What is Sensory Overload Anxiety and How does it Relate to ADHD?

by Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP December 06, 2017

sensory overload anxiety blog post

Are you wondering what is sensory overload, and how it relates to ADHD?

Maybe you are looking for strategies to deal with sensory overload when it occurs? 

If so, you are in the right place. 

In this post we will learn about:  

What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory Overload & How it Relates to Other Conditions

Sensory Overload & How it Relates to Different Age Groups

Symptoms & Causes of Sensory Overload

What are Sensory Thresholds? 

What are Sensory Meltdowns?

3 Strategies to Deal with Sensory Overload 

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

Answering the Question...What is Sensory Overload? 

The term “sensory overload” can be used to define these moments of frustration and often appears as an outburst. Sensory overload occurs when the body’s sensory system is over-stimulated and cannot take in or process additional input from the environment. For example, imagine you’ve had a day where you lost your keys, were given bad news at work, and then come home to your child, who failed one of his tests. All of this stimulation could become overwhelming and you might become frustrated and feel as though you cannot handle one more thing for the day. This is what sensory overload feels like. People with sensory processing issuestypically experience this feeling on a regular, often daily basis. Each person’s sensory triggers are unique and what is overwhelming for some, may not be for others.

Sensory Overload & Related Conditions:

Sensory Overload and ADHD

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 issues. 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.

Sensory Overload and Anxiety

If you’re a person with anxiety issues or an anxiety disorder, you may experience sensory overload in unfamiliar environments, when you are surrounded by new people, or when expectations are unknown to you. Your senses become heightened and perhaps you are over-responsive to sensory information that would 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 and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Generally speaking, sensory overload is commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Individuals with ASD often have over-reactive or sensitive sensory systems. This means that they may take in too much information from their environment or they may be more sensitive than others when it comes to certain stimuli in their environment. These factors can cause sensory overload. Some of the most common sensory triggers for people with ASD include loud noises, bright lights, crowded places, etc. Again, what may not seem bright, loud, or overwhelming to a person without ASD may be very overwhelming for a person with ASD. 

Other conditions and their relation to Sensory Overload

There are also other diagnosed conditions which may involve sensory overload as a symptom. Individuals dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience anxiety, and sometimes flashbacks or reexperiencing of the traumatic event. Certain sensory stimuli can trigger anxiety and flashbacks. In addition, people with bipolar disorder are often sensitive to certain sensory triggers in their environment. In terms of physical conditions, people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome may also experience sensory overload. Often, their sensory systems are hypersensitive and their bodies might react strongly to various kinds of input, including lights, sounds, smells, busy or crowded places, etc. This is likely due to difficulty inhibiting or filtering information, which is a common symptom of both disorders. 

Sensory Overload & Different Age Groups:

For Toddlers and Children

Most of us would associate toddlerhood with “tantrums” or periods of time where the child is unable to clearly express their feelings and in turn, they become dysregulated. This is a behavior we see in almost all children. Toddlers can experience sensory overload and their behaviors may look slightly different than a typical “tantrum” or moment of dysregulation. A toddler whose sensory system is overloaded may cry for extended periods of time, may pound fists or engage in other aggressive-like behaviors (pushing, hitting, kicking), may become very emotional in certain situations, and often there is profound difficulty in calming the child down. The same can be said for older children as well. Generally, we expect all children to have moments of being dysregulated, however sensory overload is often more intense, lasts for a longer time period, and the child’s ability to calm down on their own is often impeded. 

For Adults

Adults experiencing sensory overload may present these behaviors in varying ways. When compared to children, most adults have developed some helpful coping habits throughout their life to help them better manage when they are overloaded or frustrated. An adult experiencing sensory overload may become irritable, may avoid certain places or people, may “shut down” or appear to be disconnected from their surroundings, etc. If overload is very extreme or coping mechanisms are not well developed, some form of aggression (hitting, punching, pushing, throwing objects) is also very possible. 

Symptoms & Causes of Sensory Overload

What are the Symptoms of Sensory Overload?

Though each person’s sensory overload experience is different, there are some common symptoms experienced. Below is a list of some of the most common sensory overload symptoms: 

  • Panic Attacks or anxiety responses such as sweating, increased heart rate and breathing

  • Mood changes

  • Muscle Tension

  • Headaches or migraines

  • Over-sensitivity to different stimulus 

  • Difficulties with sleep 

  • Avoidance of certain stimulus 

  • Irritability 

  • Problems with interpersonal relationships 

Again, it is important to note that each individual’s experience with sensory overload will be unique. What is overwhelming to one person may not be to another. 

What Causes Sensory Overload?

anger

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, loud noises, crowded spaces, people accidentally touching or brushing up against you, strong aromas. All environments provide different sensory stimuli that may or may not affect you.

For adults as well as children 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, which can cause a new level of anxiety.

Sensory Thresholds and 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.

Explaining Sensory Meltdowns

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.

crying boyFor more information on sensory processing disorder, read this article. For tips on managing sensory meltdowns, click here.

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.

3 Strategies for How to Deal with Sensory Overload

1) Create Routines for Stability

Build upon routines and address changes within familiar routines or expectations before they happen. Preparing the person for what is to come will help him to identify what to expect and how to plan to support his sensory or anxiety needs.

2) Identify, Discuss, and Work on Potential Sensory Triggers

Identify potential sensory triggers and discuss expectations for those situations as well as solutions that might be possible. For example, a noisy, crowded shopping mall could be a trigger - expectations could revolve around the time spent there, problem-solving could include negotiating stores differently or discussing an exit-plan.  

3) Occupational Therapy Treatment 

An occupational therapist is a trained professional who can help assess specific sensory concerns. Once sensory processing is assessed, an individualized treatment plan can be developed in order to help more effectively manage sensory processing issues. Some of the strategies an occupational therapist might utilize include: 

  • Assisting the individual with implementing planned sensory activities into his/her daily routine to prevent potential overload. If the sensory system is involved in regulating activities throughout the day, the chance of overload becomes less likely. A sensory diet is the term used by OTs and is defined as proactively doing targeted  activities to support regulation

  • Packing a portable sensory toolbox kit for in-the-moment sensory strategies. Each person’s sensory toolbox kit will be unique to their own sensory needs. An example toolbox might include a stress ball, a script to read for relaxation/meditation, chewing gum, a weighted lap pad, etc. 

  • An OT can also help with determining solutions to potential situations. For example, it might be helpful to discuss and plan an appropriate way to leave the situation/environment should it become too much. 

  • When you visit an OT, they will complete a full sensory processing assessment. This can help identify potential triggers, which can be helpful in identifying solutions. 

 

Tips and Takeaways

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.

Do you have any tips we should add to the article or questions we can answer? Let us know in the comments!

Do you have any tips we should add to the article or questions we can answer? Let us know in the comments! 

Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP
Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP

Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with over 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning. Alescia strives to help children by fostering a love of learning and supports families with her parent-friendly, informative blog posts. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn, LLC on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic, family, and educational supports. You can get more information on Alescia and her practice at www.adaptandlearn.com


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