Is Sensory Overload a Problem in Your Life?

Two of the most common questions about sensory overload are: what does sensory overload mean and what causes it. 

Sensory Overload: A Definition

Sensory overload happens when the senses are overstimulated or overwhelmed. 

The five senses you are likely familiar with are: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.

Did you know that you have more than five senses? You have at least three more.  In fact, some scientists say we have more than 20 senses. 

You have a sense of balance, also called your vestibular sense.  With your sense of balance, you keep yourself upright and you know where your head is in space. 

You have a sense of movement, also called proprioception.  With your movement sense, you move your muscles and joints in a coordinated fashion. 

proprioception

You also have a sense of your internal organs; this is call interoception, your eighth sense.  Interoception tells you that you are hungry, thirsty, breathing or need to go to the bathroom.

When your sensory system is overloaded then one or more senses is receiving too much stimulation, usually from the environment or the place you are in at the time.  For example, sensory overload often occurs at an event or place that is noisy, busy and bright with lots of lights.  Sensory overload causes a great deal of discomfort and stress for the person experiencing it.  People experiencing sensory overload are in distress.  Sensory overload can happen to any one of the senses.  It can also happen to more than one sense at a time.

How Different Senses Contribute to Sensory Overload

Following are some examples of the eight senses and what might cause someone prone to sensory overload to experience it:

  • 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

More Sensory Overload Examples

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

A toddler or child experiencing sensory overload may have a tantrum or a meltdown in a noisy, busy place. They may refuse to go to such an environment or beg to leave.  A toddler or child might also be very fearful of a noisy, busy place.  In this situation they may not be able to express what is bothering them. 

young boy sensitive to noise

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 to you.  An adult with sensory overload may leave an event early or chose not to go somewhere with many people in attendance, especially people they may not know. 

Everyone has sensory preferences. People enjoy different things and different experiences.  It’s normal to be different. But as our world becomes more hectic and chaotic; as “always on” media and technology artificially engage the senses, more children and adults experience sensory overload in daily life. 

How Do I know if I Have Sensory Overload? 

Sensory overload symptoms can be caused by any number of triggers.  Moreover, the experiences that trigger a reaction can be “typical or normal” for others.

When these “typical and normal” events interrupt your ability to live your life, sensory overload may be the cause. 

If you are unsure if you are experiencing sensory overload or not, an occupational therapist can help you determine if sensory overload is the cause of your symptoms.  If you are worried about any particular symptom, it is always a good idea to discuss it with your doctor.

The following are symptoms of sensory overload.
  • Aversion of going somewhere new or meeting new people
  • Avoid being touched or hugged
  • Being irritated by clothes or textures
  • Craving quiet
  • Disliking background music or noise
  • 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, and being bothered by them
  • Inability to focus and complete tasks
  • Irritability, especially in a noisy, busy, bright place or after being in such a place
  • Lights that hurt your eyes
  • Muscle tension
  • Needing to be alone more than other people
  • Restlessness
  • Seeking solitude
  • Sounds that 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

Some people experience one or more of these symptoms every day.  Some experience it only in certain circumstances or certain places.  Some experience an overstimulation of the senses because they are tired, but do not experience at other times.  For example, after a long day of travel and no sleep, arriving somewhere new, a person might feel overwhelmed by the sounds, smells, lights and experiences in a new city when they arrive.  However, after a good night’s sleep and adjusting to jet lag,  they love travel and experiencing somewhere new. This was just a temporary, normal sensory overload.

Some people are more prone to experiencing sensory overload because of an underlying disability, disorder or difference in their brain.  Sensory overload is  often associated with autism, Asperger’s, the Highly Sensitive Person, anxiety, fibromyalgia and PTSD.  However, there are many more things that can make people experience overstimulation in daily life.

sensory overload

Who are the People Who Experience Sensory Overload More Often?

The following lists all the types of disorders, disabilities or differences that can contribute to someone experiencing sensory overload, regardless of age. Having a disorder or disability on this list does not mean someone will automatically experience sensory overload.  It just means they  are more likely too.

