Have you ever been in a situation where there’s just too much going on? Your senses are way too stimulated, and you just feel incredibly overwhelmed.
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It’s not all in your head. What you’re experiencing is called sensory overload, and it can happen to anyone at any time, triggered by any number of sensations. Maybe it’s the ear-pounding din of many voices in a crowded room. Or the blinking and twinkling of a zillion holiday lights. Or an overpowering whiff of perfume.
Health psychologist Grace Tworek, PsyD, explains what’s happening when you’re feeling sensory overload and how you can snap out of that dazed-and-confused feeling.
What is sensory overload?
Have you ever had too many tabs open on your internet browser? When you’re trying to do a bunch of things at once, your operating system gets overwhelmed and just can’t keep up. Everything slows down. Maybe your screen freezes or otherwise stops doing what it’s supposed to do.
Yeah, sensory overload is kinda like that. When it descends on you, it can feel almost paralyzing. Suddenly, you’re the human equivalent of a blue-screened computer.
“Sensory overload happens when input from any of your senses — sight, sound, taste, smell — feel overwhelming and trigger a physiological response,” Dr. Tworek explains. “It’s your sympathetic nervous system letting you know that something is up.”
Your sympathetic nervous system is the part of your body responsible for your “fight-or-flight” response. It switches on when you feel you may be in danger — and in the case of sensory overload, it also occurs when you feel suddenly stressed by some aspect of the world around you.
What triggers sensory overload?
Sensory overload can be prompted by a lot of different sensations, and what triggers you might not trigger the person sitting next to you.
- Sound: Loud and persistent noises, like concert music or a cacophony of voices around you in a restaurant, could cause you to feel sensory overload.
- Sight: When there’s a lot going on around you and you can’t figure out where to look or what to focus your attention on could feel like sensory overload. Bright or flashing lights can also make you feel this way.
- Smell: Perfumes and cleaning supplies are just two of the types of scents that can feel overpowering and lead to sensory overload.
- Touch: Some people are extra-sensitive to the way certain fabrics feel. You could experience sensory overload from, say, wearing a scratchy material or donning tight or uncomfortable clothes.
- Taste: The scent, texture and even spice level of certain foods can trigger sensory overload, like if you’re eating something new to you or something very spicy.
It’s not always that simple, though. Sometimes, sensory overload occurs when multiple senses feel overwhelmed.
Imagine, for example, that you’re visiting Times Square: There are thousands of people around you, all chatting (sound) and sometimes bumping into you (touch). The heavy scent of food from street vendors wafts throughout the streets (smell), while neon lights and screens flash advertisements atop every building (sight).
Where should you look? How can you focus? Hello, sensory overload!
Sensory overload symptoms
There’s no single psychological or physiological response to sensory overload.
“When your body’s alarm system starts to go off after being triggered, it can feel different for different people,” Dr. Tworek explains.
Some common mental and emotional reactions to sensory overload include:
- A general feeling of stress.
- Confusion that can seem almost paralyzing.
- Inability to focus.
- Racing or intrusive thoughts.
“It can feel like your brain is on a hamster wheel, just running away from whatever it is that you’re experiencing,” Dr. Tworek illustrates, “and your body is responding to that.” Physically, you may start to experience:
- A flushed (red) face.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Tightness in your chest.
“Once those senses are triggered, it almost feels like the ball starts rolling and it becomes a snowball effect,” she continues. “It grows and grows until it becomes overwhelming.” If it goes unchecked, sensory overload can even lead to a panic attack.
What conditions are associated with sensory overload?
Even though sensory overload can happen to anyone, some people are more susceptible to it than others.
- Anxiety: Depending on the specifics of your anxiety, you could experience sensory overload in social situations or when faced with a phobia.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): When you have ADHD, you may have a difficult time focusing your attention, which can lead to sensory overload.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Many people with autism have sensory aversions, like a dislike of loud noises or certain textures. You might experience sensory overload when you’re exposed to those aversions.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): People with PTSD can experience flashbacks when they face experiences that remind their brain of their trauma, and sensory overload plays a role. If you’re a combat veteran, for example, you could feel sensory overload during a fireworks display.
