How to Manage Sensory Overload in Adults

Sensory overload is something that many people experience, including both adults and children. However, sensory overload is often talked about only in children. It is important to know that adults experience sensory overload, too.

There are several reasons adults experience sensory overload. One reason, is an underlying diagnosis, like PTSD, hearing loss, or concussion. Moreover, many autistic adults, as well as folks who identifiy as neurodiverse, also experience sensory overload. In addition, there are people who have a sensory processing disorder. Finally, many adults simply feel the modern world is too busy, too noisy and too bright. The experience sensory overload is not reliant on having a diagnosis. Everyone has different sensory preferences. Sometimes those preferences become extreme and interrupt your daily life, and you can feel overloaded.

You likely have many unanswered questions about sensory overload. Read on to discover more about the problems it might cause, as well as some solutions to help.

How do you define sensory overload ?

You may wonder, how do you explain sensory overload in adults? It happens when any one or more of your senses are overstimulated.   Sensory overload can be momentary or something that happens repeatedly or for a sustained period of time. Most importantly, it makes you feel overwhelmed and really disrupts what you are trying to do. It can happen to one sense at a time, or more than one sense. You are likely already thinking of your five senses:  see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  But, did you know you have more than five senses?

You have more than five senses  

Are you surprised to learn that you have more than five senses? You have at least three more. However, some scientists say we have more than 20 senses!

In addtional to your senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, you have a sense of movement, a sense of balance and an internal body sense called interoception.

You have a sense of movement called proprioception. This sense is responsible for telling your brain where your body is in space. So, it tells your brain how much a muscle or a joint has moved to keep you coordinated.  Ever go to pick up a cup of tea and “misjudge” and spilled some? That was brain preparing to pick up something heavy that was light. And your sense of movement was mis-prepared, and quickly reacted, but still spilled some tea.

Furthermore, you have a vestibular sense which is responsible for your sense of balance. 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.   Ever get motion sickness? That is your sense of balance, over responding a bit.

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 about things like when you need to go to the toilet.  Think of other sensations inside your body: when you are full, when you have “butterflies in your stomach,” when you are taking a deep breath.

Three adults sitting in a circle having a conversation.

What does being over-stimulated feel like?  

What happens when your senses are overloaded? Well, your senses struggle to processare the information they are receiving from the world around you. Typically, sensory overload comes from your a sensory experience in 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 lights or simply many lights. Ultimately, this can cause discomfort and stress for adults who experience sensory overload. Remember, this experience can happen to any of the senses, and it can also happen to more than one sense at a time.  

 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.  

How different senses contribute to sensory overload

Remember that you have at least your eight senses? Accordingly, here are examples for each sense that might contribut to 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 crowd), echoing
  • Taste: spicy, unfamiliar, flavorful food  
  • Touch: being hugged, unexpected touch, clothing with tags, wool clothing 
  • Smell: scented candles or diffusers, perfume, strong-smelling foods, unpleasant smells like garbage or waste
  • Balance: being in a moving vehicle; car, bus, train, boat, plane, walking up open stairs
  • 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 of sensory overload

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 where there are many people. In particular, with many strangers.      

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

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 you feel that typical and normal events interrupt your daily life, sensory overload may be the cause.  

Importantly, an occupational therapist can help you determine the cause of your sensory symptoms.  Occupational therapists have specialized education and training about the sensory-motor systems, and help people of all ages manage their sensory experiences when they disrupt the ability to participate and engage in daily life. Moreover, if you are worried about any symptoms, talking to your doctor is always a good idea.  

Examples of symptoms that may indicate 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  

Remember 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.

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.  For xample, underlying vauses can be a disability, disorder, or difference in their brain.  Sensory overload is often associated with autism, being a highly sensitive person, hving anxiety, post-concussion symptoms, fibromyalgia, sensory processing disorder, and PTSD.  However, many more things can make people experience overload in 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. It also helps to do new, sensory-rich things for short periods of time. For example, you might go to a party at a new location with lots of people, but you may only go for a short time-fram.  Look for places and events that identify as having sensory-friendly options like, a quiet space or room.  These are dedicated areas for people 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 away from the sensory-rich environment. Take a short walk, head to the toilet where it might be quieter, find a way to give your body a break from the sensory experience.

Create your own sensory-friendly toolkit

Creating your own 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 people with hypersensitivities experience a more relaxed sensory experience. Other examples to include in your sensory-friendly toolkit are fidgets. It is important to know that fidgets are not just for children. These sensory-friendly tools help to provide a calming and distracting effect within stressful situations.

Determine your triggers

Know yourself! For instance, you may get overwhelmed or upset in large and noisy crowds. Therefore, acknowledging the specific environments or activities that cause you increased stress makes you less likely to put yourself in those situations. ITi also helps you to prepare, if you are going into a sensory-rich environemnt. Choose sensory-friendly events, places, products, and services such as movies, performances, and shopping, whenever you can.

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.  For instance, is your vehicle a space that lets you take a break? Do you have a room or a corner in your home that is yours to feel comfortable in? Even the toilet? What about at work? If you share a co-working space, is there a quieter room that you can use from time to time? Maybe there is a hallway or corrider that you can walk, that is safe and quieter? Scheduling micro-breaks in safe spaces helps.

Develop a routine

Lastly, creating a routine is an effective way to help manage sensory overload. Developing a routine ensures you engage in meaningful daily activities that provide you comfort. Knowing what to expect, in advance, helps prepare your body, your brain and your senses. Plan ahead. And plan to repeat activities, habits and routines that are helpful, to ou.

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 the personal experience of Jenara Nerenberg, the author of Divergent Mind.  

7 key points to remember  

  1. You have at least eight senses: see, hear, touch, smell, taste, move, balance, and interoception.  
  2. Any sense can become overstimulated.
  3. Overload causes distress.  
  4. Overload can occur in one or more of the senses at the same time  
  5. There are disorders, disabilities, and differences that make it more likely for someone to experience sensory overload.  
  6. Many people are looking for things that help prevent sensory overload.  You are not alone!
  7. Many businesses and organizations offer sensory-friendly experiences to help.

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