photo by Baptista Ime James for Unsplash
by Andrea M. Darcy
Often feel overwhelmed in environments that others have no issue with? But been told it’s all in your head? Sensory overload in adults is a misunderstood phenomenon that sees many struggling in silence.
What is sensory overload?
Sensory overload means that one or more of your senses is receiving information at a rate that your brain struggles to handle.
It is common in those with autism, but many people without autism also live with it. It can look like the following.
Certain lights and colours can be too overwhelming for you.
EXAMPLE: You get headaches and feel dizzy in shopping malls with their endless fluorescent lights. Or won’t go to a certain library as it is decorated in bright red and oranges that leave you feeling panicky.
Noises that others hardly notice seem very loud and incessant to you.
EXAMPLE: A constant drip or a low buzzing noise from another apartment becomes all you can focus on. A crowded city street with all its ambient noise can send you into an anxiety attack.
Certain bodily sensations are uncomfortable for you, and/or you have a big personal space.
EXAMPLE: Tags and itchy fabrics are like torture for you. Wearing things that are too tight leaves you feeling trapped and panicky. Someone brushing against you without permission makes your heart race, and you can’t stand people standing too close.
Smells others hardly notice make you feel sick and unable to focus on anything else.
EXAMPLE: You carefully avoid perfume sections of department stores as they make you feel nauseous, dizzy, and leave you with a headache. Certain people at work smell so strongly to you that you avoid them, but others don’t seem bothered.
You experience taste in a way that is much stronger than what others experience, and it can cause you emotional reactions.
EXAMPLE: Certain tastes make you feel sick or even panicky if you can’t get the taste out of your mouth. The very idea of anyone making you eat a certain food you don’t like makes you panic.
What does sensory overload feel like?
photo by Joseph Frank for Unsplash
It can feel like you are being attacked by an invisible force. On a physical level you can experience a beating heart, sweatiness, and dissociation (feeling out of your body). Mentally and emotionally you can feel overwhelmed and unable to think straight, as well as close to panic, anger, or bursting into tears.
The myths about sensory overload in adults
Again, sensory overwhelm is not only related to autism. There are many other mental health issues it is connected to.
And you don’t have to have dramatic meltdowns to suffer from sensory overwhelm. Many people suffer quietly from sensory overload.
Also note sensory sensitivity is not always negative. The positive side, when you aren’t being overloaded, is that you can, for example, take more pleasure out of good food than others, or notice levels to musical composition others don’t, or be good at things like wine tastings.
How sensory overload happens
Sensory overload isn’t a consistent or exact experience. Each person has their own limits for an onset of a sensory ‘meltdown’ that can depend on various factors, such as stress and sleep.
For example, a shopping mall with bright fluorescent lights, tinny music, and a cavernous design that makes all voices echo loudly might be bearable for a half an hour or so if you have had a calm week and a good sleep. On a day when you’ve had a fight with your family and haven’t slept, you might find you go into overwhelm the second you step in.
Mental health issues connected to sensory overload in adults
Again, most of us know by now that sensory overload is a symptom of adult autism and what is still sometimes referred to as ‘Asperger’s’ (despite being a set of symptoms that now officially comes under ‘autism spectrum diagnosis’).
But there are many other mental health issues that can have sensory overload as a symptom.
photo by Cottonbro for Pexels
Adults with ADHD can have sensory sensitivity related to how their attention is directed by their brain. For example, an ADHD brain can scan environments more quickly than others, meaning it can take in more information faster in a way that can at times be too much. Or it can go into ‘hyperfocus‘, fixating on one thing in a way that is not helpful.
In a study that questioned over 100 adults with ADHD, almost half of women identified as having over or under-responsive senses, along with around 20 per cent of the male participants.
Generalised anxiety and anxiety disorder.
