How to Manage Sensory Overload in Adults

Exhausted by the Buzz? The Noise? The Crowds? You’re Not Alone

Think sensory overload is just a childhood thing? Think again. While it’s often mentioned with kids, adults experience this too, and it can leave you feeling drained and overwhelmed.

For instance, imagine you’re stuck in rush hour traffic. In addition, think about honking horns, flashing lights, and a sea of faces combine into a chaotic sensory assault. This is what sensory overload can feel like, and it’s not just reserved for those with diagnoses like PTSD or autism.

For instance, maybe you’re neurodivergent, have a concussion, or simply find the modern world a bit too much. Moreover, our sensory preferences are unique, and sometimes, they get pushed to the limit. Howver, there is good news! You’re not alone, and there are ways to cope and solutions to find.

Intrigued? Keep reading to learn more about the struggles of sensory overload or sensory sensitivity and discover some solutions to help you reclaim your calm.

How do you define sensory overload ?

Demystifying Sensory Overload: More Than Meets the Eye (and Ear, and Nose…)

Have you ever felt bombarded by your surroundings? For example, like the world has turned up the volume a notch too high, the fluorescent lights are buzzing too intensely, and the crowded room smells overwhelming? That’s sensory overload in action. It happens when your senses – yes, even more than the classic five – become overwhelmed by incoming information. For instance:

  • Sight: Imagine a grocery store with flashing neon signs, brightly colored packaging everywhere, and overwhelming crowds.
  • Hearing: Being stuck in a noisy traffic jam with constant honking, sirens, and loud music from passing cars.
  • Smell: Walking into a building with a strong chemical cleaning product odor or encountering a cloud of perfume in a crowded elevator.
  • Touch: Wearing itchy clothes with irritating tags on a hot and humid day.
  • Taste: Biting into a dish with strong, clashing flavors that are overpowering to your palate.

Importantly, this overload can be fleeting, a momentary struggle in a noisy restaurant. On the other hand, it can be a persistent issue, impacting your every daily life. The key point is, it disrupts your ability to function comfortably.

Beyond the Big Five: Unveiling Your Hidden Senses

But wait, there’s more to your senses than just sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing!

Surprised to learn you have more than five senses? You’re not alone! Critically, we actually possess at least three more senses, with some scientists say there is a staggering total of over 20 or more! Now, let’s explore some of these hidden heroes:

  • Proprioception: This champion keeps you coordinated by telling your brain where your body is in space. Ever misjudge the weight of a cup and spill tea? Proprioception was caught off guard, leading to a quick but imperfect reaction.
  • Vestibular Sense: This master of balance ensures you stay upright. It constantly relays information about your head’s position in space, preventing embarrassing tumbles. Feeling queasy on a boat? Your vestibular sense is simply a bit overenthusiastic.
  • Interoception: Often dubbed the “eighth sense,” interoception is your internal body whisperer. So, it keeps you informed about hunger, thirst, and even bathroom needs. For example, think about feeling full, butterflies in your stomach, or the deep breath you take – all thanks to interoception!
Three adults sitting in a circle having a conversation.

Drowning in a Sea of Sensation: What Overload Feels Like

Imagine stepping into a crowded mall during the holiday rush. Blaring music fights for attention with a cacophony of shouts and greetings. Overhead lights flicker relentlessly, casting harsh glares on shelves overflowing with brightly colored merchandise. Your sense of smell is bombarded by a mix of perfume, food court aromas, and cleaning products. This is sensory overload in action.

When your senses are overloaded, they become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information bombarding them. This sensory onslaught can originate anywhere – a noisy restaurant, a bustling classroom, even a cluttered home environment.

The key feature is the feeling of being underwater, unable to filter out the constant barrage of sights, sounds, smells, touches, and even internal sensations. This overload can trigger a cascade of negative emotions: discomfort, stress, and even anxiety.

Remember, this sensory overload isn’t limited to just one sense. The flickering lights coupled with the blaring music can create a particularly overwhelming experience.

Some reasearch on sensory overload 

Interested in learning more about the research on 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.  

Sensory Assault: How Each Sense Triggers Overload

Remember those eight senses we explored earlier? Each one plays a role in the complex experience of sensory overload. Let’s dive into some everyday examples that might push your senses to their limits:

Sight

Picture a bustling marketplace. Crowds jostle for space, colorful stalls burst with merchandise, and flashing neon signs fight for attention. This visual chaos can be overwhelming.

Hearing

Imagine a crowded restaurant. The clatter of plates, the buzz of conversation, and the background music combine into a cacophony that makes focusing on a single voice nearly impossible.