But you don’t have to have a mental health condition to experience sensory overload.
“If you’ve experienced something traumatic in your past, there may be a sound, a smell or a memory that can cause these sensations to feel as if they’re overflowing,” Dr. Tworek notes.
Sensory overload in children vs. adults
The older you get, the more coping skills you learn. But kids aren’t there yet, which makes them more prone to sensory overload.
“Children may experience this more often than adults because they have not yet developed methods and levels of communication to explain what they’re experiencing in the same way as adults,” Dr. Tworek explains.
Kids with autism spectrum disorder are also more likely to experience sensory overload, as they’re more sensitive to certain types of stimuli than their peers.
“Some types of clothes, for example, can feel very overwhelming to some children, like long-sleeved shirts or certain kinds of fabric,” she says. “All the different sensations they’re feeling on their skin can lead to overload.”
How to cope with sensory overload
When sensory overload freezes up the screen on your mental computer, there are some steps you can take to reboot — no IT department needed.
“There are a variety of strategies that you can tap into to help you manage these symptoms in the moment,” Dr. Tworek says. They include:
Dr. Tworek’s favorite breathing exercise to cope with sensory overload is serial three breathing, or 3-3-3 for short (similar to box breathing, known as 4-4-4-4). Here’s how to do it:
- Breathe in your nose for three counts.
- Hold your breath for three counts.
- Breathe out through your mouth for three counts.
- Repeat as needed. Each round should take a full nine seconds.
This exercise both slows down your breath and turns your mind to the act of counting, which can distract you from sensory overload and ground you in the present moment.
“This exercise is relatively easy, but it requires the focus of both the brain and the body,” Dr. Tworek states. “As you do it, the symptoms of overwhelm will start to back away slowly, which gives your body a break and gives your brain a chance to reset and reevaluate the situation.”
Can sensory overload be prevented?
You don’t have to wait until sensory overload hits to practice breathing techniques and other strategies for self-soothing. In fact, you shouldn’t.
Think of it like installing malware on your mental computer: You may not need it right now, but it’s insurance for the future. Here’s what Dr. Tworek recommends:
1. Identify your triggers
Pay attention to the times when you experience sensory overload so you can start to figure out what causes it. What kicks off these feelings for you?
“Ask yourself which sensations trigger your sense of overwhelm or overload,” Dr. Tworek advises. “Is it a certain location or a specific sound? If you can establish those patterns and determine your triggers, you can come up with a game plan for interacting with those scenarios in the future without feeling so overwhelmed.”
If, for example, you realize that you often feel sensory overload at loud concerts, you could start choosing seats near the back of the room or prioritizing outdoor music venues, where the sound carries differently. You could also start bringing earplugs to dull some of the intensity of the music itself.
Once you know what triggers you, you can start working on your reactions to those specific triggers.
2. Practice your coping strategies
Breathing seems like the simplest act in the world, but when you’re in the midst of sensory overload, it doesn’t always come as easily as you’d like.
“There are things you can do in the moment to reduce the experience and slow things down, but it’s helpful to practice them outside of the context of feeling overwhelmed,” Dr. Tworek says.
Try a couple rounds of 3-3-3 breathing when you’re wandering the grocery store or hopping into the shower, or when you’re in line at a coffee shop or headed to bed. The more you practice them, the easier it becomes to tap into them when you need them.
“You’re teaching our body how to relax in lots of different scenarios,” Dr. Tworek notes. “It’s almost like you’re building up a resilience to overwhelm.”
3. Seek help if you need it
Let’s extend that computer metaphor one last time: Sometimes, you’ve done everything you can think of to try to get your computer back up and running properly, but it’s just not working. So, what do you do? You make an appointment with a technician who can diagnose the problem and help get things all fixed up.
If you find that sensory overload happens to you often, or that you just can’t seem to control it when it hits, it might be time to speak with a professional. Make an appointment with a therapist or other mental health provider who can help you work through this issue — so you can get back to enjoying the world around you, instead of feeling overwhelmed by it.
To learn more from Dr. Tworek on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “How to Dial Down Sensory Overload.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.