Sensory overload is a phenomenon where one feels an overwhelming sense of discomfort in the external environment (or sensory surroundings). Many people may feel anxious and want to immediately leave the situation that created it. A sensory overload may often trigger agitation, irritability, or violent responses (attacking the nearby person, shouting, throwing things) in some people.
Sensory overload is when the brain is not able to process the sensory information taken in by the five senses: smell, taste, hearing, sight, and touch. This makes people panic or blank out, and they feel like distancing themselves from the source that has triggered this response.
There are a variety of triggers, and each person may have their sensory input overloaded by one or more factor that includes:
- Loud noises or music
- Very bright lights
- Very cold or very hot temperatures
- Crowded places
- Extreme emotional expressions
- Scratchy or uncomfortable clothing
- Intense smells
What conditions are associated with sensory overload?
Sensory sensitivity and overstimulation are often more pronounced in certain neurological and psychiatric conditions, such as the following:
Autism spectrum disorder
People with autism have difficulty processing extreme emotions and tend to suffer from hypersensitivity to sensory input. Why this happens is still unknown, but measures (such as making the children gradually adapt to the trigger) can help such people. Dealing with sensory overload forms a major part of rehabilitation in those affected by autism spectrum disorders.
Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
People with ADHD typically have trouble focusing and often feel anxious and panicky when faced with overwhelming triggers and overstimulation, such as loud noises.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
People with PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder are more prone to experience sensory overload in challenging situations. For example, a military veteran who suffers from PTSD may be easily overstimulated by the lights and sounds of firecrackers.
Besides the conditions above, experts think that the following conditions also seem to cause sensory overload:
If people feel overwhelmed by certain things in life, they could be only experiencing sensory overload and not necessarily any of these conditions.
Is sensory processing disorder a separate condition?
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) affects how your brain processes sensory information. While children are more likely to have SPD, adults with the condition likely had the symptoms since childhood.
Debate among doctors is mixed as to whether SPD is a separate disorder or not. Some doctors argue SPD is a symptom of other disorders, such as autism and ADHD. Other doctors believe it’s possible to have SPD without having another disorder. For now, SPD is not recognized as an official medical diagnosis.
How is sensory overload treated?
There is no specific medication available for the treatment of sensory overload. It is important to schedule an appointment with the doctor and describe the symptoms that are present.
The doctor will recommend treatments accordingly, such as:
- Therapy: Specific therapy sessions have benefitted both adults and children in dealing with anxiety and distressing symptoms of sensory overload.
- Medications: Anti-anxiety medication or antidepressant
- Stay away from triggers: Once people know which situations or things are triggering the symptoms of sensory overload, they can take steps to reduce sensory input. For example, instead of arranging a birthday party in a hotel, you can call your friends at your home.
- Take care of yourself: Focusing on self-care is an easy way to deal with overpowering situations. So, getting good nutrition, drinking an adequate quantity of water, regular physical activity, and getting sufficient rest and sleep can help.
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Green SA, Ben-Sasson A. Anxiety disorders and sensory over-responsivity in children with autism spectrum disorders: is there a causal relationship? J Autism Dev Disord. 2010;40(12):1495-1504. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20383658/
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