Taste

Think of a potluck gone wild. Aromatic curries mingle with pungent cheeses, and unfamiliar spices dance on your tongue. This explosion of flavors can be disorienting

Touch

Ever receive a surprise hug from an overly enthusiastic friend? Or find yourself stuck in a crowded subway car, pressed against a stranger’s itchy wool coat? Unexpected or unpleasant touch can be triggering.

Smell

Imagine walking through a department store perfume counter. A dozen different scents compete for dominance, creating a suffocating and headache-inducing perfume cloud. Strong or overwhelming smells can be a major sensory trigger.

Movement

Imagine a game of dodgeball. The constant barrage of flying balls, the quick turns and lunges to avoid getting hit – this rapid and unpredictable movement can be overwhelming

Balance

Picture yourself on a rocking boat. The constant swaying throws off your inner sense of equilibrium, leaving you feeling nauseous and disoriented. Motion sickness exemplifies how balance overload can manifest.

Interoception

Ever feel like your stomach is growling a symphony? Or sense your heart pounding in your chest from anxiety? These intense internal signals from your body can contribute to sensory overload.

By understanding how each sense can be overloaded, we can better identify our personal triggers and develop coping mechanisms.

Person sitting by the water meditating to reduce sensory overload.

How do I know if I have sensory overload?

Feeling overwhelmed by everyday situations? You might be experiencing sensory overload. It happens when your senses become overloaded with information, leading to a breakdown in your ability to process it all.

The tricky part? Triggers can vary widely. What seems “normal” to others – a crowded grocery store, flickering fluorescent lights – can leave you feeling utterly drained.

So, how do you know if sensory overload is the culprit behind your struggles?

Here are some key signs to watch for sensory overload in adults:

  • Sensory Sensitivities: Do certain sounds feel like nails on a chalkboard? Does the scratchy tag on your shirt drive you to your limit? A heightened awareness and aversion to specific textures, sounds, lights, or smells can be a red flag.
  • Social Struggles: Does the thought of meeting new people fill you with dread? Do crowded environments leave you feeling on edge and unable to focus on conversations? Sensory overload can make social situations particularly challenging.
  • Withdrawal and Fatigue: Do you crave quiet time after even a mild social interaction? Do you find yourself needing excessive rest after a trip to the supermarket? These withdrawal tendencies and increased fatigue can be signs of sensory overload.
  • Difficulty Focusing: Does background noise make it near impossible to concentrate? Does visual clutter leave you feeling scattered and unable to complete tasks? Trouble focusing can be a significant indicator of sensory overload.

Understanding Sensory Overload (Without Jumping to Conclusions)

Sensory overload can be momentary, or repeated and sustained. It is not necessarily and identical experience from one person to the next. And these examples, can also be symptoms of other things, too.

Remember, these symptoms can vary from person to person, and may also point to other conditions. However, if you find yourself frequently experiencing several of these signs, it’s worth seeking professional guidance. An occupational therapist can help you identify your triggers and develop coping mechanisms to navigate a world that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

Remember, however, you’re not alone. In fact, many people experience sensory overload. Furthermore, with the right strategies, you can learn to manage it and create a more sensory-friendly environment for yourself.

Do You Experience Sensory Overload? Take Our Checklist!

Sensory overload can be a real challenge, but the good news is there are ways to manage it. The first step is identifying if you might be experiencing it. Here’s a checklist to help you see if some common symptoms resonate with you:

Sensory Sensitivities:

  • Do certain sounds feel uncomfortably loud or jarring?
  • Are you bothered by specific textures on clothing or other objects?
  • Do bright lights make your eyes feel strained or uncomfortable?
  • Do strong smells trigger headaches or nausea?

Social Interactions:

  • Do crowded environments leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious?
  • Does meeting new people drain your energy significantly?
  • Do you find it difficult to concentrate on conversations in noisy settings?

Withdrawal and Fatigue:

  • Do you crave quiet time alone after even short social interactions?
  • Do you feel unusually tired after being in stimulating environments like grocery stores or malls?
  • Do you find yourself needing more sleep than others to feel rested?

Difficulty Focusing:

  • Does background noise make it hard to concentrate on tasks or complete them?
  • Do you get easily distracted by visual clutter in your surroundings?
  • Do you find it challenging to follow instructions or conversations in overwhelming environments?

What to Remember About Sensory Overload in Adults:

  • This is not an exhaustive list, and these symptoms can also be related to other conditions.
  • The frequency and severity of these experiences can vary greatly from person to person.

