Sensory Overload: Problems and Solutions  

Sensory overload is something that many people experience. Oftentimes, sensory overload is only talked about among children. However, sensory sensitivities is not something that people will grow out of. It is common for adults with diagnosed sensory processing disorders to experience a sensory overload response, too.   

There are several different reasons that someone may experience sensory overload. The most common reason is a sensory processing disorder. This may include diagnoses such as autism, anxiety, concussion, hearing loss, PTSD, etc. However, you may experience sensory overload without a specific diagnosis directly impacting your sensory processing. Everyone has different sensory preferences. Sometimes those preferences become extreme and interrupt your daily life.  

You likely have many unanswered questions about sensory overload. Read on to discover if it is a problem in your life. And find helpful solutions.   

Sensory overload: A definition  

You may wonder, how do you explain sensory overload? It happens when the senses are overstimulated or overwhelmed.   You are likely already thinking of your five senses.  See, hear, taste, touch, and smell. 

Did you know that you have more than five senses?  

You have at least three more. However, some scientists say we have more than 20 senses.  

You have a vestibular sense which is responsible for your sense of balance, helps to keeps you upright and prevents you from falling over. This sense tells you where your head is in space.   

Additionally, you have a sense of movement called proprioception. This sense is responsible for the movement in your muscles and joints. Likewise, it tells your brain how much a muscle or a joint moved to keep you coordinated.  

Finally, interoception is the sense of your internal organs and is your eighth sense.  Interoception informs you when you are hungry or thirsty.  Additionally, it lets you know about your breathing or when you need to go to the toilet.  

Three adults sitting in a circle having a conversation.

What does being over-stimulated feel like?  

What happens when your senses are overloaded? This occurs when one or more senses are receiving too much information. Typically, sensory information overload comes from your immediate environment or place you are in. For example, sensory overload often occurs in noisy or busy environments. It also often happens when there are bright or many lights. Ultimately, this can cause discomfort and stress for those who experience sensory overload. This experience can happen to any of the senses, and it can also happen to more than one sense at a time.  

How different senses contribute

The following are your eight senses.  Accordingly, examples are included in what might cause sensory overload.    

  • Sight: crowds, clutter, bright lights, moving lights, multiple changing screens  
  • Hearing: loud noises, sudden noises, background noise, competing noises (like listening to one person speak in a crowded), noisy room  
  • Taste: spicy, flavorful food  
  • Touch: being hugged or touched, clothing with tags, clothing with wool  
  • Smell: scented candles or diffusers, perfume, strong-smelling foods  
  • Balance: being in a moving vehicle; car, bus, train, boat, plane  
  • Movement: quick, fast movement, bumping and crashing (like a contact sport)  
  • Interoception: being excessively hungry or thirsty  
Person sitting by the water meditating to reduce sensory overload.

More examples

Sensory overload happens to people of all ages, including children, adults and seniors.   

For example, your toddler experiencing sensory overload may have a tantrum.  Your child might have a meltdown in a noisy, busy place. They may refuse to go to such an environment or plead to leave.  Your toddler might be scared of a noisy place, or a child’s fear of a busy place.  In this situation, they may be unable to express what is bothering them.   

Even for adults with sensory overload, it is often difficult for them to pinpoint and describe the problem.  

For someone with sensory overload, what is noisy and busy to them may not feel noisy and busy for you.  For instance, an adult may have to leave an event early or refuse to go somewhere with many people. In particular, with many strangers.      

Everyone has sensory preferences. People enjoy different senses.  Furthermore, people enjoy different sensory experiences.  To sum up, it’s normal to be different!  

More people experience sensory overload daily because our world is getting busier, noisier and brighter. 

How do I know if I have sensory overload?

Sensory overload can be caused by several things.  Moreover, the experiences that trigger a reaction can be “typical or normal” for others.  

 If “typical and normal” events interrupt your daily life, sensory overload may be the cause.  

Are you unsure? An occupational therapist can help you determine the cause of your symptoms.  If you are worried about any symptoms, talking to your doctor is always a good idea.  

