Sensory Overload: Dealing With Overstimulation

October 19, 2022

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About The Editor
About The Editor

Abby Doty has written and edited creative and literary work as well as academic pieces focused primarily on psychology and mental health.

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About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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Our senses help us navigate the world and process information, but what happens when there’s too much information? When we’re overwhelmed with sensory input, we become overstimulated. This makes adapting to our environment much more difficult. 

What Is Overstimulation? 

We become overstimulated when at least one of our senses is overwhelmed. This happens when there’s too much information for our brains to process. In other words, our input channels are overloaded. 

Humans were originally thought to have five senses (taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight). However, research in recent years has identified three additional senses for a total of eight. 

  • Vestibular system: This sense helps you determine where your body is in a given space and gives you a sense of balance. 
  • Proprioception: Proprioception refers to sensing the movement and position of your body parts in relation to the rest of your body.
  • Interoception: This involves sensing what is happening inside your body, such as feeling hungry, thirsty, tired or needing to go to the bathroom.

An individual can have processing issues with any of the eight senses, which puts them at risk for overstimulation.

What Does Being Overstimulated Feel Like?

Overstimulation can cause you to feel: 

  • Overwhelmed
  • Agitated
  • Angry
  • Disoriented 
  • Distraught
  • Anxious, fearful or panicked
  • Restless
  • Pained
  • On edge or wound up

When you’re overloaded, you may feel the need to cover your ears or eyes, withdraw from others or run away to protect yourself. If you aren’t able to limit the stimuli or escape, it’s not uncommon to shut down, lash out in anger or become tearful. You may have difficulty focusing and even experience a panic attack. 

It’s not uncommon for children to react to overstimulation with meltdowns. Some children may cry, scream or flail, while others respond by shutting down or withdrawing.

What Causes Overstimulation?

The brain takes in and processes all the information from your senses and tells your body how to respond. When it’s bombarded with too many stimuli from one or more senses, it can’t process the information and has difficulty concentrating on anything else. It may also trigger the flight, fight or freeze response. This can lead to large emotional reactions, shutting down or withdrawing. 

Overstimulation and ADHD

Individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often experience sensory overload. Common features of ADHD that put individuals at a higher risk of overstimulation include:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsiveness
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Oversensitivity to stimuli
  • Issues with emotional or behavioral regulation

Overstimulation and Autism

Sensory processing differences are a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Individuals with ASD can be oversensitive or undersensitive to sounds, sights, tastes, smells or textures. This, in turn, puts them at a higher risk of becoming overstimulated. 

Overstimulation and Anxiety

Sensory processing difficulties and anxiety have a two-way relationship. Those with anxiety may become more easily overstimulated, while individuals dealing with frequent sensory overload may experience related anxiety. 

When an individual is in an environment that triggers their anxiety, such as a new situation, their senses may be heightened, increasing their risk of being overstimulated. 

Other Conditions Related to Overstimulation

Additional conditions with higher rates of sensory processing concerns and overstimulation include: 

Ultimately, anyone can become overstimulated when bombarded with too many stimuli. 

How To Deal With Overstimulation

Each person handles sensory overload differently, depending on their needs, sensory thresholds and health conditions. Common ways to help with overstimulation include: 

  • Identifying triggers: Recognizing what stimuli and environments overstimulate you can help you prepare, adapt and cope. 
  • Developing coping skills: Strategies can help you manage stress and lessen the severity of your responses to overwhelming stimuli.
  • Avoiding problematic stimuli: When there is a stimulus that you cannot modify, limit or cope well with, you may decide to avoid the trigger.
  • Limiting stimuli: Modify your environment to lessen stimuli. 
  • Taking timeouts: If possible, step away from the stimuli to help yourself calm down. 
  • Exercising: Frequent physical activity helps individuals manage stress. High levels of stress can lower your sensory threshold and increases your risk of becoming overstimulated.

Treatment for Sensory Overload and Overstimulation

Occupational therapy (OT) is typically used as a treatment for sensory processing issues such as overstimulation. Occupational therapists utilize sensory integration. This approach incorporates physical exercises, psychoeducation and coping strategies to help children and adults process the stimuli they receive, self-regulate and adapt to their environments.  

Additional treatments may be recommended alongside OT to address mood or anxiety concerns, speech delays or other physical issues. These may include: 

  • Psychotherapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Music therapy

If sensory overload is negatively impacting your life, there is support available on the Nobu app. You’ll find free tools to help you cope and manage stress, including guided videos, mindfulness activities and more. You can also connect with a licensed therapist for an additional fee. Download it today in the Google Play store or Apple Store.

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About The Editor
About The Editor

Abby Doty has written and edited creative and literary work as well as academic pieces focused primarily on psychology and mental health.

About The Medical Reviewer
About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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