We constantly interact with the world, soaking in information through varies senses. We hear words, see lights, feel coolness, smell garbage, and taste food. Our environments communicate countless messages, giving a diversified mixture of clues to process. Ultimately, we gather information to gain an accurate picture of the territory so we can appropriately and effectively navigate the terrain. Sometimes this process goes seriously wrong, incoming information overwhelms. Our senses become overstimulated and we stall, unable to process the crashing waves of information. We experience sensory overload.
Anyone can experience sensory overload, however, certain health conditions intensify the arousal and frequency of sensory overload. A few of the health conditions sensitive to sensory overload are autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia.
Sensory Experience and Wellness
Well-being is a feeling experience. Wellness is when a flow of information creates a sense of calmness and safety. Diana Fosha puts it this way, “an internal state with visceral, sensory, and psychological aspects, experientially manifested in feeling relaxed, at ease, calm, and confident to take on new challenges” (2000, location 448). Our bodies manifest wellness when our relationship with incoming information integrates with our internal schemas without conflict. We take in information, predict meaning and respond with confidence.
Wellness if a coherence of sensory information with our beliefs, expectations, and personal narratives. Lawrence Heller (the originator of the NeuroAffective Relational Model) and Aline LaPierre (founder and director of the NeuroAffective Touch Institute) explain, “meaninglessness, depression, and many other symptoms are reflections of our disconnection from our core vitality.” They continue to explain that feelings of aliveness come from connectedness, “a state of energetic flow and coherency in all systems of the body, brain, and mind” (2012, location 249).
V. S. Ramachandran, the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, wrote that “our sense of being an integrated, embodied self seems to depend crucially on back-and-forth, echo-like ‘reverberation’ between the brain and the rest of the body” (2012, location 2696).Coherency between incoming information through our sense and internal beliefs is essential for wellness.
Creating Meaning of Sensory Information
We create coherency when we put sensory experiences into words. We create a narrative of meaning from felt experience. Heller and LaPierre that by “creating a narrative for the nonverbal subcortical signals as they arise, bottom-up, into awareness—teaches the cortex new ways to relate and respond to sensations and emotions” (location 1627).
Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD (a University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University) teaches that a part of this process is compressing data from all our senses into a “cohesive whole” (2020, location 1194). Under normal circumstances, all the aspects of an experience integrate into a coherent whole. Heller and LaPierre explain that “one of the markers of trauma is the failure to integrate the sensory imprints associated with an event into a coherent whole” (2012, location 1698).
Sensory Overload Prevents the Integration Process
Kathryn Watson at Healthline explains that “your brain then sends your body the message that you need to get away from some of the sensory input you’re experiencing. Your brain feels trapped by all the input it’s getting, and your body starts to panic in a chain reaction” (2018).
The flow of information comes too fast, too strong, and too frightening for our brain to integrate with meaning. We feel and we panic. We experience an autonomic blitzkrieg. Our circuits are ill-prepared for the overload and our aroused system reacts without cognitive assistance—fight or flight. And in the most traumatic cases, our system just shuts down. Rollo May in his classic book Meaning of Anxiety figuratively puts it this way: Gabor Maté MD explains that “fragility is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so vast or unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function” (2010).
Encounters that ignite sensory overload often remain fragmented in memory, triggering future episodes of similar experiences. This is common in post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD). Initial events that were legitimately traumatizing, shattering assumptions of a safe and manageable world continue to live in our minds, routinely returning with the smallest of triggers.
Common Symptoms of Sensory Overload
Symptoms of sensory overload vary from person to person. We adapt and respond to arousal (and over-arousal) in learned ways. However, several symptoms are more common than others:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of focus
- Panic attacks
- Stress (Ohwovoriole, 2021)
A great concern of sensory overload is the unprocessed emotions, lingering and leaving remnants of hurt that keep rearing their nasty heads and inviting maladaptive reactions. When emotions repeatedly lead to emotional outbursts, opportunity avoidance, depression, or bouts of debilitating anxiety than professional help should be considered.
Regulating Sensory Overload
Regular sensory overload often has medical antecedents. The underlying biological substrates may need medical intervention. There is no shame in taming debilitating demons with medication. Cognitive energy is a limited resources according to ego depletion theories. We can better process events when we routinely rejuvenate our minds and bodies. Schedule daily time to take care of yourself.
Therapy can assist with complex challenges, teaching effective tactics for managing difficult emotions associated with sensory overload.
A Final Thought
Sensory overload happens. All brains are limited. We can only process a finite amount of information. Once that threshold is surpassed, processing fractures, leaving only miscellaneous pieces to sort through. For those living with constant sensory overload, life’s normal ups and downs can be challenging. Seek professional help in addition to identifying the most powerful triggers and implementing effective coping mechanisms.
Barrett, L. F. (2020). Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. Mariner Books.
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books; 0 edition.
Heller, L., LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Maté, G. MD (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition.
May, R. (2015) Meaning of Anxiety. W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition.
Ohwovoriole, T. (2021). What Is Sensory Overload? verywellmind. Published 3-15-2021. Accessed 7-8-2021.
Ramachandran, V. S. (2012). The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.
W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition.
Watson, K. (2018). What Is Sensory Overload? Healthline. Published 9-27-2018. Retrieved 7-8-2021.