Sensory Overload: is it a Problem in Your Life?

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Two of the most common questions about sensory overload are:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. What causes it?

Sensory overload: a definition

Sensory overload 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.  Some scientists say we have more than 20 senses.

Also, you have a sense of balance.  It also called your vestibular sense.  In addition, it keeps you upright.  Finally, it helps prevent you from falling over.  And it tells you where your head is in space. 

You have a sense of movement.  It is also called proprioception.  It helps you move your muscles and joints.  Likewise, it tells your brain how much a muscle or a joint moved.  It helps you be coordinated.

Finally, interoception is the sense of your internal organs.  This is your eighth sense.  Interoception tells you that you are hungry or thirsty.  It also lets you know about your breathing.  Or when you need to go to the bathroom.

What happens when your senses are overloaded? First, one or more senses are receiving too much information.  What is more, sensory information overload usually comes from your immediate environment.  Or the place you are in at the time. 

For example, sensory overload often occurs in a noisy place.  It can also be busy.  Additionally, it also often happens when there are bright lights.  Or a lot of lights.  Furthermore, it causes discomfort and stress. People experiencing sensory overload are in distress.  It can happen to any of the senses.  Moreover, it can also happen to more than one sense at a time.

Girl with ear plugs to protect against sensory overload and noise.

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

More examples

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

For example, a toddler experiencing sensory overload may have a tantrum.  A child might have a meltdown in a noisy, busy place. What is more, they may refuse to go to such an environment. They may plead to leave.  A toddler might be fearful of a noisy place.  Likewise, a child might be fearful of a busy place.  In this situation, they may not be able 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 leave an event early.  Alternatively, they may not 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 in daily life.  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, then sensory overload may be the cause. 

Are you under if you are experiencing sensory overload?  An occupational therapist can help you determine the cause of your symptoms.  If you are worried about any symptom; it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor.

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-canceling headphones (without listening to music) to drown out sounds
  • Wearing sunglasses indoors or outdoors even when cloudy

Teenager boy showing a stop sign with his hand.

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 at other times.  

Other people are more prone to experiencing sensory overload because of an underlying cause.  This can be 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, there are many more things that can make people experience overstimulation in daily life.

Who are the people who experience sensory overload more often?

There are many types of disorders, disabilities, or differences that contribute to sensory overload because of sensory sensitivity.  This can happen at any age.  The list of them keeps growing!  Finally, sensory overload is a specific problem for people with autism and anxiety.

Calm down sensory overload with 3 tips.

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

  1. Choose sensory-friendly events, places, products, and services.
  2. Manage your sensory experience by taking breaks from it or reducing its length.
  3. Reduce sensory input by blocking it out.  Two common strategies are:
    • noise-canceling ear muffs
    • wrap-around sunglasses

Young woman isolated covering her ears with her hands.

More on these three tips for sensory overload.

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

You can also better manage your sensory experience personally.  Take breaks from it.  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.  Places and events that identify as sensory-friendly may also have a quiet space or quiet room.  It is a place for patrons to take a break.  For example, a sports arena might have a quiet room.  Also called a sensory room.  It too is a place where patrons can take a break.   They can hit pause on the loud, noisy, bright crowd and game.

Finally, it is helpful to reduce sensory input.  Simply reduce it.  People who experience sensory overload often wear noise-canceling headphones to listen to music or even white noise.  They block out extra sounds.  Or they wear earmuffs.  They wear sunglasses.  Or maybe shaded lenses inside. They block out bright lights.

Key points to remember

  • You have more than five senses.
  • You have at least eight senses: see, hear, touch, smell, taste, move, balance, and interoception.
  • Senses can become overstimulated.
  • Senses can become overwhelmed.
  • 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.
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