If you find yourself checking several of these boxes, consider seeking professional guidance from an occupational therapist. They can help you identify your specific triggers and develop coping mechanisms to manage sensory overload and create a more comfortable world for yourself.

Fight Back Against Overload: Your Sensory Survival Kit

Feeling overwhelmed by the world around you? Sensory overload can be a real struggle, but don’t despair! Here are some key strategies to minimize its impact and create a calmer, more comfortable experience:

Take Control with Breaks:

  • Schedule sensory breaks: Don’t push yourself to the limit. Step away from overwhelming environments regularly, even for a short walk or a quiet bathroom break.
  • Explore sensory-friendly options: Look for events, places, or stores that offer dedicated quiet rooms or reduced stimulation. This allows you to hit the pause button and recharge.

Build Your Sensory Toolkit:

  • Pack for peace: Create a personalized toolkit filled with items to manage specific sensitivities. Sunglasses can combat bright lights, while earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones offer a shield from overwhelming sounds. Fidget toys provide a calming distraction in stressful situations.

“My adult sensory toolkit for sensory overload is this: I carry a medium sized sling back with me everywhere I go, filled with my go-to sensory tools. I always have bottled water to drink and a small snack. My hearing aid case is with me, if I need a break from sound and want to remove my hearing aids. I have either clip on sunglasses or my prescription ones. Finally, I always dress in layers, with a jacket I can wrap around my waist. It helps me manage feeling hot or cold”

Christel Seeberger, Founder and CEO of Sensory Friendly Solutions

Know Your Triggers:

  • Identify your kryptonite: Recognizing the environments and activities that trigger your overload is crucial. If crowds and loud noises drain you, prioritize calmer settings. Research “sensory-friendly” options whenever possible, from movie theaters to restaurants.

Create Safe Havens:

  • Establish safe spaces: Identify calming refuges where you can retreat when feeling anxious. This could be your car, a quiet corner at home, or a designated quiet room at work. Schedule micro-breaks in these safe spaces to de-stimulate and regroup.

Embrace Routine:

  • Plan for predictability: Creating a routine helps your body and senses anticipate what’s coming. Knowing what to expect reduces the stress of navigating an unpredictable world. Stick to consistent daily activities that bring comfort, and plan calming routines to unwind after overwhelming situations.

Remember, sensory overload is a real experience, and you’re not alone. By incorporating these strategies, you can create a personalized approach to manage your sensitivities and reclaim control of your sensory experience.

For more suggestions to manage your sensory overload, check out these tips from the personal experience of Jenara Nerenberg, the author of Divergent Mind.  

Key Takeaways: Taming the Sensory Storm

Here’s a quick recap to keep these important points about sensory overload top-of-mind:

  1. Beyond the Big Five: We have at least eight senses, including sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, and interoception. Each one plays a role in sensory overload.
  2. Overstimulation Overload: Any of your senses can become overwhelmed by excessive input, leading to a feeling of distress.
  3. Sensory Soup: Overload can affect one sense at a time, or multiple senses can be bombarded simultaneously.
  4. Underlying Conditions: Some disorders, disabilities, and neurodivergent differences can make people more susceptible to sensory overload.
  5. You’re Not Alone: Many people struggle with sensory overload. It’s a common experience, and there’s help available.
  6. Seeking Sanctuary: Businesses and organizations are increasingly offering sensory-friendly experiences to be more inclusive. Look for them!
  7. Empowering Yourself: By understanding your triggers and utilizing helpful strategies, you can manage sensory overload and create a calmer, more comfortable world for yourself. Learn more with our training.

Remember, knowledge is power. With these key points in mind, you’re well on your way to conquering sensory overload and thriving in a stimulating world.

Still Curious About Sensory Overload?

Dive Even Deeper with Us

Want to learn more about sensory overload and how to manage it? Our comprehensive Sensory Friendly 101 course, also included in our low-cost training membership, is the perfect place to start. This informative course teaches the fundamentals about sensory overload, sensory sensitivity and creatingsensory-friendly solutions!

But here at Sensory Friendly Solutions we go beyond just self-management with you. Our training membership empowers you to be part of the solution! Learn how to create sensory-friendly environments for yourself and others, fostering a more inclusive and understanding world. Our low cost training membership grants you access to a library of courses, and downloadable materials.

Make Your Event and Location Inclusive with Training

So, take control of your sensory experience and join the Sensory Friendly Solutions community today! Let’s work together to create a world where everyone feels comfortable and included.

Want to read a bit more just about sensory overload? Here are our most popular blog post about it:

Finally, here is inspiration from our latest blog posts:

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