Sensory Overload and COVID-19

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Have you considered the effect of COVID-19 on sensory overload? For instance, face masks, physical barriers, constant hand washing or sanitizing and social isolation are all bothersome. Especially for people with sensory sensitivities. Moreover, a recent survey, conducted by Sensory Friendly Solutions, reveals that COVID-19 has made sensory-friendly changes just as important.

How does COVID-19 Effect Sensory Overload?

There are many ways the pandemic has affected sensory overload. Sensory overload can occur in one or more of the 8 senses. Additionally, sensory overload occurs when the senses are overstimulated. It makes people feel overwhelmed. Similarly, anxious and uncomfortable.

“I am having difficulty having conversations because I
feel overwhelmed. Household noises are sending me into
panic attacks. I cannot have the TV on when trying to
speak to someone.”

-Survey respondent

Physical distancing protocols, social isolation and the long-term effects of the coronavirus contribute to even more sensory sensitivity.

Sensory Friendly Solutions conducted a survey to learn directly from people.

We asked, “How has COVID-19 changed your sensory experience?”

Infographic describing the impact of COVID-19 and sensory overload .

Masks and Sensory Overload

Since the onset of the pandemic, face masks have become part of everyday wardrobe. Based on the survey results, a common sensory issue that people experience is caused by masks. Masks tend to be uncomfortable for many people. Some masks are more sensory-friendly. However, for people with heightened sensitivity, masks can be overwhelming. For instance, this includes:

  • The feeling of fabric touching on your face
  • The tight elastics around your ears
  • The top of the mask digging into your nose
  • The smell of the masks
  • The tickle of the fabric material against your skin
  • The mask riding up into your eyes
Woman wearing masks and gloves sanitizing grocery shop cart during the pandemic.

Another common issue associated with masks is the inability to see facial expressions or read lips. You may not even realize it but we all watch people’s mouths when they speak. Did you know that 5% of the population has disabling hearing loss? Masks and glass barriers make hearing more difficult. It is a huge issue for people with limited hearing. Hearing aids do not solve the problem.

“Being required to wear masks in all public places causes feelings of claustrophobia. It gets humid and uncomfortable. I can no longer read other people’s lips to help me hear or understand what they’re saying. And a large percentage of communication is lost without facial expressions.”

-Survey respondent.

Hand Washing

Another impact of the pandemic on sensory overload is hand sanitizer. It is in every store and public place. You sanitize your hands when you enter.  Sometimes multiple times throughout a visit. Oftentimes, the sanitizer has a smell. This overwhelms someone with sensory sensitivities. Simply the strong scent of sanitizer can cause a sensory overload response.

“Also exposed to off gasing (sic) from chemical
sanitizers, often up to a dozen uses per day. My throat
swells, my voice becomes hoarse and gruff which affects
my ability to communicate effectively.”

-Survey respondent.

Unfortunately, washing your hands in a sink out in public is not always an option. Therefore, try to find an unscented sanitizer option to carry with you. This allows you to avoid using strong smelling cleaners. But you still keep clean!

Less Control of Environment

As people stay home, going out to the grocery store is an event. However, you have less control. And you have less decision making ability. How you move indoors and outdoors is directed to be safe. For instance, you now have to wait in line. Make appointments. You have to keep distant. As a result, sensory overload ensues.

Visual Overload

Many respondents shared that going to the grocery store is more overwhelming than it was pre-COVID19. You have to follow many signs. New signs. Confusing or conflicting directions. Signs are on the floor, at eye-level and above. Signs are everywhere. Paying attention to all the signs results in visual overload.

“Heightened awareness during grocery shopping. Harder
to hear with masks and plexiglass. Visually
overwhelming with all the signs.”

-Survey respondent.

Furthermore, this demonstrates the help that sensory-friendly hours offer.

Social Anxiety

People with sensory sensitivity often become anxious when surrounded by strangers. Or even people they know, for that matter. Furthermore, with more social isolation, social anxiety is a concern.

For instance, many survey respondents expressed they now feel overwhelmed communicating with people. Importantly, it is more difficult to make the transition between virtual to in-person interactions. Therefore, it is important to ease into getting together with friends as restrictions become less. It is understandable if socializing feels more stressful right now.

Group of individuals standing distanced wearing masks during the pandemic.

“Things are irritating me easily.”

-Survey respondent.

Additionally, people find it difficult to process their emotions. The survey results demonstrated that many people feel lonely, tired and sad. Isolation has been hard on our mental health during the pandemic. Therefore, it is important to reach out to a family, friend or healthcare professional if you are experiencing emotional distress. Get help from this tip sheet created by BounceBack. It has easy ideas to manage your mental health during the pandemic.

In conclusion, people still experience sensory overload. If anything, COVID-19 has made it more of a problem for more people.

“Confusion, irritation, exhaustion when there are lots of
floor markings and signs”

-Survey respondent.

Find some sensory-friendly solutions to COVID-19 challenges:

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