The world can be a noisy place. Every time we set foot outdoors we are bombarded with the sounds of traffic, our fellow humans and their pets, road works and similar essential maintenance to public areas, leaking music from shops and homes… and for those us not lucky enough to live in a detached, insulated sanctuary, we may not even have the luxury of peace and quiet in our own property.
This phenomenon is referred to as sensory overload, and it’s becoming increasingly prevalent in everyday 21st Century living. This guide will talk you through how to cope with sensory overload while out and about, and offer some advice on potential home improvements that could provide you with a little more peace within your own four walls.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload ultimately amounts to the brain attempting to process too much information at once, and eventually waving the white flag and conceding that it cannot cope with so much stimulation.
Walk around your house and switch on your television and radio at high volume whilst running the vacuum around, then have somebody call you on the telephone. If you have a dog they’ll no doubt react to all this noise by barking, and if you have a sleeping baby upstairs they’ll certainly be screaming by now. Now ask somebody to flick the lights on and off. It’s no wonder that we cannot cope with this much excitement at once.
Sensory overload can result in discomfort around other people, difficulty in concentrating, an overwhelming urge to somehow ‘hide’ (be that leaving a room or location, or just burying your head in a pillow) or some kind of emotional outburst. Essentially, sensory overload is the human fight or flight responses cranked up to their peak, especially in children.
Why Do I Experience Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload is not a personal failure, so don’t be harsh on yourself if you struggle with it; you are not anti-social. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lists the necessities of safety and security, as well as intimacy with friends and loved ones, as hugely important and close to the bottom of the fabled pyramid, propping up the more elaborate psychological requirements of the human condition, and it’s hard to truly feel safe and enjoy the company of others when you feel that you are constantly battling interference from outside elements.
Could I Experience Sensory Overload Due to Medical Reasons?
It’s possible, especially if struggles with sensory input began in childhood – this is known as a Sensory Processing Disorder. Young people that live with SPD find any kind of activity that involves the five senses, from touching a new material to tasting a new food, utterly overwhelming. Obviously, this is at the more extreme end of the sensory overload spectrum.
It’s no secret that sensory overload has also long been linked to Autism. Those living with Autism particularly struggle with excessive stimulation from their outside environment, with the overwhelming sensation resulting in a meltdown. Most people are diagnosed with Autism due to displaying symptoms at an early age, but it’s far from uncommon for somebody do live with the condition well into their teens or adulthood without realising it; if you suspect that yourself or your child are displaying signs of the condition, then seek a referral from a healthcare professional. Of course, first-line self-diagnosis is always available via Dr. Google, M.D., but this is far from definitive.
Alternatively, you may be that rare and beautiful creature known as a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. This is a status that applies to roughly 20% of the world’s population, and while it’s commonly confused with simple introversion, Highly Sensitive People tend to respond negatively to even the smallest stimuli. Do you tend to walk into a restaurant and feel immediately overwhelmed by the sounds, sights and smells and need to retreat immediately, or find yourself struggling to concentrate on a task at work when telephones and ringing and people are conversing all around you? Such aversion to aural chaos is a key signifier of being a Highly Sensitive Person, along with an increased empathy for friends and family – if somebody close to a HSP cries, the chances are they’ll taste salt on the tip of your tongue. This online test will offer some further advice on whether you fall into this category.
Can Sensory Overload Harm My Health?
Yes, very much so – don’t ignore the warning signals that your brain is sending you when it experiences sensory overload, especially if you already live with a pre-diagnosed condition such as Autism, Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis or PTSD. Sensory overload can feel akin to being pummeled by a heavyweight boxer for your mind, and you need to make sure you are taking care of yourself appropriately.
How Can I Protect Myself Against Sensory Overload in Public?
Even the most introverted among us needs to venture outside sometimes. Sure, we can carefully plan our social interactions so that we only spend time with a small number of hand-picked individuals that we trust not to fry our sensitive senses, but what about such basic life essentials such as shopping, working and commuting?
The first thing is to identify any particular trigger of your sensory overload. In doing so, you may recognise the pattern and cycle of the condition, and remove yourself from a situation wherever possible before the overload can really take hold of you. Do your fingers start to twitch or find yourself fidgeting from foot to foot? Do you grow short of breath? And what brings on these reactions – too much noise? Bright lights? Strong scents and aromas?
Learn these warning signs and take action before the sensory overload can really take hold by stepping somewhere with less stimulation and taking a few deep breaths (also known as the art of mindfulness). If necessary, write down your feelings during these trigger moments, or record a voice memo on your smart phone. Referring back to these emotions in the cold light of day may help you identify them sooner in the future. Be kind to yourself when observing and reviewing these behaviours though, as blaming yourself and cursing your senses will do you no favours. Imagine if it was your child, spouse or friend that was experiencing such concerns, and ask yourself if you would say what is running through your mind about yourself to them. If the answer is, “no, that would be horribly unsupportive” then adjust your thought patterns towards yourself.
