What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload occurs when our senses are bombarded with so much information that our brains cannot process it all effectively. This can be triggered by various situations such as crowded places, bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, or even when exposed to multiple conversations at once.

Anyone can experience sensory overload, but certain conditions such as autism, PTSD, and ADHD can make individuals more susceptible to it.

At Liaise, we support people living with sensory impairments and empower them to lead full and independent lives. We provide warm and welcoming living environments suited to the needs of a wide range of ages and abilities, including people with sensory impairments.

Here we explore the causes and effects of sensory overload, as well as strategies to manage and prevent it. We hope this provides you and your family with the guidance you need to best support your loved ones.

The Symptoms of Sensory Overload

The symptoms of sensory overload can differ significantly from one person to another. These symptoms can be challenging to manage and can have a significant impact on an individual’s daily life.

Some common symptoms that people with sensory overload may experience include:

  • Difficulty focusing due to competing sensory input
  • Extreme irritability, restlessness, and discomfort
  • An urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes from sensory input
  • Feeling overly excited or “wound up”
  • Stress, fear, or anxiety about your surroundings
  • Higher levels of sensitivity to textures, fabrics, clothing tags, or other things that may rub against the skin

What Causes Sensory Overload?

Our brains function like intricate computer systems that process a constant flow of information from our environment through our senses. However, when there is an overload of competing sensory information, our brains can become overwhelmed and struggle to interpret it all simultaneously. This can leave individuals feeling “stuck,” as their brains cannot prioritise which sensory input requires attention.

For instance, imagine being at a busy concert with flashing lights, loud music, and multiple conversations around you. Your brain may struggle to process all of this information at once, leading to feelings of anxiety or panic. Similarly, individuals with autism may experience sensory overload when exposed to bright lights, loud noises or certain textures.

In response to the overwhelming sensory input, the brain sends signals to the body to escape or avoid the situation. This chain reaction can lead to physical and emotional symptoms, such as restlessness, discomfort, irritability, and even a fight-or-flight response.

While sensory overload can affect anyone, some individuals are more susceptible, such as those with sensory processing disorders, ADHD, PTSD, or anxiety disorders. Understanding the causes of sensory overload can help individuals and the people that support them recognise triggers and develop strategies to manage and prevent it from happening.

Conditions Associated with Sensory Overload

Sensory overload can affect anyone, but some individuals with certain conditions are more likely to experience it. Here are some of the conditions that are commonly associated with sensory overload:

  • Autism: People with autism often experience sensory overload due to hypersensitivity to sensory input. Loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells can be particularly challenging.
  • ADHD: People with ADHD may find it difficult to filter out distractions and may struggle to focus on a single task. Sensory overload can exacerbate these symptoms, leading to restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD): GAD can cause sensory overload due to heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Loud noises, crowds, and other overstimulating environments can trigger anxiety symptoms.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): People with PTSD may experience sensory overload due to their hyper-vigilance and sensitivity to their surroundings. Loud noises, flashing lights, and other sensory stimuli can trigger traumatic memories and lead to panic attacks.
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS): People living with MS may experience sensory overload due to nerve damage that can affect their sensory processing. This can result in hypersensitivity to light, sound and touch.
  • Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): SPD is a condition where the brain has difficulty processing sensory information. People with SPD may experience sensory overload in response to certain sensory stimuli, such as loud noises, certain textures or bright lights.
  • Tourette’s Syndrome: People with Tourette’s Syndrome may experience sensory overload due to their heightened sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli, leading to tics and other involuntary movements.

Sensory Overload in Children

Children with learning difficulties are more likely to experience sensory overload than adults. It can be challenging to recognise, treat, and manage these symptoms in children. It’s important to note that sensory overload does not necessarily mean a child has an associated condition, but it could be a sign of an underlying sensory processing disorder.

Children with sensory overload may react intensely to certain sensory inputs. For example, they may cover their ears, cry uncontrollably when their face gets wet or become agitated in noisy or crowded environments. These reactions can be confusing and distressing for parents but it’s essential to understand that these behaviours are not intentional.

If a child’s reactions to sensory input are severe or interfere with daily life, it may be worth exploring whether they have an underlying sensory processing disorder. This is a condition where the brain has difficulty processing sensory information, leading to hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, or both.

If a child is experiencing sensory overload, it’s important to identify the triggers and learn how to mediate their reactions in the future. This may involve creating a sensory-friendly environment, such as using noise-cancelling headphones, providing a calm space to retreat to or using weighted blankets to provide deep pressure input.

Occupational therapy and other therapies can also help children with sensory processing disorders learn how to manage their reactions and improve their overall well-being.

Example Scenarios

This is an example scenario of how a person with sensory issues may become overwhelmed in new or busy environments:

Sarah is a person with autism. She goes food shopping every Saturday afternoon with her support worker on the bus. The buses are running on a different timetable today, so Sarah is already feeling agitated as she thrives on routine.

The support worker is trying to generate conversation with Sarah and keeps asking her questions. There’s also a baby on the bus who keeps crying. Sarah can’t concentrate on her support worker’s questions with the baby crying, so she stops responding.

When they get to the supermarket, the trolley has a bad wheel and it’s really cold. They walk into the supermarket and there’s loud music playing and frequent tannoy announcements. The lights are bright and Sarah forgot to cut the tags out of her new jumper which is now itching her neck.

When they get to the bread aisle her care worker asks her if she’d prefer brown or white bread. Sarah feels totally overwhelmed and leaves the store to relax and recover.

How to Support Someone with Sensory Overload

If you know someone who experiences sensory overload, there are several ways you can offer support and help them manage their symptoms. Here are some tips:

  • Be aware of their triggers: Ask the person what types of sensory input are overwhelming for them and try to avoid or minimise these triggers when possible.
  • Create a safe environment: If the person is in an overwhelming environment, help them find a quiet space where they can relax and recover.
  • Offer sensory aids: For example, noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, or weighted blankets can help reduce the impact of sensory input.
  • Be patient: If the person is experiencing sensory overload, they may not be able to communicate or engage with others effectively. Be patient and understanding. Offer them space and time to recover.
  • Educate others: Help raise awareness about sensory overload and the needs of individuals who experience it. This can help create a more inclusive and supportive environment for everyone.
  • Encourage therapy: If the person is struggling with sensory overload, encourage them to seek professional help. Occupational therapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy, and other interventions can help them learn coping strategies and improve their quality of life.

Remember, everyone experiences sensory overload differently, so it’s important to listen to the person and adapt your support based on their specific needs.

By offering understanding and practical support, you can help someone with sensory overload navigate the world around them more effectively and improve their quality of life.

Sensory Impairment Support from Liaise

Through our wide range of supported living and residential care services, we support people living with sensory impairments and empower them to lead fulfilling and independent lives.

In each of our warm and welcoming homes, the people we support enjoy their own rooms and can choose for themselves how to spend their time. This allows each individual to make their own choices about how they wish to live with the reassurance that a helping hand is always available.

We create bespoke living environments that are adapted to meet the needs of the individuals that live there. This can include using the appropriate lighting, contrasting colours, assistive technologies or sound-dampening environments – anything that enables people with sensory impairments to best live an independent lifestyle.

We are here to support you and your family. If you would like to learn more about our sensory impairment care and support services, do not hesitate to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.

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