input, making sensory overload more likely.
With attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory information competes for your brain’s attention. This can contribute to symptoms of sensory overload.
Mental health conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD can also trigger sensory overload. Anticipation, fatigue, and stress can all contribute to a sensory overload experience, making senses feel heightened during panic attacks and PTSD episodes.
Fibromyalgia is related to abnormal sensory processing. Researchers are still working to understand how this relates to fibromyalgia pain. Frequent sensory overload can be a symptom of fibromyalgia.
Since MS is a condition that has to do with nerve impulses, it makes sense that too much stimulation from your senses can trigger sensory overload, especially when you’re having a flare-up of MS symptoms. Learn more about coping with sensory overload when you have MS.
Other conditions related to sensory overload include:
Sensory overload in children can be a challenge to recognize, treat, and cope with. If you’re aware of a medical condition that presents sensory overload as a symptom, you may already be familiar with the strong reactions that sensory overload can cause.
A 2004 study estimated that over 5 percent of kindergartners in the United States meet the criteria for sensory processing conditions.
But a child who experiences sensory overload doesn’t necessarily have a related condition. Children’s brains are still developing and learning how to sort through different kinds of stimulation. That means children are more likely than adults to experience sensory overload.
Learning to recognize the signs of sensory overload early on can help you manage your child’s reactions. If your child cries uncontrollably when their face gets wet, reacts intensely to loud noises, or becomes anxious before entering a group gathering, your child may be experiencing sensory overload.
Once you’ve learned to recognize your child’s triggers, you can slowly teach them how to recognize sensory overload.
Giving your child language to explain what’s happening and letting them know that the way they’re feeling is normal, valid, and temporary can help them cope. You may find that certain situations that trigger your child are easiest to simply avoid altogether.
Sensory issues may pose significant challenges for children at school, where young students must negotiate a vivid sensory environment. Children who experience sensory overload may be able to work with an occupational therapist or other specialist to adapt to the school environment.
Frequent sensory overload symptoms may indicate that your child had a sensory processing condition. Limited expression of emotion, lack of eye contact, trouble concentrating even in quiet or subdued environments, and delayed speech development are all early signs of these conditions.
Speak with your doctor about any concerns you have about your child’s learning and development.
There are resources available to help children and parents who are highly sensitive to stimulation. The National Autism Center, the ADHD Resource Center, and the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder all have resource pages with helpful tips, success stories, and community directories that you can use to find support.
Your child’s pediatrician may also have advice for how to help.
If you know that your senses get overwhelmed and trigger sensory overload, you can cope with the condition by recognizing your triggers. It might take some time, but work to understand what your sensory overload experiences have in common.
Some people are more triggered by noises, while others are triggered by pulsing lights and large crowds.
You can try to avoid triggers of sensory overload once you know what causes it for you. You may also want to do the same activities and attend the same events that you would if you didn’t have this condition.
You can be proactive about sensory overload by thinking creatively about how to reduce sensory input when you’re in triggering situations.
Asking for the lights or music to be turned down and closing doors to limit noise pollution when you enter a social gathering are preemptive steps you can take before sensory overload sets in. Other tips include the following:
- Take a list to the store to focus in on the task at hand. This can help prevent becoming overwhelmed by the options, scents, and sounds when you’re shopping.
- Hold conversations in the corners of the room or in separate rooms when you’re at a big gathering.
- Keep a plan with you when you enter a highly stimulating environment. Write your triggers down and identify safe spaces ahead of time and share the plan with someone you trust. This can help reduce anxiety over sensory overload.
- Plan to leave events early so you feel you have an escape.
- Get plenty of rest and drink lots of water. This helps your brain function at optimal levels.
Even though sensory overload triggers are different for everyone, here are some common scenarios where sensory overload happens:
An after-work holiday gathering
At a gathering of coworkers, you may be excited about socializing with people you’re used to seeing in a work setting. But you may also feel self-conscious and unsure of yourself.
Celebrations and parties tend to have loud music and take place at night. So in addition to feeling anxious, you’re now trying to hear people speak through the music and you’re tired after a long day to begin with.
Add alcohol to the mix and you may be feeling a bit dehydrated. Once the party really kicks in to gear, a coworker turns on a strobe light and tries to start an impromptu dance party. The strobe light is the last straw — you feel trapped and like you need to immediately leave the party.
While it was the strobe light triggering your symptoms, in this scenario, it’s the combination of factors that really causes sensory overload to set in.
At the pool with your young children
Your son or daughter is looking forward to showing off their newly learned swimming skills at the community pool. But once you arrive, there’s so much loud noise from other children playing that you notice your child become hesitant.
Everyone gathered around the pool seems to have a loud squeaky pool toy or is crunching a loud snack. When your child dips their feet in the water, they start having an emotional outburst — running out of the water and refusing to try again.
While the water was the trigger factor in this scenario, it was the other environmental stimulants that caused sensory overload.
There are currently not many treatment options for sensory overload. Most “treatment” boils down to avoiding trigger situations and keeping your body as rested and well-hydrated as possible.
Occupational therapy and feeding therapy can help children manage stimulation and triggers. A method of therapy called sensory integration has found support among researchers and therapists, although researchers are still working to understand how sensory integration helps the brain.
Treating related conditions can improve sensory overload symptoms. The medication aripiprazole (Abilify) has been found to improve sensory processing in people with autism, for example.
Sensory overload can feel overwhelming, but identifying coping mechanisms that work for you will put you back in control. When you’re experiencing sensory overload, there’s nothing wrong with removing yourself from the situation to cut down the stimulation your brain is dealing with.
If your child is experiencing sensory overload, try to give them words they can use to explain the way they feel. If it’s happening to you or your child often, speak to your doctor about possible related conditions.