It is often associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) can cause problems with eating, sleeping and sensory-seeking behaviours.
Sensory processing disorders are not specific to any particular age group. The symptoms vary in severity and can manifest in any of the senses. Some people may experience more than one type of sensory processing reaction at the same time. These can also change a lot as a person grows especially around puberty age.
One of the symptoms of SPD is sensory overload. In this article we will explore what sensory overload is?; how to identify it; and share 7 strategies for coping with sensory overload.
What is sensory overload?
Sensory overload is when you are inundated with more sensory experiences than your senses can actually cope with. This can be overwhelming and makes it difficult to focus on what’s happening around you. It's also sometimes called sensory fatigue. For people with sensory processing disorders like autism, it can be debilitating.
Sensory overload is a very real phenomenon. Many of us have felt this way before. You're in a busy, bustling environment and you just can't focus on anything! There is noise all around, people knocking into you and lights bright in the supermarket.
This can happen in children who are overwhelmed by their surroundings and cannot focus on one stimulus at a time, often reacting by crying, shaking and withdrawing from the situation.
Adults can also experience sensory overload it’s not something you grow out of but many find strategies of coping.
What causes sensory overload?
People suffer from sensory overload when they receive too much information in too short a period of time which overwhelms their senses. The sensory overload is often due to the heightened sensitivity of stimuli such as sounds, smells, sights, too much sound or light social situations, etc.
It can also be caused by social situations for example busy environments, crowded rooms, parties, too many choices or options or a bombardment of information which is too much to process, getting hit with hundreds of different smells, sounds and images all at once.
- Too much light, sound, or other stimuli.
- Too many smells in the air.
- Too many people in a small space.
- Too many clothes on the body.
- Too many textiles touching the skin.
What does sensory overload feel like?
Sensory overload is just what it sounds like - an overload of your senses. Some people experience it as waves of intense sensation and others might feel totally lost in an environment.
It varies from person to person and case by case. This condition can lead to feelings of chronic stress, anxiety and panic attacks.
What are the symptoms of sensory overload?
Sensory overload is a state of being mentally and physically overwhelmed by stimuli. The symptoms of sensory overload are either physical or emotional reactions to the senses.
Physical reactions can include light-headedness, agitation or irritability, rapid heart rate, or heavy sweating, headaches, stomach aches, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, insomnia, nausea or panic.
Emotional reactions may include anxiety, fear, fight or flight reactions, irritability or aggression.
How can you tell when a child is having a sensory overload experience?
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if a child is overstimulated or just tired. Children who are overstimulated can be observed when their body language or behaviour changes and often exhibit signs like fussiness, crying, fighting sleep, and clinginess.
But in older teens and adults this can also be shown in refusal to do things, wearing a hood up a lot, wearing headphones a lot and excessively fidgeting.
Children may also act overly excited, jumping or engage in excessive rough play. Other signs we have observed include outbursts of anger, pushing away from people or objects and covering their ears, eyes, or mouth.
7 Strategies for Coping
The condition can affect children as well as adults and is often undiagnosed. It's important for those who may have this condition to notice patterns in their sensory behaviours and find ways to manage them and develop coping strategies.
In order to make it through the day with less anxiety and more ease, they must develop strategies for coping with their sensory sensitivities or needs.
How do you calm down sensory overload? There are a few things that can help:
1. Monitor your sensory environment and reactions
Consider the amount of overwhelming stimuli that modern life now presents. We now live in a world with an endless supply of sensory input - not just from the outside world, but also from our technology and social media.
Being observant to your environment and your reactions to stimuli is a great way to identify what triggers your sensory overload. By monitoring this, you'll be able to prioritise changes you need to make, which can make you feel more comfortable.
2. Make sensory changes you can directly control
There are things we can do to reduce the risk of sensory overload.
In our household these have included changes to clothing made from fabrics that feel softer. Everything is cuddly soft fabrics now, lighting in the house, having designated quiet zones, sensory dens and structured days that allow our sensory seekers to be prepared for the day's events and opportunities all through the day to access sensory diet activities.
3. Reduce stimuli in environments you can’t directly control
Reducing excessive noise from the external environment has been a great way to lower the risk of a sensory overload induced meltdown.
We highly recommend using the product Vibes earplugs. The reusable Vibes earplugs are safer than full ear defenders which block out all of the noise and are more discreet. With interchangeable ear tips, they filter specific frequencies whilst reducing harsh noises. Using these instead makes becoming independent, if possible, an option unlike with ear defenders.
Additionally we research local companies which have specific ‘quiet hour’ or ‘quiet time’ schedules. We have found them in supermarkets where they introduced dimmed lighting and lower noise levels at their checkouts to make shopping experience less stressful.
We have also found them at visitor attractions like our local zoo and aquarium. Locally we have also found play centres and swimming pools which have a reduced capacity of people for certain periods in the week, helping to reduce the sensory overload whilst enjoying a few hours out of the house.
4. Ensure Quality Sleep
Sleep is very important for managing sensory overload. Not only does sleep help us to process all the information we take in during the day, it also helps to regulate our body. When we don’t get enough sleep, it is easy to be thrown off balance which can lead to many side effects and make the next day more difficult.
The quality and quantity of your sleep can be affected by recent changes in your routines, such as an inconsistent bedtime or irregular lighting. In our household we use the Fidgetbum Sleep Aid, Zed Sleep Aid and essential oils.
5. Manage Meltdown Situations
There are many reasons a child might experience a meltdown - sensory overload is just one of them. A meltdown in children is when a child becomes overwhelmed with emotions that are too much for them to handle. This can happen at any time, but is often triggered by stress, frustration, anger, being tired, hunger, or feeling out of control.
Parents are often faced with this challenge of trying to calm their child down from a meltdown. One of the most important things to remember is that it's okay for you to feel frustrated and upset. It's not the child's fault that they're having a meltdown and it is not your fault either.
Finding a safe space to calm down and regroup is important. Ask them what might have made them upset if this is possible at a later time. Once you have established what could have caused the meltdown, you can help your child get back to a sense of calm.
6. Exercise Your Body to Reduce Stress Levels
Exercise is a great way to reduce sensory overload. It can help relieve stress, improve concentration, and produce endorphins.
Aerobic exercises, such as running or jumping on a trampoline for 30 minutes a few times a day can improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and ADHD.
Active playtime is important for children and can help to increase social skills.
7. Ask For Help
You are not on this journey alone! Asking for help and advice is an important part of parenting, especially when we have children or are caring for children with sensory issues.
If you or your child are experiencing sensory overload there may be many symptoms and it is important to see a doctor/ occupational therapist in order to properly diagnose the problem and get advice on services which may be available for you and your family.
Conclusion: How Living with Sensory Overload Can Be Dramatically Improved
In summary, sensory overload can cause significant levels of anxiety, stress, and even depression. However, there are many ways to deal with sensory overload.
Starting from recognising the triggers and making changes / strategies to either remove or reduce the impact on our senses.
At Multi-Sensory World we have a full range of sensory toys and products which can help stimulate or calm the senses.
Sensory toys are a great way to help children with autism, ADHD, down syndrome, anxiety, and many other conditions.
If you're looking for something to help your child or you enjoy sensory play then this is the place for you! If you have any questions, let us know and we can share our sensory experience to help you with your specific sensory overload questions.