All About Sensory Overload in Adults

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L December 14, 2022

Sensory Overload in Adults

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload occurs when too much sensory input from the environment causes an adverse reaction. The brain and the body are unable to process and regulate the information coming in - this can be from too much noise, too much visual stimulation, or even too much tactile stimulation from clothing. Sensory overload can happen to ANYONE! In fact, most of us will likely experience sensory overload at some point in our lives.

Sensory overload, or sensory overstimulation, has become a popular search term, mostly for children who are experiencing sensory processing challenges. In fact, there are a lot of resources and ideas out there to help children who experience sensory overload. But what about helping adults who experience sensory overload?


Sensory overload in adulthood

Because sensory overload can happen to anyone, it’s understandable that sensory overload happens to many of us adults; it’s just not talked about as much as children who experience sensory overload. Adults can experience sensory overload just as much as children can!

adult sensory overload

One article talks about sensory overload in adults as “often the result of fast-paced, challenging, and competitive work and family demands. We are unable to tap into a quiet, peaceful place - or even take a deep breath before losing our cool.”

Think about the last time you “lost your cool.” Do you know what triggered it? Was it related to sensory overload? Maybe you experienced auditory sensory overload - the TV on, the dog barking, the baby crying, the timer on the stove beeping … and the final straw being your spouse yelling from across the room - and you couldn’t handle it anymore! That being said, let’s dive into a few more examples of sensory overload in adulthood!

Sensory overload examples

  • The example above is the perfect example of auditory sensory overload - too much competing noise in your environment and your brain cannot process any more noise. This can cause a fight or flight response = sensory overload.
  • An example of visual sensory overload: walking into your house after a busy day at work and your child’s toys are all over the floor, the dishes are piled in the sink, even more dishes clutter the counters and the table, the dog is being chased around the living room by your child - it’s so much visual stimuli that your brain gets overloaded and cannot successfully process everything that is being seen.
  • An example of olfactory and/or gustatory sensory overload (olfactory: sense of smell; gustatory: sense of taste. These two senses are directly connected.): walking into a restaurant that you’ve never been to and you’re hit with a wall of scents, so many that you can hardly breath. In fact, it’s so much sensory input that you no longer feel hungry - you may even feel nauseous!
  • An example of tactile sensory overload: you and your child are sitting on the couch and your child wants nothing more than to climb all over you like a climbing gym. They begin to climb on your shoulders while simultaneously pulling your hair, poking you in the eye, and scratching you with their toenails. You cringe, trying to tough it out because your child isn’t doing anything intentionally wrong, but it suddenly becomes too much and you “lose your cool” from an overloaded tactile system.
  • An example of vestibular sensory overload (learn more about the vestibular system here): you and your partner take a road trip; your partner is driving through the mountains while you’re in the passenger seat. Suddenly you begin to feel queasy and think you might throw up. This only seems to happen if you’re not driving. Because your vestibular system is your sense of movement through space, overload can happen when your brain cannot process how your body is moving, and in this case, is causing you to feel nauseous.
  • An example of proprioceptive sensory overload (learn more about the proprioceptive system here): interestingly enough, it’s very rare for an individual to experience proprioceptive sensory overload! Proprioception is known as the “all calming” sense - meaning that proprioception is calming to the nervous system! In fact, using proprioceptive strategies is a tip we’ll talk about in just a moment!

There are many other examples we could dive into, but that would take a very long time to go through them all! If you suspect that you have been experiencing sensory overload, take some time to look at your situation and identify exactly what sensory input, what situations, are causing you to feel sensory overload. That is the first step - identify WHAT is causing you to go into a fight or flight response, and WHY it’s happening.

Maybe you have an over-responsive auditory system, or an over-responsive vestibular system. Let’s talk briefly about over-responsiveness and then we’ll jump into some strategies for sensory overload!

 

Over-responsive vs. under-responsive

If you are over-responsive to certain sensory input, this means that you only need a little bit of that input and oftentimes, what is considered a “normal” amount of sensory input is TOO MUCH for you. Your body and brain have an over-reaction to the sensory input, causing an adverse response.