In the sprit of prevention always being preferable to cure, you should also take steps to reduce exposure to external stimulation before you leave the house. Dark glasses help with visual sensory overload, which is why you may notice that many people on the Autistic spectrum wear sunglasses regardless of the weather outside. Noise-cancelling headphones can also be useful in controlling which sounds – if any – enter your ears. Either switch on the noise-cancelling mechanism to dull and block the general hubbub that is unfolding around you with non-specific white noise, or replace the racket of modern life with something that you find soothing, Classical music tends to provide this service for a great many people. Becoming overwhelmed by aroma is more difficult to manage, so the best course of action to take is to avoid entering locations that trade in strong smells such as perfumeries and department stores.
If social interactions exhaust and over-excite you, learn the patterns of other people, and when the locations that you visit tend to be at their busiest. If you need to take a train or bus to work and find that rush hour overwhelms you due to hundreds of fellow passengers chatting, playing games and bellowing into their mobile phones, could you discuss the possibility of flexible working hours with your employer so you can begin and leave an hour or two earlier than most others? Remember that the law dictates that any employer must at least consider such a request.
Many supermarkets are now operate 24-hour opening times, so why not stock up your cupboards at a more serene time, such as late evening or early morning, rather than the peak times of weekends and the hours immediately following school and work for many shoppers. Or indeed, use the Internet and have your produce delivered to your door. Keep your activities to short and controlled bursts wherever possible, and take regular breaks. Even at work, if you’re able to do so, find a quieter place such as a boardroom and see if you can complete some of your tasks in there for half an hour while your overloaded senses decompress.
Being organised is also a key method of keeping sensory overload at bay. It’s easy to grow overwhelmed by having too many things to concern yourself with at once, especially as the world has an annoying habit of refusing to stop turning around you when you are busy. Make a list of what you are looking to achieve each day and work methodically through it, leaving yourself enough time to tackle each and every task one at a time.
What Home Improvements May Help Prevent Sensory Overload?
Managing the input to your senses outside of the home can be challenging, but there are steps that be taken to overcome this. What about within the home, however? It can be increasingly distressing to be subjected to all kinds of unwanted stimulus where you should be at your safest and most secure. Fortunately, investing in an isolation tank is not your only option.
If you are fortunate enough to have a spare room in your home, making this your personal safe space – no spouse, siblings or children allowed. Soundproof the (neutrally coloured) walls and ceiling, invest in blackout curtains or a similar blind, keep any essential illumination low such by using a low-wattage lamp rather than overhead lighting, and ensure that there are no entertainment appliances in the vicinity. Even if you do not have capacity for an entire room that offers such sanctuary, consider finding a corner of an existing space within a living room of similar where you can sink into a comfortable chair and pop on your headphones or insert earplugs, and cover your eyes with some kind of shade such as a sleeping mask.
You may find that it also helps to have something to do with your hands when you feel sensory overload beginning to sink its claws into you. Distract yourself with a puzzle of some kind (provided your triggers are not visual), or by something as simple as squeezing a stress ball. Exercise will always release endorphins, so if you have a garden consider installing a trampoline or punch bag so you can work through some of the unhelpful adrenaline that sensory overload is forcing to course through your body.
Of course, there are many basic home improvements that you can also make throughout your home to keep any potential external influences at bay – though it will be strongly advised to find somewhere else to be while the work is taking place, as manual labour by its very nature is noisy, messy and visceral.
The first improvement that you should make is soundproofing as much of your property as you can. Avoid scented candles or incense sticks, and only use strong-smelling chemicals such as bleach when you are unlikely to be in the vicinity afterwards. Keep all your surroundings a neutral, low-key colour such as cream – busy patterned carpets and feature walls can cause sensory overload to anybody triggered by visual stimulation. Limit exposure to electrical appliances such as televisions, computers and tablets. Install steady, low lights throughout your home, avoiding flickering fluorescent strip lighting. Maintain a steady temperature, not too hot and not too cold – and certainly not a constant fluctuation between the two.
Sensory overload can be managed and prevented, even if it stems from a medical condition that we have no control over. By ensuring that you are aware of what may overwhelm you, and taking the necessary steps to prevent exposure to such events or elements will assist you in living a full and contented life.
Summary of Useful Links
See below for a list of some of the links that we have referred to during the course of this article, which will provide the opportunity for interesting further reading.
- Autism and Sensory Overload – autism.org.uk/sensory
- Flexible Working Policy – gov.uk/flexible-working/overview
- The Highly Sensitive Person Test – http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
- Mindfulness – mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started
- Sensory Processing Disorder – understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/understanding-sensory-processing-issues
- Symptoms of Autism – nhs.uk/Conditions/Autistic-spectrum-disorder/Pages/Symptoms.aspx
- Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression – https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-meltdowns/