Sensory overload. Are you managing your sensory input?

woman experiencing sensory overload
We will invariably come across situations that are “too much”. Managing our daily sensory input is important to ensure we live a happy, balanced life.

Why is balancing sensory input/experience important?

Our senses are indicators to us, they tell us what we like and dislike. Managing our daily sensory input is important to ensure we live a happy, balanced life. Sensory inputs can be insufficient, just right or excessive (i.e. a sensory overload), so knowing when to adjust them is essential to good sensory input management. Setting up our environments, with acknowledgement of our own sensory needs, gives us the opportunity to do our best work, have the most restful relaxation and enjoy quality time with others without unnecessary distress.

Consider working in an open plan office – it’s likely that your hearing sense gets overworked and it’s difficult to concentrate on that important piece of work. You may have self-managed this distraction by using noise-cancelling headphones or moving to a private work space. Occasionally in your day-to-day life, your senses may be completely consumed in things absolutely lovely or things absolutely intolerable, which can lead to a sensory overload.

What is Sensory Overload?

Senses are “just right”

Imagine walking through a little village on a late summer morning. You feel the gentle warmth of the sun on your face. The smell of freshly baked pastries wafts into your nose as you walk past the bakery, you look across the street to a playground where children are running around together and making sweet play sounds. You cross the street and walk down the steps to the little beach; blue sky, blue sea. You remove your shoes and walk on the sand, the shells are crunching lightly under your feet… All these experiences are your senses taking in the environment. In this example, the senses are being delighted and the sensory input is calming.

Senses are overloaded

Now imagine you’re at a music festival in the middle of summer. You’re in the mosh pit, right at the front of the stage. The music is blaring, your muscles ache from standing for hours, and people are cramming up against you. As you breathe in what feels like 90% body odour and 10% oxygen, you’re starting to feel uncomfortable. It’s hot and humid and soon you realise your heart rate is rising, noises are blurring, and you feel like closing your eyes and getting away from it all… This is an example of sensory overload. One or more of your senses have become overwhelmed to the point you cannot handle being in a situation any longer.

Try this exercise!

Take a moment to think about one of the most pleasurable sensory experiences you’ve had. Pick a strong memory. Now think about what you heard, what you could feel, what you tasted, what you saw and what you smelled. Enjoy those memories. Now, try manipulating that experience by imagining just one of the sensory inputs being amplified incrementally. How is the overall experience affected? At what point does the experience become unpleasant and at what point does it become intolerable or overwhelming?

Does sensory overload translate into mental illness?

It can, but overwhelmed senses can also be an occasional part of a normal mentally-well life. Just as we acknowledge that pain from a sprained ankle is an important sign to limit the weight/stress we put onto the ankle, the brain telling you that “this is too much” is important to protect our “sensors”. The simplest example is that listening to music too loud can cause irreversible hearing damage and can limit your enjoyment of hearing softer sounds in the future.

Sensory overload is a common symptom for people with anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder as well as other mental illnesses.

Overloaded or heightened?

An overload experience is a 100% hit against your senses. It’s both memorable and terrible. You will know if it is happening to you, but you can understand better by practicing mindfulness.

Every day we take in sensory input and process it, and a lot of the time it’s all good 😊. We’re happy and functioning optimally in a good space, called your “just right” zone. Awareness of your “just right” is the foundation to beginning to understand your tolerance for different sensory inputs. Keep a mindfulness diary (check out the 6-Minute Diary or the Self Journal) to learn your “just right” zones and to understand the common causes in your life that can lead you to dip below or rise higher than just right.

Diagram showing the spectrum of sensory experience, from sensory low, to just right, to sensory overload

Try This Exercise: What environments take you outside your “just right” zone? Consider the following situations, have you ever experienced:

  • Inability to concentrate with other conversations happening around you
  • Abandoning a shop because the music playing inside was too loud for you to make a decision while shopping
  • Desire to close your eyes watching a live show or movie
  • Avoiding sunlight
  • Freezing up in a room full of people
  • ‘H-anger’ – irritability when hungry
  • Brain freeze from super-cold foods

Common sensory overload triggers

Loud noises, crowded spaces, excessive heat, flashing lights, strong smells, intense flavours

Even if you’re not overloaded by these triggers, they can still cause you detriment by taking you outside of your optimal performance zone, so it’s important to be aware and prepared!

What can I do to manage my sensory input to avoid overload?

We will invariably come across situations that are “too much” for us every now and again. The trick is to know our limits, respect them and eventually gently challenge them. We don’t necessarily want to blanket-avoid all scenarios that seem risky, but rather prepare for the risk and have a plan! You’ll want to plan by sensory input type. Check out the considerations below.

Think about the different senses, whether you respond to any in particular, and get ready to plan ahead!

  • Touch
    • Consider your “personal zone”. Do you get uncomfortable when people are too close, or hug you?
    • Think about what kind of touch you don’t like. Do certain fabrics against your skin, like scratchy wool, cause your discomfort?
    • How does intense warmth or cold affect you? Do you ‘shut down’ when overheating?
  • Taste
    • Do you react to certain foods – do spicy foods set you off? Have you got any known or unknown food intolerance?
    • Are you a serial over eater and does this put you at risk of leaving your just-right zone?
  • Sight
    • Does glare from the sun or computer screens set you off?
    • Do flashing lights cause you discomfort?
  • Smell
    • Do certain smells cause you extreme discomfort? Perhaps nostalgic smells that bring up unwanted memories? Or smells that aren’t unpleasant but are so strong that they overpower you?
  • Hear
    • Do you struggle with loud noises?
    • Do you struggle with hearing?
    • Can you use music to create your own safe space?

How can I help others to stay in their “just right” zone?

Be aware that everyone’s tolerance for stimulus is different. Reading the signs when someone is heightened/overloaded can be difficult, but try to be empathetic.

Are you hosting an event? From noisy children’s parties to fancy dinner parties to wild hen’s parties, ensuring everyone is in the right zone to enjoy the event is important. Design events that are kind to the senses.

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Please share with us! Have you ever experienced a sensory overload, what happened? How do you manage your everyday sensory experiences?

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