What is sensory overload, what are its effects, and how can you relieve it?
Sometimes, the world around us can be overwhelming.
Sensory overload is the term used to describe an abundance of stimuli that is intolerable and causes one confusion and/or anxiety. Evidence is increasingly showing that overstimulation is a major factor leading to anxiety and depression. This is especially true for those more sensitive to stimuli.
This overstimulation can come from a variety of sources including excessive noise, multitasking, and cluttered surroundings. Overuse of electronic media is a modern phenomena particularly linked to issues of anxiety, depression, and isolation. This is unfortunately wide-reaching, as the average American spends most of their waking hours (about 11) on electronic media and internet.
Overstimulation can take quite a toll. Anxiety and stress has a number of detrimental physical and mental symptoms. The immediate sensory overload can build into intense sensory issues (affecting all five senses adversely). This is because the stress response (or “fight or flight” mode) triggered leads to changes from the body’s normal functions that are excessive and exhausting if too frequent. Muscle and nerve sensations can be felt, as well. Muscle tension leads to aches, pains, and sometimes even mobility issues. Additionally, the heavy anxiety that comes from overstimulation can result in feelings of helplessness and cause depression. In other words, the resulting anxiety and depression can become a negative loop that builds and builds.
This overload can be worse for certain individuals than others. For example, introverts, individuals with autism, and those with sensory sensitivities (such as Sensory Processing Disorder) all have more difficulty than most avoiding overstimulation. Recent research suggests that for those with autism, this is because their brains are actually hyper-functional and thus more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. Social overstimulation in particular can affect both those with autism and more introverted individuals.
Some individuals in these categories experience what is known as a sensory meltdown. In sensitive children and some individuals with autism, these meltdowns involve anything from shutting down, to a panic attack, or to what can appear to be a “tantrum.” It depends on the individual how they will react. A certain “sensory diet” may need to be provided for these individuals with greater sensitivity. This would mean regulating their environment and schedules to be as tailored to their issues as possible. It is important for parents or loved ones of these individuals to be supportive and responsive to the person’s sensory sensitivities.
There are some general methods of dealing with sensory overload. It helps if one makes sure to take breaks when possible, and finds a balance based on their limits in regards to stimulation. Of course, a general way to avoid overstimulation would be to use said breaks to get away from the stimuli causing overload. If the problem is excessive noise, for example, one could find a quiet space to recover. Meditation, deep breathing, and activities such as yoga can also help decrease unnecessary arousal. These help in part due to the mindfulness, or the brain’s ability to stay in the present moment, they help develop and strengthen. They help your brain get away from the habits of excessive multi-tasking. The Pomodoro Technique, or working intensely in short, timed bursts can aid in avoiding these issues, as well.
Sensory overload is a serious issue that can affect our physical and mental well-being greatly. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how stress affects yourself or your loved one, and to engage in methods to reduce overstimulation whenever possible.