What is Sensory Overload, and How Can I Manage it as a Highly Sensitive Person?

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What is Sensory Overload, and How Can I Manage it as a Highly Sensitive Person?

Do your senses feel out of control? Do loud noises, bright lights, and chaotic situations leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious? If so, you are likely dealing with sensory overload. Sensory overload can significantly impact the quality of life for those who experience it, from feeling completely overwhelmed to struggling with chronic pain and anxiety.

This blog post explores the real causes behind this monster known as sensory overload, as well as provides practical tips to help people manage its adverse effects. When combined with insight into how a sensitive person is affected by this phenomenon — and why they need special tools to cope — it brings us one step closer to lifting the fog around their ill-understood condition.

What is Sensory Overload, and How Can it Affect a Sensitive Person?

The human nervous system demonstrates incredible complexity in how it deals with processing sensory information.  Every second of every day, our bodies receive and filter a huge amount of data from our surroundings; this requires us to prioritize our resources for the most essential or ‘high-value’ data while also filtering out the rest to make sense of our environment. Being able to focus and prioritize sensory information is vital for the nervous system. 

This focused attention is a finite resource that can be easily depleted, especially when we find ourselves switching between multiple tasks: not only must we expend energy on staying focused on the task at hand, but the task-switching process itself eats up our mental fuel.

We know that these cognitive functions require a tremendous amount of energy from the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain. When we deplete this essential resource, our cognitive and physical performance instantly suffers – often causing exhaustion, confusion, and difficulty focusing. It can trigger headaches, tension, and a host of other physical symptoms, as well as emotional distress, such as anxiety and depression.

Sensitive people are prone to experiencing sensory overload because they often have a heightened sensitivity to their environment. This means that their senses are constantly taking in more stimuli than the average person can handle. For example, a sensitive person may be easily overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights, whereas someone who is not as sensitive may be able to tolerate these without difficulty.

When exposed to an environment that overwhelms their senses, a sensitive person can experience physical symptoms such as a racing heart, tightness in the chest, headaches, and nausea. They can experience a flood of mixed emotions, resulting in emotional dysregulation. This may lead to outbursts of frustration and irritability and, in extreme cases, to panic attacks.

It’s important to note that this condition isn’t limited to sensitive people – anyone can experience sensory overload. However, those with a heightened sensitivity may find themselves dealing with it more often and at a greater intensity.

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What Causes Sensory Overload in Adults?

When adults experience sensory overload, it is usually caused by one of two factors:

  1. The first has to do with the nervous system being overwhelmed by the demands of sensory processing. This can occur in hypersensitive people (sensory processing sensitivity) or in those who are constantly juggling multiple tasks and being bombarded with extreme stimulation. This is especially common nowadays as our environments are often overly complex and stimulating.
  1. The second is when the nervous system is unable to use energy efficiently because of chronic dysregulation at a metabolic level. This can be caused by stress, traumatic events, and other life circumstances. Nervous system dysregulation, which affects the structures of the brain and its ability to process input, can lead to an overload of sensory information. This influences how the brain can differentiate between important and unimportant sensory data, leading it to be overwhelmed. As a result, the ability to prioritize incoming information is compromised, leading to a whole range of sensory overload symptoms.

It’s important to note that these factors are not mutually exclusive – they can both be present and influence each other. It is also important to remember that everyone’s threshold for sensory overload is different, so it’s crucial to know your limits and recognize when you may be approaching a state of overload.

The Relationship between Anxiety and Sensory Overload

Sensory overload can be a huge contributor to mental health conditions and anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is an innate part of our survival mechanisms, known as “fight-or-flight.” It’s what has kept humans alive for thousands of years. But in our modern world, our body’s danger warning system can sometimes be triggered by everyday situations, leading to feelings of anxiety in both our minds and bodies.

Many people are unaware of the link between sensory overload and anxiety, but research has found that when an adult’s senses are overwhelmed and sensory overload occurs, it can put their mind in a tense state and create fear or panic. Bodily functions, such as elevated heart rate, the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and the inability to concentrate, can all result from too much stimulation.

Picture yourself to be someone who takes in the world more profoundly than others and is thus more vulnerable to getting overwhelmed by sensory overload. For people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (HSP), living with anxiety can be a daily battle. A recent study looked at the roles of health-promoting behaviors, sensory processing sensitivity, and health anxiety during the pandemic. The results showed that individuals with higher levels of sensory processing sensitivity were more likely to experience higher levels of health anxiety.

Why does this happen? Well, researchers believe that HSPs have more connections between brain cells, particularly in regions of the brain that handle memories and emotions, especially fear. This means that HSPs are more likely to remember dangerous situations and, therefore, more likely to experience anxiety.

So what happens when a highly sensitive person experiences chronic sensory overload? This exhaustion of the nervous system’s ability to process sensory information can lead to burnout. Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when an individual has reached a state where they are no longer able to cope with the demands being placed on them. This can be exacerbated by sensory overload, as it can make it difficult for the body to regulate its response to stimuli, leading to feelings of exhaustion. Additionally, it can lead to difficulty in focusing and concentrating, as well as a decrease in motivation.