Symptoms of sensory overload

  • Aversion to going somewhere new   
  • Avoid being touched   
  • Being irritated by clothes or textures  
  • Bothered by sounds other people do not hear  
  • Craving quiet  
  • Disliking background music   
  • Distaste for meeting new people  
  • Evade hugging  
  • Fatigue, especially after meeting new people or experiencing something new  
  • Fidgeting  
  • Having difficulty in social situations with many people  
  • Hearing soft sounds, other people do not  
  • Inability to focus and complete tasks  
  • Irritability, especially in a noisy, busy, bright place  
  • Lights hurt your eyes  
  • Muscle tension  
  • Needing to be alone more than other people  
  • Restlessness  
  • Seeking solitude  
  • Shun background noise  
  • Sounds hurt your ears  
  • Tiredness, needing significant rest after going to a busy place  
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones (without listening to music) to drown out sounds  
  • Wearing sunglasses indoors or outdoors, even when cloudy  

Characteristics of these symptoms

Some people experience one or more of these symptoms every day. Others experience it only in certain circumstances or certain places. Some experience an overstimulation of the senses because they are tired but do not experience it during other times. Other people are more prone to experiencing sensory overload because of an underlying cause.  This can be a disability, disorder, or difference in their brain.  It is often associated with autism, Asperger’s, the Highly Sensitive Person, anxiety, concussion, fibromyalgia, sensory processing disorder, and PTSD.  However, many more things can make people experience overstimulation in daily life.  

Strategies to minimize sensory overload   

If you or someone you know experiences sensory overload, there are several strategies you can utilize to help minimize the severity of the response.  

Take breaks

Manage your sensory experience by taking breaks as much as you need. You might go to a party at a new location with lots of people, but you may only go for a short period of time.  Places and events that identify as sensory-friendly may also have a quiet space or room.  These are dedicated areas for patrons to take a break.  For example, a sports arena might have a quiet room, also often called a sensory room. This is a setting where individuals can hit pause on the loud, noisy, bright crowd and game. Everyone experiences things differently, and it is important to allow your body to take as many breaks as needed. Step aside and take a short walk, drink water, eat a snack, or do yoga.

Create a sensory-friendly kit

Creating a sensory-friendly tool kit with things to help reduce the sensory experience is helpful. For example, if you tend, you get very overwhelmed by bright and/or flashing lights, consider bringing sunglasses with you. Or if loud noises tend to cause you stress, try bringing earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Ultimately, these sensory tools will help those with hypersensitivities experience a more relaxed sensory experience. The last things you may want to include in your sensory-friendly kit are fidgets or other sensory-friendly products. It is important to understand that fidgets are not just for children. These sensory-friendly tools help to provide a calming and distracting effect within stressful situations. Be sure to look out for Sensory Friendly Solution’s sensory-friendly kit coming soon!  

Determine your triggers

For instance, you may get extremely overwhelmed or upset in large and noisy crowds. Therefore, acknowledging what specific environments or activities may cause you increased stress makes you less likely to put yourself in a situation that causes increased stress. Choose sensory-friendly events, places, products, and services such as movies, performances, and shopping.  

Identity safe spaces

Another important strategy to help cope with a sensory overload response is identifying safe spaces. These are spaces you can reside in when feeling anxious to provide a sense of peace and comfort. Furthermore, it is helpful to identify a safe space both at home and within your workplace if necessary.  

Develop a routine

Lastly, creating a routine is an effective way to help manage sensory overload. Developing a routine is an efficient way to ensure you engage in meaningful daily activities that provide comfort. Doing so makes you less likely to put yourself in a situation that leads to greater stress.  

Sensory overload is a common experience for many adults with heightened sensitivities. Consider using some of these suggestions to help manage your sensory sensitives. For more suggestions to manage your sensory overload, check out these tips from Jenara Nerenberg, the author of Divergent Mind.  

Key points to remember  

  • You have at least eight senses: see, hear, touch, smell, taste, move, balance, and interoception.  
  • Senses can become overstimulated and overwhelming.  
  • Overload causes distress.  
  • Overload can occur in one or more of the senses at the same time  
  • There are disorders, disabilities, and differences that make it more likely for someone to experience sensory overload.  
  • Many people are looking for things that help prevent sensory overload.  
  • Many businesses and organizations offer sensory-friendly experiences to help.

 Interested in learning more about sensory overload? Check out this article, “Sensory Overload: A Concept Analysis” by Scheydt et al., (2017), it examines the impact of mental illness on sensory overload.  

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