Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body's senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment. There are many environmental elements that impact an individual. Examples of these elements are urbanization, crowding, noise, mass media, technology, and the explosive growth of information. Sensory overload is commonly associated with sensory processing disorder. Like its opposite sensory deprivation, it has been used as a means of torture.
There are a wide variety of symptoms that have been found to be associated with sensory overload. These symptoms can occur in both children and adults. Some of these symptoms are:
- "Shuts down", or refuses to participate in activities and/or interact with others
- Avoids touching or being touched
- Gets overexcited
- Covers eyes around bright lights
- Makes poor eye contact
- Covers ears to close out sounds or voices
- Complains about noises that do not affect others
- Having difficulty focusing on an activity
- Constantly changing activities, never completing a task
- Irritation caused by shoes, socks, tags, or different textures
- Over-sensitivity to touch, movement, sights, and/or sounds
- Has trouble with social interactions
- Extremely high or extremely low activity levels
- Muscle tension
- Fidgeting and restlessness
- Angry outbursts
- Difficulty concentrating
Sensory overload can result from the overstimulation of any of the senses.
- Hearing: Loud noise or sound from multiple sources, such as several people talking at once or a loud fire alarm.
- Sight: Bright lights, strobing lights, or environments with lots of movement such as crowds or frequent scene changes on television.
- Smell and taste: Strong aromas or spicy foods.
- Touch: Tactile sensations such as being touched by another person or the feel of cloth on skin.
As component of other disorders
Sensory overload has been found to be associated with other disorders such as:
- Fibromyalgia (FM)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Autistic spectrum disorders
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Schizophrenia (see also Sensory gating)
- Sensory processing disorder
There are many different ways to treat sensory overload. One way to reduce this tension is to participate in occupational therapy; however, there are many ways for people with symptoms to reduce it themselves. Being able to identify one's own triggers of sensory overload can help reduce, eliminate, or avoid them. Most often the quickest way to ease sensory overload symptoms is to remove oneself from the situation. Deep pressure against the skin combined with proprioceptive input that stimulates the receptors in the joints and ligaments often calms the nervous system. Reducing sensory input such as eliminating distressing sounds and lowering the lights can help. Calming, focusing music works for some. If a quick break does not relieve the problem, an extended rest is advised. People with sensory processing issues may benefit from a sensory diet of activities and accommodations designed to prevent sensory overload and retrain the brain to process sensory input more typically. It is important in situations of sensory overload to calm oneself and return to a normal level.
There are two different methods to prevent sensory overload: avoidance and setting limits. The process of avoidance involves creating a more quiet and orderly environment. This includes keeping the noise to a minimum and reducing the sense of clutter. To prevent sensory overload, it is important to rest before big events and focus your attention and energy on one thing at a time. Setting limits involves restricting the amount of time spent on various activities and selecting settings to carefully avoid crowds and noise. One may also limit interactions with specific people to help prevent sensory overload.
Not many studies have been done on sensory overload, but one example of a sensory overload study was reported by Lipowski (1975) as part of his research review on the topic that discussed the work done by Japanese researchers at Tohoku University. The Tohoku researchers exposed their subjects to intense visual and auditory stimuli presented randomly in a condition of confinement ranging in duration from 3 to 5 hours. Subjects showed heightened and sustained arousal as well as mood changes such as aggression, anxiety, and sadness. These results have helped open the door to further research on sensory overload.
Sociologist Georg Simmel contributed to the description of sensory overload in the early 1900s. Writer of The Metropolis and Mental Life, Simmel writes about an urban scenario of constantly appearing stimuli that trigger the brain’s senses. He writes about a barrier that must protect the individual from this constant stimulation in order to keep one sane. In short, Simmel concludes with stating that the urban life, full of its stimulations at different scenarios, provides excitement to our nervous system. The downside is that too much exposure of this sensory overload depletes the body’s energy reservoirs. Lacking the appropriate energy to react at new situations can form the bland mentality of an individual. A person’s mentality can be detrimental with a high degree of exposure of sensory overload. The raw reaction to new stimuli will be different when a person’s sensory experiences are overloaded (from past stimuli), compared to when they are not overloaded, the experience will be more pure.
- Sensory processing disorder
- Sensory adaptation
- Sensory deprivation
- Sensory gating
- Highly sensitive person
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