How to Recognize Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensitivity to sensory overload can be even more acute for people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), who are hypersensitive to even the slightest stimuli. For these individuals, overcoming the effects of sensory overload can prove especially challenging.

As an adult, having difficulty processing sensory input can be a major source of stress and anxiety. By recognizing the signs of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), adults can take proactive steps to create stability and control in their lives.

Common indicators of Sensory Processing Disorder in adults include:

  • Being sensitive to certain textures, fabrics, or materials
  • Difficulty filtering out background noise and/or bright lights
  • Physical hypersensitivity that causes aversion to touch or sensations
  • Discomfort in crowded places or social anxiety due to sensory overload
  • Strong aversion or preference for specific scents or smells
  • Struggle with fine motor skills such as writing or using chopsticks
  • An extreme need for movement or difficulty sitting still; the tendency to fidget
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Enhanced expression of emotion or difficulty understanding other people’s emotions
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  • Tendency to become upset or overwhelmed in noisy and crowded environments
  • Tendency to seek out physical activity or pressure stimulation as a way to regulate the nervous system

How to Deal with Sensory Overload as a Sensitive Person

Sensory overload can be a complex issue to manage in our modern life, but taking proactive steps toward addressing it is essential for overall health and well-being.

It is important to focus on two things:

  1. Reducing the number of choices your nervous system has to make, thereby limiting the amount of information filtering required.
  • Limiting the number of choices our brains have to make may seem counterintuitive, yet it actually serves to reduce information filtering needs significantly and gives us more capacity. 
  • This is because instead of having to manage multiple inputs that require attention and decoding, we can put our attention at rest and free up brain resources for deeper thinking. 
  • Consider an office environment: with the constant reminder of emails and other digital notifications coming in, it’s almost impossible to focus on anything.  By reducing the number of choices we have at hand and limiting how much extra filtering must be done, we can free up our attentional systems and better use them on higher-order thinking processes like problem-solving or creating something new. This has tremendous benefits not only in our personal lives but also in organizational environments such as offices, where prioritization is key.
  1. Managing sensory overload isn’t just about reducing environmental stimulus; it’s also about targeting the underlying issues that lead to nervous system dysregulation.
  • It’s essential to focus on restoring a healthy connection between the mind and body, as this increases our ability to process sensory input accurately. Nervous system dysregulation can be addressed through a variety of approaches, including mindfulness, stress reduction, sensory integration, occupational therapy, counseling, and integrative therapies such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. 
  • These techniques are valuable tools that help people take control of their lives by getting to the root of their physical and mental health issues instead of simply masking symptoms. 
  • Taking time to learn more about your nervous system is an important step towards decreasing sensory overload so you can thrive.

Strategies for Creating a Healthier, More Supportive Environment for Yourself to Prevent Sensory Overload

Connection with Nature

Connection with nature is a crucial step in managing sensory overload.

Nature has a powerful effect on our nervous system by actively regulating it and reducing sensory overload. Spending time in nature allows us to take in fewer sensory stimuli by giving us fewer choices. This means that the nervous system does not have to work as hard to filter all the information so that it can regulate and calm down.

Being in nature activates your brain’s default network, providing much-needed respite for its executive network, which is responsible for maintaining attention and making decisions. When our executive network is activated for long durations, it can lead to a cognitive overload, which is why it’s essential to let it rest while in nature.

Moreover, being in nature activates our deep aesthetic sense, which refers to our ability to appreciate beauty and respond emotionally to it. This is a crucial trait of sensitive people, and nature provides an optimal environment for such experiences, with its vast panoramic vistas, symmetrical landscapes, and varied colors and textures.

Here are 10 activities to let nature into your body through all of your senses:

  1. Go for a nature walk and breathe in the fresh air.
  2. Take time to listen to the sounds of nature: birds chirping, leaves rustling, ocean waves, etc.
  3. Sit or lie down on the grass and feel the sensation of the earth beneath you.
  4. Take a hike to a scenic viewpoint and take in the sights and colors of the surrounding landscape.
  5. Plant a garden or take care of indoor plants, and appreciate the scent and texture of various plants.
  6. Take a cold-water swim or dip in the ocean, lake, or river and feel the invigorating water on your skin.
  7. Try outdoor yoga or meditation and connect with the natural surroundings.
  8. Go foraging for wild berries or herbs, and enjoy the varying tastes and textures of what you find.
  9. Take a bike ride through a scenic landscape and feel the wind rushing against your skin.
  10. Do outdoor creative activities such as painting or drawing – let the natural environment be your inspiration.

Lifestyle Changes

Reducing sensory overload requires building a simple, more sustainable lifestyle that nurtures and regulates your nervous system.

This involves examining every aspect of your life, including your daily activities, your work, your relationships, and your possessions. By taking stock of everything that surrounds us, we can make informed decisions about what we truly need and what can be eliminated, thereby reducing the amount of sensory information we take in.

