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Sensory overload: what it is and how to overcome it


What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload is an over-stimulation of one or more of the senses (hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell).  It is experienced differently by different people, and it can be caused by a variety of stimuli, also referred to as ‘triggers’.  Some triggers include exposure to loud music or multiple people talking at the same time.  Another trigger could be exposure to a tactile sensation such as a woollen jumper, or the touch of another person.  Bright lights such as those found in hospitals and shopping malls can also act as triggers,  as well as exposure to strong flavours and smells.  Essentially, exposure to one or more triggers can result in an over-supply of information to the brain via sensory pathways, and this is when sensory overload can occur.

What does sensory overload look like?

Sensory overload can manifest in many ways.  Some common symptoms include aggressive outbursts (tantrums), muscle tension, difficulty focusing on tasks, over-sensitivity to stimuli like sights, sounds, movements, or touch, and the physical blocking of sensory pathways to avoid contact with stimuli such as covering eyes to block out bright lights or covering your ears to block out noise.

What does sensory overload feel like and how can it be managed?

Sensory overload can cause people to experience a heightened heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, anxiousness and confusion. It is for these reasons that people experiencing sensory overload should be treated with sensitivity, patience and compassion, as this experience can be highly distressing, disorientating, and in some cases, debilitating.

Some tips for managing sensory overload and preventing future occurrence:

It is important to gain an understanding of your triggers to minimise the likelihood of sensory overload occurring – thus, you should firstly identify what your triggers are. Once you have done this, you can take some time to prepare for situations that you believe may become overwhelming.  For example, you may like to prepare an outfit the night before to ensure that it’s comfortable and won’t irritate you once you’ve left the house.  It is also a good idea to spend some time brainstorming strategies that you can implement during stressful situations.  These could include relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation or breathing exercises.

Other ways to manage sensory overload:

  • Sunglasses – can help reduce glare from bright lighting, if this is a trigger for you.
  • Headphones – noise cancelling or regular can block out surrounding sounds, or can be used to play soothing music.
  • Perfume/deodorant/something scented – can be sprayed on you or in your vicinity to mask triggering smells.
  • Stress ball/wrist band – can provide you with an activity to keep your mind and hands busy.
  • Lozenges/Chewing gum/lollies – can subdue triggering tastes and keep your mind busy as well.

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