Sensory Overload

Mags - October 16, 2020

Are you a Sensory Sister?  It seems many Anxiety Sisters are. For example, if you are like Abs, you can smell odors that most of us do not notice. This hypersensitivity is great when you are trying to figure out what your teenager was up to last night, but not so terrific on, say, public transportation, which already is pretty stinky. Overall, Abs finds her super sniffer to be more problematic then not, which is why she carries lavender aromatherapy everywhere she goes.

Or maybe it’s your eyes that make you a Sensory Sister. We know several people who have to wear dark glasses, even indoors, because their eyes are hypersensitive to certain types of lighting. I definitely am extra-sensitive to bright sunlight and experience terrible headaches when there is a “white” sky.

Here are some other ways sensory issues are expressed:

  • An adverse reaction to certain textures. You may feel like you cannot tolerate labels on clothing or seams on socks. Certain fabrics and materials may feel so uncomfortable that you cannot bear wearing them.
  • A precarious sense of where your body is in space and/or trouble with balance (not caused by physical issues such as inner ear problems). You may feel wobbly or shaky in certain environments. As such, you may experience motion sickness very easily.
  • Difficulty with certain strong tastes or food textures/temperature. You may gag easily or find that the “feel” of a certain food in your mouth causes anxiety. As such, you may find yourself limiting your diet.
  • An adverse reaction to sounds and noises. You may find that you cannot tolerate loud tv shows or crowded environments like restaurants, bars and parties. For some, even certain types of voices can be anxiety-provoking. If you find yourself feeling angry or enraged by chewing, slurping, keys jangling, etc., you may be suffering from misophonia.
  • A strong reaction to touch. Some people with this sensitivity crave deep touch but cannot stand light touch and vice versa. I find weighted blankets to be calming, while Abs finds them so claustrophobic she starts to panic.

What all of these issues have in common is a more pronounced response to a sensory stimulus than is typical. For example, we all cringe when we hear nails on a chalkboard, but Sensory Sisters may recoil from the sound of chalk on a chalkboard. Or even markers on a whiteboard. It is a turbo-charged sensitivity to our surroundings that seems to affect anxiety sufferers more than other humans.

It makes sense that Anxiety Sisters are extra alert to our environment. After all, we have hypervigilant nervous systems, which control our sensory perceptions and reactions. From an evolutionary perspective, our heightened senses meant that we were more attuned to our environment and therefore more adept at sensing danger. For example, we could hear an approaching predator or smell poisonous food. While this ability may have been life-saving for our ancestors—back when life was so precarious—it can cause tremendous anxiety in our current lives because we never know when our senses might be “assaulted.” And the result of these assaults can be debilitating.

Don’t despair, Sensory Sisters! We have a few suggestions to make things easier:

Carry a Spin Kit. Basically, these are anxiety first-aid kits and can be tremendously useful when you are trying to manage sensory issues. Make sure you have some sensory soothers in your kit such as essential oils, noise-cancelling headphones, an eye pillow, or dark glasses. The idea behind a Spin Kit is that you are prepared for an unpredictable assault on your senses. You can read more about Spin Kits here.

Pre-soothe your senses. If you know you will be in a situation that will trigger your sensory issues, it can be really helpful to do some activities beforehand that will soothe your senses. For instance, if you are very sensitive to noise but have to attend a gathering, taking a walk in nature before the event will give you some quiet time before the storm. This type of preparation can help your sensory system organize itself and get ready for intense stimulation. Likewise, meditation is a nice way to calm your nervous system before exposing it to triggers.

Take a break. If you find yourself in an overly-stimulating situation, don’t be afraid to step away for a few moments at a time to allow your brain to reset. We both take frequent outdoor “breaks” from big parties to help us feel less overwhelmed. Even just a five-minute breather makes a big difference.

Work with an Occupational Therapist. If you are really struggling with sensory-overloads, you may need professional help. OTs are specifically trained to teach people how to deal with their sensory issues. Just a handful of appointments might be extremely helpful in learning how to better manage your sensory challenges.

Of course, even those Anxiety Sisters who are not particularly sensory-sensitive (lucky ducks!) can become so during times of panic. When we are spinning out of control, many of us are thrown off by noise, light, textures, and smells so it’s a pretty good idea to keep your Spin Kit well-stocked and close by.

How do you manage your sensory challenges?


One thought on “Sensory Overload

  1. Wow! That described what I’m going through right now. I’m on day 5 of panic attacks. Just the loudness of the TV and the dog whining set me off. Certain sounds definitely make it worse for me.

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