A simple lifestyle that prioritizes essentials and sustainability creates a space for our nervous system to regulate and calm down. For instance, reducing clutter in our homes or offices, buying fewer things, and reusing what we have will not only reduce stimuli but also create a sense of harmony within our lives and foster connection with the natural world.

  1. Stay away from impulse buying and create a budget.
  2. Stay away from fast fashion trends and purchase high-quality clothing items built to last.
  3. Reduce waste by recycling, repurposing, or upcycling items that would typically go into your trash or recycling bin.
  4. Give yourself a break from electronic devices like laptops, smartphones or tablets.
  5. Transform your home into an oasis of serenity by selecting nature-inspired hues for your decor. This will lower visual noise and promote a more calming atmosphere in any room.
  6. Store away seasonal items to reduce the amount of clutter on display.
  7. Create daily routines that promote simplicity, such as cooking for yourself, doing laundry only once a week, and cleaning as you go.
  8. Simplify your diet by reducing the amount of sugar, caffeine, or processed foods.
  9. Use eco-friendly and biodegradable products, including cleaning agents, personal hygiene products, and laundry detergents.
  10. Grow your food, create a vegetable or herb garden, and enjoy the fruits of your efforts while significantly reducing your carbon footprint.
  11. Keep lighting gentle and diffuse. Consider using natural light for illumination instead of harsh artificial lighting.
  12. Create a designated quiet space in your home or office to reduce noise pollution.
  13. If noises coming from outside are a problem, consider soundproofing your living space.

It is crucial to adopt a simple, more sustainable lifestyle that supports our nervous system and creates a conducive environment for growth and well-being.

Workplace

As a team manager, you have the opportunity to create an environment where your employees can thrive without being overwhelmed by sensory overload. Here are a few strategies that could help reduce this stressor:

  1. Use natural light sources to reduce the amount of artificial lighting used in the workplace.
  2. Provide noise-canceling headphones to employees or invest in noise-canceling panels to dampen unwanted sound.
  3. Create a designated quiet space in the office for employees to take breaks and recharge.
  4. Adopt a “clean desk” policy to reduce visual clutter and distractions on work surfaces.
  5. Ensure proper ergonomic support for employees to reduce physical strain and sensory stress.
  6. Encourage employees to take breaks and stretch throughout the day to avoid sensory overload and eye strain.
  7. Foster an environment where employees can customize their lighting, sound, or temperature preferences according to their personal needs.
  8. Provide an employee assistance program that addresses mental health or stress management concerns.
  9. Offer training, workshops, or resources to educate employees about sensory overload and how to manage it in the workplace.
  10. Establish a program to support flexible work schedules or remote work arrangements, to reduce the negative impact of stress or sensory overload.

Conclusion

Sensory overload can be hard to deal with. It happens to many people and affects them in different ways. The effects may differ greatly from person to person, so it’s important to recognize how sensory overload affects you specifically and, more importantly, find ways to better cope with the symptoms that affect your everyday life. 

Although it might seem like an insurmountable task to manage sensory overload as a sensitive person, there are very effective options for learning how to create healthier, more supportive environments for yourself. From learning about what causes sensory overload in adults and recognizing signs of Sensory Processing Disorder, all the way to strategies for managing anxiety triggers – implementing these strategies and tools can empower you with knowledge and resources as you approach any potential vulnerabilities.

If you’re a sensitive person looking for ways to manage sensory overload and related struggles, I invite you to join my weekly newsletter, where I share insights and practical tools to help you heal nervous system dysregulation and thrive with sensitivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are sensory processing issues?

Sensory processing issues refer to difficulties in interpreting or responding to sensory information from the environment. It can affect people of all ages and includes difficulty with vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, balance or movement. 

Common symptoms include being hypersensitive to certain sounds or textures; struggling with social interaction; difficulty concentrating; feeling overwhelmed by everyday environments such as crowded places or loud noises; and having difficulty planning and completing movements. Sensory processing issues can be related to physical conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but can also occur independently.

What can trigger sensory overload?

Sensory overload can be triggered by a variety of stimuli, such as loud noises, strong smells, and intense lights. However, even seemingly innocuous environmental stimuli can trigger sensory overload in sensitive individuals due to their heightened sensitivity. Other common triggers include crowds or chaotic environments, textures like clothing tags or certain fabrics, and certain tastes or smells.

Who is most likely to experience sensory overload?

Sensitive people are most likely to experience sensory overload. This includes those with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), a condition that affects nearly 20% of the population worldwide. Individuals with SPS often experience heightened awareness and intense reactions to stimuli that many people may not even notice.

Are people with mental health conditions more likely to experience sensory overload?

Yes, people with mental health conditions are more likely to experience sensory overload due to the fact that their heightened sensitivity makes them more vulnerable to environmental stimuli. Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can cause exaggerated reactions in response to any type of stressor or perceived threat. As a result, these individuals are more prone to experiencing sensory overload from various sources. 

Nervous System Regulation – Best Resources to Get Started

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Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.