On the flip side, if you are under-responsive to certain sensory input, this means you need MORE of that input - it’s as if your body / brain can’t seem to get enough. If you are under-responsive to vestibular input, you likely never feel sensory overload from vestibular input. If you are under-responsive to tactile input, you likely never feel sensory overload from tactile stimulation.

overwhelmed adult

Whereas if you are over-responsive to vestibular stimulation, you will easily feel sensory overload during movement activities, such as riding in the car or going on a roller coaster. Similarly, if you are over-responsive to tactile input, you will easily feel sensory overload when your child touches you or tries to climb on you; in fact, you prefer not to be touched and likely have a very strong preference for certain types of clothing (we all have sensory preferences - the difference is that a certain type of clothing will cause an adverse reaction to someone who is tactile over-responsive).

It’s very common for an individual to have mixed sensory preferences - meaning, you are likely under-responsive to some sensory input, over-responsive to other types of sensory input, and perhaps indifferent to other types of sensory input. You may be over-responsive to vestibular input (which causes you to feel extreme motion sickness) while simultaneously being under-responsive to visual input (which causes you to not notice when the house is messy).

Again, the first step is to identify WHAT is causing you to feel sensory overload in certain situations and WHY - what types of sensory input are you over-responsive to? The next step is to identify specific, unique strategies for your situation.

 

10 strategies to help with sensory overload

The following strategies are general strategies that may be beneficial for a variety of types of sensory overload. Remember, identify your specific challenges first. Then try some of the following strategies to see if they help you. Additionally, come up with your own unique strategies! The goal: to feel calm and regulated during your day, to participate in the daily activities that bring you joy, and to use calming strategies when you feel sensory overload so that it doesn’t impact you more than it has to!

1. Meet your sensory needs

What does it mean to “meet your sensory needs”? Providing your body and your brain with sensory stimulation throughout your day so that you can move through your day feeling calm and regulated. This is often referred to as a “sensory diet.”

You can learn all about sensory diets in this FREE webinar!

In order to meet your sensory needs, you must first know what your sensory needs are! Are you more of a sensory seeker or more of a sensory avoider? Do you love to move fast or do you prefer calm activities? Do you enjoy chewing gum and eating spicy food or do you prefer softer textures? Do you fidget constantly or do you seek natural light? Find your sensory preferences, your sensory needs, and find ways to meet them!

If you love to move fast, be sure to include fast walks or running into your day. If you love to chew gum and eat spicy food, make sure you’re including those into your daily routine. If you fidget constantly, incorporate more heavy work into your day and provide ways to fidget to help you focus. If you seek natural light, go for a walk outside every day!

Meeting your sensory needs will ultimately help you understand your sensory system better, but will also help you self-regulate when you feel sensory overload!

2. Proprioception

Remember how we mentioned earlier that most people are not over-responsive to proprioception, and how it’s the “all calming” sense? Because of this, proprioception is a GREAT strategy to use when you feel sensory overload!

Some ways to incorporate proprioception into your daily routine:

  • Heavy work - things like lifting weights or running
  • Using a weighted blanket to sleep or a weighted lap pad during seated tasks
  • Chewing gum or eating resistive foods (provides heavy work to your mouth!)
  • Wall or chair push ups
  • Get a massage
  • Take a bath
  • Have someone give you a bear hug
  • Wear compression clothing

If you find that proprioception helps you feel calm and regulated, be sure to complete a proprioceptive task BEFORE you go into a situation that causes you to feel sensory overload, as well as AFTER the situation. This can help your nervous system prepare and recover.

3. Get outside

In today’s society, we spend many of our waking hours indoors. While indoors, we are exposed to fluorescent lighting, constant noise from machines and electricity, sitting more than standing, and musty air.

There is quite a bit of research that shows the immense benefits of getting outside. The natural lighting, noises from the wind, the birds, the trees, walking and getting the blood flowing through our bodies, and fresh air. All of this to say - get outside more!

If you are experiencing sensory overload in certain situations, try taking a walk outside before you go into that situation. Try to include a walk in your daily routine. Even a quick 5 minute walk around the block can work wonders on the nervous system!

4. Better sleep routine

We all know the importance of sleep. Sleep is when our brain gets to recover from everything it went through during waking hours. It also allows our body to recover and repair. What happens if we don’t get enough quality sleep? One thing is for sure - we’re more likely to experience sensory overload!

