Sensory Overload: Is it a Problem in Your 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.

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, the sensory information overload comes from your immediate environment or the place you are in at the time. 

For example, sensory overload often occurs in a noisy place or busy environment.  Additionally, it also often happens when there are bright lights or a lot of 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.

Person 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 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 being 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 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 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 unsure? An occupational therapist can help you determine the cause of your symptoms.  If you are worried about any symptoms, 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-cancelling headphones (without listening to music) to drown out sounds
  • Wearing sunglasses indoors or outdoors even when cloudy
Young person showing a stop sign with their 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 it during 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.  Additionally, this can happen at any age and the list of underlying causes keeps growing!  However, sensory overload is a specific problem for people with autism and anxiety.

Calm down sensory overload with 3 tips.

Infographic describing 3 ways to calm down sensory overload.

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

  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 to do this are:
    • noise-cancelling ear muffs
    • wrap-around sunglasses
Young person isolated covering their ears with their 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.  This is because the event, place, product or service has made an effort to reduce the sensory experience. For example, a sensory-friendly grocery store might have quiet shopping hours.  This includes turning the lights down, turning off background music 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 and 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 may 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.  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.

Finally, it is helpful to reduce sensory input and simply reduce it.  People who experience sensory overload often wear noise-cancelling headphones to listen to music or even white noise.  They block out extra sounds potentially by wearing earmuffs.  Additionally, they wear sunglasses or shaded lenses inside to 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.

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 1.  Additionally, consider reviewing some of the following blog posts:

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  1. Scheydt, S., Müller Staub, M., Frauenfelder, F., Nielsen, G. H., Behrens, J., & Needham, I. (2017). Sensory Overload: A Concept Analysis. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 26(2), 110–120.
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