Sensory overload is the overstimulation of one or more of the body’s five senses. These are touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste.
Though sensory overload can affect anyone, it commonly occurs in autistic people, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sensory processing disorder, and certain other conditions.
Keep reading to learn more about sensory overload, including its symptoms, causes, and potential treatments.
Sensory overload happens when one or more of the body’s five senses become overwhelmed. It can happen, for example, in a crowded restaurant, when the radio is too loud, or when a passerby is wearing a strongly scented perfume.
In these situations, the brain receives too much information to be able to process it properly. Sensory overload leads to feelings of discomfort that range from mild to intense.
Everyone experiences sensory overload at some point in their lives. Some children and adults, however, experience it regularly. For these individuals, everyday situations can be challenging.
For them, going to the school or office cafeteria can lead to sensory overload. The sounds of people talking loudly, strong smells of food, and flickering fluorescent lights can all trigger feelings of being overwhelmed and uncomfortable.
What sensory overload feels like can vary from one person to another. Some people may be more sensitive to sound, for example, while others may have issues with different textures.
Common symptoms include:
- inability to ignore loud sounds, strong smells, or other types of sensory input
- a sense of discomfort
- anxiety and fear
- extreme sensitivity to clothing or other textures
- feeling overwhelmed or agitated
- loss of focus
In children, the following signs can indicate sensory overload:
- anxiety, irritability, and restlessness
- avoiding specific places or situations
- closing the eyes
- covering the face
- placing the hands over the ears
- the inability to converse with others or connect with them
- running away from specific places or situations
Sensory overload occurs when the brain struggles to interpret, prioritize, or otherwise process sensory inputs. It then communicates to the body that it is time to escape these sensory inputs. This message causes feelings of discomfort and panic.
In some people who experience sensory overload regularly, such as those with a sensory processing disorder, there may be a biological basis for these processing problems.
One study indicates that children with sensory processing disorder have quantifiable differences in their brain structure. The researchers suggest that this points to a biological basis for sensory processing problems.
However, not everyone who experiences sensory overload will have these structural differences.
Sensory overload in children occurs fairly commonly. A 2018 report states that
- autism spectrum disorder
- fetal alcohol syndrome
- Down syndrome
Sensory overload in children can be difficult to recognize, especially if there is no co-occurring condition.
Parents and caregivers may attribute the symptoms to “bad behavior” because it can cause children to run away from situations, have a meltdown that results in a tantrum, or appear irritable and restless.
In children who do not have a related condition, sensory overload may simply occur because the brain is still developing.
Parents and caregivers should learn to recognize both the triggers and the signs and symptoms of sensory overload in children. Swift action can reduce the impact on the child and help manage their reactions.
Conditions that have an association with sensory overload include:
Sensory overload and autism can sometimes go hand in hand. This is because autistic people commonly perceive sensory input differently.
When an autistic person becomes overwhelmed from sensory overload, they may experience a meltdown. This may involve crying and shouting, running away, or not responding to stimuli from the environment.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added sensitivity to sensory input to the list of diagnostic criteria for autism.
Sensory overload and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also go together. In people with ADHD, sensory inputs compete for attention in the brain, which may trigger sensory overload.
Understood.org, a nonprofit organization, suggests that certain types of sensory information, such as the texture of food or sensation of clothing, are more likely to cause sensory overload in those with ADHD.
People experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can become hypersensitive to their surroundings, which can lead to sensory overload. This means that sensory overload and PTSD can often co-exist. People who have PTSD have usually experienced one or more traumatic events. The sensory overload usually occurs in response to certain triggers that remind the person of this trauma.
Sensory processing disorder
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that occurs when a person finds it difficult to respond to sensory input. Generally, there are two different types of the condition.
Hypersensitivity is when a person is overly sensitive to things like smells, sounds, tastes, or textures. A person may try to avoid these sensory experiences because they are too overwhelming.
Hyposensitivity, which is also known as sensory seeking, is when a person looks for more sensory stimulation, especially physical touch or pressure.
Some people can have a mix of both types, and both children and adults can have SPD. However, doctors more commonly diagnose children with SPD than adults.
People with some other conditions may be more likely to experience sensory overload than the general population. These other conditions include:
As sensory overload is not an official disorder, it is not possible to get a formal diagnosis.
However, many doctors and healthcare professionals recognize sensory overload, especially in autistic people and those who have ADHD and other related conditions.
Before speaking to a doctor about sensory overload, it can be helpful for a person to keep a diary of any sensory overload signs, symptoms, and triggers.
The doctor will probably ask several questions about the triggers and events surrounding episodes of sensory overload. In doing this, they hope to understand more fully how a person experiences sensory overload.
There is no specific treatment for sensory overload. Generally, the aim is to help people dealing with sensory overloads be able to plan for them and manage their reactions.
Occupational therapy may be helpful for children who experience sensory overload. Occupational therapists can help people make changes to their environment to minimize the frequency or severity of sensory overload.
Medications for co-occurring conditions may also reduce sensory overload.
In autistic people, for example, the medication aripiprazole (Abilify) may be helpful.
Many people can manage episodes of sensory overload with specific techniques and home care. Individuals can try:
- keeping a diary of signs, symptoms, and triggers of sensory overload
- avoiding the triggers of sensory overloads, such as loud concerts or events with flashing lights, where possible
- asking others to help reduce sensory inputs, such as by turning down bright lights or opening a window when strong smells are present
- identifying safe spaces to escape to when a sensory overload occurs at school, work, or other venues
- staying near the exit when at a concert or party so that it is easy to leave if necessary
- talking to teachers, colleagues, friends, and others about sensory overload and asking for their support in reducing sensory inputs
- taking regular breaks, and getting enough rest and sleep
- drinking lots of water and eating a balanced diet
When it comes to children with sensory overload, parents and caregivers
- help their child avoid triggering situations
- give the child the words to explain what is happening and how it feels
- validate the child’s feelings and experiences
- inform teachers of the possibility of sensory overload and ask for their support
- seek help from a doctor, occupational therapist, or another specialist
Sensory overload can happen to anyone, but it is more common in autistic people and people with ADHD, PTSD, and certain other conditions.
It causes feelings of discomfort and being overwhelmed. Moving away from sources of sensory input, such as loud sounds or strong smells, can reduce these feelings.
People who experience regular episodes of sensory overload should see their doctor. A doctor can provide support and recommend treatments or management techniques. They can also determine whether there is a co-occurring condition that requires treatment.