If you are sleep deprived, your body and brain are in a higher state of stress already. Add to the mix a sensory stressful situation and bam! Sensory overload!

Make it a priority to get good quality sleep. Side note - if you have a newborn or an infant, or a toddler going through a sleep regression, chances are this tip isn’t for you right now. Or if you are a caregiver to someone who needs round-the-clock care, this might not be a top priority for you. But for everyone else - make quality sleep a priority.

There are a ton of resources out there to help you get started. But some quick ideas to help get going on a good sleep routine:

  • No screens 2 hours before bed
  • No eating 1-2 hours before bed
  • Dim the lights, use blue light blocking glasses, or change your lights so that in the evening, you aren’t exposed to a lot of artificial light (which cues your brain that it’s time to be awake)
  • Include more calming proprioceptive activities in the evening
  • Listen to quiet, calming music before bed
  • Invest in black-out curtains
  • Try a noise machine - one that produces rhythmic sounds, like waves, seems to be a great choice

5. Check your food

Put your sensory goggles on and look at your food from a sensory perspective! Remember how we mentioned gum and spicy foods earlier? If you enjoy those types of foods, make sure to include them MORE often into your diet! You’ll be meeting your sensory needs!

Additionally, it can be beneficial to chat with a professional about looking at food allergies and sensitivities. If you are consuming a food that is causing inflammation, it can potentially affect your ability to process sensory input - making it easier for your body to feel sensory overload!

6. Get off the screen

If possible, limit the amount of screen time you participate in. If you work on a computer, try to sit near a window and look outside every 10-15 minutes. Be sure to take breaks off the computer every hour, for 10-15 minutes and do something that does not include another screen (like your phone or TV). And be sure to avoid the screen before bedtime to help get better sleep.

Limiting screen time means you’ll have more time for other things - like sensory activities to help meet your sensory needs!

7. Therapeutic listening

Look into purchasing and utilizing a therapeutic listening program. There are several great companies out there - look into Advanced Brain Technologies and Integrated Listening Systems- who produce acoustically modified music for a variety of specific outcomes. These therapeutic listening programs have research to back them as well. If you’re experiencing sensory overload, specifically auditory sensory overload, a therapeutic listening program could be a game changer!

8. Personalized in-the-moment strategies

While you definitely want to set up strategies proactively throughout your day, it’s also important to have strategies available for in-the-moment, to use when sensory overload occurs. These strategies will be personalized to you and may take some trial and error to find the right ones.

For example, if you experience vestibular sensory overload, which causes you to feel nauseous during car rides, be sure to prep your nervous system before the car ride with a variety of proprioceptive based tasks, but also include some during the car ride:

Again, these will be personal to YOU, based on your specific sensory needs and what is causing your sensory overload in different situations.

9. Set limits

If you know that a crowded social event causes you to feel sensory overload (too much visual and auditory stimulation), include a time limit into the experience. Not only will you include proactive strategies before you enter the situation as well as strategies while you are there, but you will also be sure to make it short and sweet. This may include communicating with others at the event that you can only attend for 20 or 30 minutes. This may include taking breaks outside.

Know your limits and stick to them!

10. Decrease the clutter

Unfortunately, many of us feel sensory overload in our homes! If you have children, pets, a spouse, it’s very easy for your home to feel like it’s too much sometimes.

Decreasing the amount of things you have, the clutter, can be very beneficial if you are experiencing visual sensory overload. Remember the example from earlier?

  • Walking into your house after a busy day at work and your child’s toys are all over the floor, the dishes are piled in the sink, even more dishes clutter the counters and the table, the dog is being chased around the living room by your child.

If this happens to you and you become visually overloaded in these situations, decreasing the items in your home can be helpful.

There are a lot of resources out there that explain how to minimize the things you have in your home, so do some research and find what method works best for you. Don’t forget to communicate this to the members of your household - it takes a team approach! A visually calm environment can help decrease the visual sensory overload!

 

Final note on sensory overload

As an adult experiencing sensory overload, it’s important to remember that you can take steps to help your nervous system feel more calm and regulated. It might not be easy, but with some work and effort, it will be worth it once you find that you can decrease your sensory overload!

It’s also important to chat with your medical provider to identify any potential underlying issues. This article is not medical advice.



Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Jessica Hill, COTA/L

Jessica Hill, COTA/L is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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