  • Alzheimer’s Disease, (AD)
  • Anxiety
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism, Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder, High functioning autism
  • Concussion, Post-concussion Syndrome (PCS)
  • Dementia
  • Echolalia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hearing loss, hard of hearing
  • Highly sensitive person (HSP)
  • Intellectual disability (ID)
  • Learning disability (LD)
  • Lewy-Body Dementia
  • Low vision, vision loss
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Mental disorders, mental illness
  • Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)
  • Non-verbal learning disability (NVLD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Sensory disorder
  • Sensory integration disorder (SID)
  • Sensory processing disorder (SPD)
  • Synesthesia
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Trauma, early childhood trauma
  • Vestibular disorder

How Do You Calm Down Sensory Overload?

There are three important things to do if sensory overload is a problem.

Choose sensory-friendly events, places and services.

Manage your sensory experience by taking breaks from it or reducing its length.

Reduce sensory input by blocking it out.

How do These Three Tips Help Sensory Overload?

Choosing a sensory-friendly event, place, or service means that you are less likely to experience sensory overload because the event, place or service has made an effort to reduce the sensory experience of patrons.  For example, a sensory-friendly grocery store might have quiet shopping hours where the lights are less bright, background music is turned off and the beeps and dings of noisy cash registers are also turned off.

You can also better manage your sensory experience by taking breaks from it or reducing the amount of time you spend exposed to it.  Therefore, you might go to a party at a new location with lots of people, but you might only go for a short period of time.  Places and events that identify as sensory-friendly may also have a quiet space or quiet room for patrons to take a break.  Therefore, a sports arena might have a quiet room or a sensory room where patrons can take a break from the loud, noisy, bright crowd and game.

Finally, it is helpful to reduce sensory input that contributes to sensory overload by reducing it.  People who experience sensory overload often wear headphones to block out noise or wear sunglasses or shaded lenses inside to block out bright lights.

Wearing noise cancelling headphones at work

Sensory-Friendly Seekers and Sensory-Friendly Providers

Are you a sensory-friendly seeker?  I have coined the term sensory-friendly seeker to describe people who look for sensory-friendly events, places, products and services.  A sensory-friendly seeker might be someone who experiences sensory overload directly.  A sensory-friendly seeker might also be a parent, grandparent, sibling, educator, teacher or caregiver of someone who experiences sensory overload.

 Sensory-friendly seekers look for sensory-friendly providers; events, places, products and services that help in daily life when sensory overload is a problem.  We are doing the sensory-friendly detective work for you! We constantly scour every resource we can find to help you find sensory friendly information about events, places, and services, with people who experience sensory overload, sensory-friendly seekers just like you.

Sensory-friendly providers also hire us to help them become sensory-friendly or improve the sensory-friendly experience they provide.  Below are some words used to describe events, places, products and services that are likely helpful to someone who experiences sensory overload.

Places that are better for people who experience sensory overload as often described as:

  • Accessible
  • Autism friendly
  • Calmer
  • Calming
  • Family friendly
  • Inclusion
  • Inclusive
  • Kid-friendly
  • Low sensory
  • Multi-sensory
  • Quiet
  • Quiet environment
  • Quiet space
  • Quiet time
  • Quiet hours
  • Relaxed
  • Relaxed setting
  • Sensorial needs
  • Sensory days
  • Sensory experiences
  • Sensory-free
  • Sensory hours
  • Sensory inclusion
  • Sensory-inclusive
  • Sensory-relaxed
  • Sensory
  • Sensory sensitive
  • Sensory show times
  • Sensory Saturdays
  • Sensory Sundays
  • Sensory-friendly
  • Special needs
  • Tranquility
  • Understanding environment
  • Veteran-friendly

You do not have to search for everything on this list on your own.  You can find sensory friendly events, places and services in your daily life in the Sensory Friendly Finder.

Key Points to Remember About Sensory Overload

  • You have more than five senses.
  • You have at least eight senses: see, hear, touch, smell, taste, move, balance and interoception.
  • Sensory overload means that the senses are overstimulated and overwhelmed.
  • Sensory overload causes distress.
  • Sensory 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.
  • Sensory-friendly seekers are looking for things that help prevent sensory overload.
  • Sensory-friendly providers, like events, places, products and services are providing things that are less likely to cause sensory overload.