When our brain goes into fear mode and triggers our ‘fight flight or freeze’ response, the cocktail of chemicals then released throughout our body is designed to make us hyper alert so we can respond to the perceived threat. But it also means our sense are on high, taking in more information than usual. If we are constantly in anxiety mode, and constantly vigilant, it’s no wonder we have sensory overwhelm.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and C-ptsd.
PTSD and complex trauma again sees you often in fight, flight, or freeze mode, and experiencing hyper vigilance. Again, this means your sense are ramped up, which can be overwhelming.
Borderline personality disorder.
Borderline personality disorder is driven by anxiety you will at any given moment be abandoned or rejected. So there is a hyper vigilance at play, and many of those who have BPD report sensory overstimulation alongside their emotional oversensitivity.
If you have the type of bipolar that brings on manic episodes, you will experience sensory overload. Mania is a speeding up of body systems, hence those in a manic episode talk fast and slur their speech. The DSM-5 notes that some people experience mania can experience ‘a sharper sense of smell, hearing, or vision’. The ICD-10 connects ‘hyperacusis’, where everyday sounds are amplified, as a possible side effect of mania.
Chronic fatigue syndrome / Fibromyalgia.
Both chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia are now understood to involve abnormal brain activity, and this often leads to hyper-excitable senses. Fibromyalgia sufferers report feeling overwhelmed by loud noise, bright lights, and strong smells like perfumes. CFS and ME report things like pain, fatigue, and brain fog when exposed to too many stimulating things.
Does sensory overload in adults really matter?
photo by Karolina Grabowska for Pexels
It can lead to feeling misunderstood and quite lonely. Those who have never experienced sensory overload, or who don’t know that it exists or what it is, might see you are someone who is either just seeking attention or is socially strange. Even those who do know what you go through can sometimes become frustrated, and leave you feeling judged and alone.
Other side effects of sensory overload in adults that can affect relationships, your career, and your schooling can include:
Is it a disorder?
Some use the term ‘sensory processing disorder’ if their brain struggles to manage in the face of sensorial input and they often meltdown. If you find your sensorial sensitivity sometimes annoying, and occasionally overwhelming, but you don’t tend to meltdown, and mostly manage? You could refer to it as the trait of ‘sensory processing sensitivity’.
But note that sensory processing disorder (SPD) is not an official diagnosis recognised by mental health manuals, and a psychiatrist will not see it as one or diagnose you with it. Sensorial overwhelm in adults is currently approached as a symptom of other disorders.
What can I do if I have sensory overload?
Practical choices are very important. Sometimes it becomes about accepting that going to the shopping mall or a big concert, or even living in a city, just aren’t for you. About resting before big life events, and about simplifying your life. This can mean choosing friends who share the activities you enjoy and that don’t leave you overwhelmed.
And there are tools that are helpful. This can be as simple as earplugs or noise cancelling headphones, good sunglasses you can still see with indoors, or apps or music designed to keep you calm. Or it might be mindfulness, which, when practised daily, helps you to stay grounded in the face of fear and anxiety.
Can therapy help?
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) might also help. Its focus is on the link between your thoughts, emotions, bodily reactions, and choices. If your sensorial overwhelm is connected to anxiety, for example, it can help you recognise what thoughts trigger your anxiety, and mean you can get to a calm space or change your thinking before you start to meltdown.
Talk therapy is also very helpful if you feel lonely and misunderstood because of your sensory issues. It can help you with relating your needs and wants and relate better to others despite your issues that make you different. And a psychotherapist can also let you know if it seems you have a mental health disorder like ADHD or autism. You can then be referred on to a psychiatrist for a proper diagnosis.
Need help with handling sensory overwhelm? We connect you with a group of some of London’s most experienced talk therapists. We also run a therapy listings site of UK-wide registered therapists for all budgets.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and writer. She also runs a consultancy helping people find their perfect therapy and therapist. She was diagnosed with ADHD over twenty years ago, and has suffered from sensory overload since she was a kid. Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy