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Jul 07, 2021
6 min read

Sensory overload: what is it, symptoms, treatment

If you get easily overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, or other activities around you that no one else seems bothered by, you might be experiencing sensory overload. Sensory overload occurs when your brain is unable to manage the flow of sensory information coming in. This can happen to anyone, but it’s much more common with certain medical conditions. A skilled healthcare provider can help you manage these symptoms.

steve silvestro

Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ellyn Vohnoutka, BSN, RN

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

We all get overwhelmed by our environment sometimes. Think about the packed crowds of a mall before Christmas, the loud booms and bright lights of a fireworks display, or that scratchy feeling of a tag in a brand new sweater poking into your back. 

These are all situations that can be unpleasant for anyone, even without sensory issues. For someone who does have trouble processing sensory information, these situations can be downright overwhelming.

You may have sensory overload if you often find yourself bothered or irritated by items or activities around you that don’t seem to bother anyone else.

What is sensory overload? 

Your brain uses inputs from seven different senses to perceive your body and the world around it. These senses include the five external senses you’re likely familiar with:

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell

You also have two other internal senses:

  • Vestibular sense—This gives your body a sense of balance and motion. If you’ve ever experienced vertigo, you know what it’s like when this sense is impaired.
  • Proprioception—This is the sense of body position and movement. An example of this is being able to touch your nose with your eyes closed.

When there is a change in the environment (especially if it’s involuntary) or the brain’s ability to process information from these senses, it can lead to problems managing that information. When more sensory information is coming in than a person’s brain can filter and process, this can trigger sensory overload (Khan, 2021).

Sensory overload is also called sensory over-responsivity or sensory hypersensitivity. It happens when a person responds to sensory inputs in a way that is faster, longer, or more intense than what’s usually expected (Ghanizadeh, 2010).

Sensory overload can affect your behavior, decision-making, and problem-solving ability. It can lead to changes in mood, concentration, and ability to communicate clearly (Khan, 2021).

Anyone can occasionally experience symptoms of sensory overload, but certain conditions make it more likely. There is some evidence that people with sensory processing difficulties might have differences in how the white matter in their brains is structured, affecting how they process sensory information (Owen, 2013).

What are the signs and symptoms of sensory overload?

The types of sensory input that can be overwhelming are different for each person. Here are some common examples of sensory hypersensitivity that can lead to sensory overload (Cheng, 2005):

  • Visual: Feeling like lights are too bright (especially fluorescent lights), having trouble reading high contrast printing (black letters on bright white paper)
  • Sound: Easily distracted or irritated by background noises, making own noises to drown out other sounds, covering ears to block out loud noises, trouble concentrating in office/classroom 
  • Touch: Easily bothered by light touch, crowded places, clothing, tags, hair brushing
  • Taste: Sensitivity to food textures or having teeth brushed
  • Smell: Noticing smells that others don’t, easily distressed or nauseated by smells
  • Vestibular: Becoming car sick easily, avoiding fast-moving activities such as swinging or biking

When a person with sensory sensitivities encounters one or more of these conditions without any way to avoid or cope with it, they can experience overstimulation and sensory overload. Some common behaviors for an adult or child experiencing sensory overload include (Cheng, 2005):

  • Tantrums or meltdowns
  • Angry outbursts
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Interpersonal difficulty
  • Leaving or avoiding overwhelming situations

What conditions can be associated with sensory overload?

You don’t need to have a specific diagnosis to experience symptoms of sensory overload. Still, it’s more common with some diagnoses. Here are some conditions commonly associated with episodes of sensory overload.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Under- and over-responsiveness to sensory information is a common feature of people with ADHD. Research has shown that children with ADHD have more difficulty processing information about touch, balance, sound, sight, and smell than their neurotypical peers. Researchers think that this is due to differences in brain connections and how the brain uses dopamine (Ghanizadeh, 2010).

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Sensory processing issues are pervasive in people with ASD. Researchers estimate between 42% and 88% of children with ASD experience difficulty regulating their responses to sensory information. Self-stimulating behaviors (commonly nicknamed “stimming”), such as hand flapping, are often used to compensate for too little input or to prevent sensory overload (Pfeiffer, 2011).

Sensory processing disorder (SPD)

Difficulty managing sensory input can be a feature of multiple mental health conditions. Some researchers have proposed that it also can be a distinct condition in its own right. People with SPD experience problems processing sensory information—enough to interfere with their daily lives. Whether it is a separate condition or not, there is evidence that people with SPD have differences in brain structure that contribute to processing information differently (Harrison, 2019).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

With PTSD, one common symptom is hypervigilance. Researchers have found that the brain of someone with PTSD may become overly sensitive to sensory input and misinterpret neutral information as a threat. This can lead to sensory overload and avoidance. Researchers hope that this understanding can lead to new ways to help those living with symptoms of PTSD (Clancy, 2017).

How do you diagnose and treat sensory overload?

According to most researchers, sensory overload isn’t its own medical condition. Still, if you or your child experience it often or it’s interfering with your life, you should reach out to your healthcare provider. They may suggest a workup for one or more conditions associated with sensory overload. They may even refer you to an occupational therapist who can help you learn to manage the symptoms.

Here are some ways you can help to manage sensory sensitivity and overload.

Tracking and managing triggers

Keep a journal of how different sensory inputs make you feel. If you try any interventions, such as wearing earplugs, record if these help you or not. Keeping track of your responses can help your healthcare providers come up with other suggestions for you. Also, while journaling, you can track whether your sensory reactions change over time (Cheng, 2005).

Occupational therapy / sensory integration therapy

Sensory integration therapy (SIT) is a type of therapy performed by occupational therapists mainly working with children. It helps children improve how they process and react to sensory information in daily life. Most SIT activities look like play but are designed to introduce various types of sensory input. The therapist records the results of the activities to make adjustments to the treatment plan as needed. SIT has positively affected children’s stress levels and ability to adapt to sensations, concentration, and social interactions (Guardado, 2021).

Sensory diet

While it may sound like a sensory diet has something to do with food, that’s not the case. It’s a planned and scheduled activity program designed to meet your specific sensory needs. This helps you to learn and practice skills to moderate your sensory sensitivity to prevent overload. There currently isn’t much research about how effective this approach actually is. Still, it remains a common intervention for people with sensory issues (Cheng, 2005).

How to get help with sensory overload

If you or your child struggle with sensory overload or other sensory processing issues, contact your healthcare provider. They can help you uncover any medical or psychological conditions that might be causing your symptoms. They can also refer you to specialists who can help you come up with ways to manage sensory symptoms.

References

  1. Cheng, M., & Boggett-Carsjens, J. (2005). Consider sensory processing disorders in the explosive child: case report and review. The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review = La revue canadienne de psychiatrie de l’enfant et de l’adolescent, 14(2), 44–48. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2542921/ 
  2. Clancy, K., Ding, M., Bernat, E., Schmidt, N. B., Li, W., (2017). Restless ‘rest’: intrinsic sensory hyperactivity and disinhibition in post-traumatic stress disorder. Brain, 140(7), 2041–2050, doi: 10.1093/brain/awx116. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/140/7/2041/3860546
  3. Ghanizadeh, A. (2010). Sensory processing problems in children with ADHD, a systematic review. Psychiatry Investigation, 8(2):89-94. doi: 10.4306/pi.2011.8.2.89. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatryinvestigation.org/journal/view.php?doi=10.4306%2Fpi.2011.8.2.89
  4. Guardado KE, Sergent SR. (2021). Sensory integration. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559155/
  5. Harrison, L. A., Kats, A., Williams, M. E., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2019). The importance of sensory processing in mental health: a proposed addition to the research domain criteria (RDoC) and suggestions for RDoC 2.0. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 103. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00103. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6370662/
  6. Khan I, Khan MAB. (2021). Sensory and perceptual alterations. [Updated 2021 Jan 14]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK563136/
  7. Owen, J. P., Marco, E. J., Desai, S., Fourie, E., Harris, J., Hill, S. S., et al. (2013). Abnormal white matter microstructure in children with sensory processing disorders. NeuroImage: Clinical, 2, 844-853. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2013.06.009. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213158213000776

    Pfeiffer, B. A., Koenig, K., Kinnealey, M., Sheppard, M., & Henderson, L. (2011). Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: a pilot study. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy: Official Publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association, 65(1), 76–85. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2011.09205. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708964/