We’ve all experienced an emotional outburst at some point or another in life. Whether you were frustrated with your kids, partner, work, or just had a case of a really ‘bad day,’ there comes a point when even the most regulated adult meets his “max”. Whether your outburst is yelling at your kids, putting yourself in a “time out” or leaving, or something more physical like banging your fist on the table, your emotional response is likely the culmination of things not going according to plan, kids not listening, or just the problematic logistics of daily life.
Imagine a different set of circumstances that contribute to your feelings of being overwhelmed. Where, the environment surrounding you adds a level of complexity that your central nervous system is working hard to process. Flashing lights, noisy rooms, crowded spaces, people accidentally touching or brushing up against you, strange smells. All environments provide different sensory stimuli that may or may not affect you. For people who struggle with sensory processing, these circumstances are another part of daily life, interactions, and activities that need to be managed or else they can compound and result in meeting a different kind of “max” -- sensory overload.
Think of that “max” that we all have before we lose it - for people with sensory processing difficulties, anxiety, autism, or ADHD, it’s the amount of sensory information you can handle before it all becomes “too much.” Clinically speaking, we refer to this maximum point as a “threshold” of response. How much sensory input it takes to reach your threshold depends on your individual sensory profile, whether you over-respond or under-respond to sensory information.
You’ve heard the phrase: “The straw that broke the camel’s back” - sensory overload can be explained exactly like that! The smell of someone’s reheated dinner in the workplace lunchroom likely didn’t warrant your overreaction (gagging, vomiting) - it was likely the many aversive sensory experiences (bright lights of the office, loudly ringing phones, multiple conversations in the background, accidentally being bumped into by a colleague) that had you already on edge. The highly offensive smell was the culmination of all of that sensory stress! Your sensory threshold had been met and that “one more thing” that came in the form of a noxious smell was enough to put you over the edge.
When a person experiences too much sensory stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input. It’s a physiological ‘traffic jam’ in your central nervous system and the sensory overstimulation causes a physiological response and sometimes even a sensory meltdown.
In times of anxiety and stress, the sympathetic part of your Autonomic Nervous System produces cortisol hormones and triggers a “fight or flight response.” When people with sensory processing dysfunction experience sensory overstimulation, they are unable to regulate the sensory inputs from their environment and their bodies perceive these inputs as threats. It is important to view these sensory meltdowns as physiological responses and not controllable behavioral reactions. You cannot expect logical, rational responses to sensory situations when your body is perceiving those situations as threatening.
If you’re a person with Attention Deficit Disorder, whether it be hyperactive, inattentive, or combined type, you may experience some level of sensory processing difficulty. Whether you are overly responsive to what is happening around you and struggle to filter out what is not important (and therefore it distracts you), or you under-respond or don’t pay attention to details of your environment, clothes, tasks (inattention), sensory overload can still happen.
Impulsivity, emotional reactivity, overactivity, self-regulation or self-monitoring difficulties, and hyperfocusing can all be associated with ADHD. These issues can make it hard for a person with ADHD to know when it’s all too much -- before he reaches that threshold of response that puts him at sensory overload. Because he may not be as aware of his own sensory regulation needs, or the sensory experiences around him, the point of awareness often happens too late and sensory overload occurs.
If you’re a person with anxiety, you may experience sensory overload in unfamiliar environments, surrounded by new people, or when expectations are unknown to you. Your senses are heightened and perhaps you are over-responsive to sensory information that would otherwise not affect a person without anxiety.
Likewise, if you’re a child or adult with sensory processing dysfunction, it’s probable that being in those same situations will cause you anxiety. The fear of not knowing what sensory experiences may arise is enough to cause you to have a heightened arousal level and be anxious about the “what-if’s” or “maybe’s” with new experiences.
So, whether your anxiety causes sensory processing difficulties or your sensory issues cause your anxiety, it is important to address both manifestations. You’ll want to consult an occupational therapist and/or counselor to pinpoint the cause of your individual responses, of course. In the meantime though, some of the same recommendations hold true for both issues.
Sensory overload happens when the sensory input your body is working hard to process becomes overstimulating and your brain can’t process it all fast enough. Sensory overload can occur in people with sensory processing dysfunction, autism, anxiety, and ADHD, among many other diagnoses. Be proactive in your approaches to helping manage sensory stimulation. With the help of an OT, you can develop cognitive, behavioral, and sensory strategies to help you or your child regulate.
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