Warning! Warning! Sensory overload!

“SHUSH!” I yelled at my computer, frantically trying to turn off the background music I’d been playing while I was studying. It was too late. My brain was overloaded with messages. I passed out, falling off the chair and tearing the ligaments in my knee. I was 17 years old.

That was the first time I realised that Dysautonomia affected my body’s ability to process things happening in the world around me (known as stimuli). Unless you’re in a sensory deprivation tank (a special place designed to remove all stimuli) your brain is constantly processing light, sound, smell, touch, temperature etc.

Your body has different types of nerves to sense different stimuli.

  • Photoreceptors (in your retinas) sense light.
  • Auditory receptors (in the inner ear) sense vibrations from sound waves.
  • Mechanoreceptors sense touch, pressure and stretching.
  • Thermoreceptors sense changes in temperature.
  • Chemoreceptors (in your nose, taste buds and brain) sense chemicals.
  • Nociceptors sense pain and tissue damage.

Guess who is in charge of processing all this information? Yep, the autonomic nervous system (ANS). That’s the one that’s broken when you have Dysautonomia.

As a result, the brain not only struggles to process all the information sent to it, it is often unable to separate the important signals (e.g. the voice of the person you’re talking to) from the unimportant ones (background noise), and so ends up flagging all input all as vitally important.

It means that instead of a meeting of your sensory neurons looking like this…
Sound.001
Sound.002Sound.003

Sound.004Sometimes it looks a lot more like this.
Sound.005
Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with someone while simultaneously trying (and failing) to process all that information?

How about trying to do a ‘simple’ grocery shop? You’re looking for items on the shelves, navigating people and their trolleys, pushing your own trolley, keeping tabs on your budget, all while dealing with an overload of things going on around you. It’s confusing and frustrating, and exhausting.

So when I snap at my husband (sorry Mr Happy) who is taking a long time to get to the point, it’s not because I’m rude and impatient. It’s because I’m struggling to process everything, and it’s hard to follow all the tangents while also remembering the point. If I burst into tears in the clothing store, it’s not because there was a pair of jeans that made my butt look big. It’s because I’m overwhelmed by the chemical smells from the clothes, the constantly flickering fluorescent lights, the conglomeration of sound from people and music and service announcements and checkout beepers, and the physical pain and exhaustion from getting dressed and undressed so many times to try things on. If I come home with only half of the groceries I need, it’s not because I didn’t write a good enough list. It’s because I stared at the list for ten minutes, and couldn’t understand what the words meant anymore, because my brain was so overwhelmed by everything going on around me.

Sensory overload is not something you can just ‘push through’. If I ignore the warning signals from my brain that I’m becoming overstimulated, I’ll usually end up on the floor. Once you’re overstimulated, you have to remove yourself from the situation to allow your body to recover.

The best way to stop getting overstimulated in the first place is…avoidance.
Avoid situations with too much stimuli (so loud heavy metal concerts with strobe lights are probably off the table…). But that’s not always possible, or practical.
So for situations you can’t (or shouldn’t) avoid, I have two main tips.

  • Think of the stimuli you’ll be facing in that particular situation, and see if there are any ways to reduce them.
    e.g. When I go grocery shopping, it’s bright and noisy. I can’t make them turn off the lights or the background music. But I can wear earplugs, and keep my sunglasses on.
  • Set limits for yourself.
    e.g. If I want to meet up with a friend, I’ll often arrange to visit them at their house, rather than them coming to mine. That way, I can leave when I need to.

Sensory overload.
Just another gift from my snoozing autonomic nervous system.

xx S.

***
(Sadly it’s not just people with Dysautonomia who struggle with sensory overload. It also affects people with autism, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, depression, Fibromyalgia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and some anxiety disorders, among other things. None of these are illnesses that you can ‘see’, so please be patient with others. You never know if maybe the lady in front of you at the store is taking a long time to pay because she is desperately trying to process everything that’s going on).

30 thoughts on “Warning! Warning! Sensory overload!

  1. This was a great blog! I have sensory overload, but I also have sensory mis fires with my nerves. They put it together and say I have “Sensory Neruopathy!” It’s like you said you can’t understand this unless you are going through it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you found it helpful πŸ™‚
      I’m sorry to hear about your sensory neuropathy. Nerves are such an important part of our body, but we don’t really think about them until they stop working! (Actually, that’s pretty much all of our body, isn’t it? We don’t really think about it until it stops working).

      It’s definitely not something that’s easy to understand unless it happens to you. Hopefully this post will help your family and friends πŸ™‚

      Like

  2. Yup. We always called this my “Wal-Mart” syndrome, cause my kids used to have to lead me out of Wal-Mart when they were young (they’re grown now). When mommy started fluttering her hands in front of her, it was time to go!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I get this occasionally as well. I had a panic attack from going into a club once because of it. I also seem to have blood sugar issues, and if I haven’t eaten in a while all of these symptoms become magnified and I become grumpy, useless, and even depressed.

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    1. Hi Jack! I’m sorry to hear that you suffer from this too.

      It’s amazing how much of a difference food can make. An empty stomach magnifies lots of different symptoms for me. (But my stomach also gets cranky if I eat. It’s pretty much a lose-lose).

      Like

      1. I find that marijuana helps quite a bit in settling my stomach. There have been a few studies, which I’m too lazy to link at the moment, which strongly support its use as a gastrointestinal aide. I would also strongly recommend a good probiotic. Additionally, oolong tea can help with digestion.

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      1. Haha, sorry to confuse you!

        I still struggle with sensory overload most days, but I haven’t passed out from it for at least eight or nine years now.

        Sensory overload is not usually dangerous, just yucky. It really only causes you to pass out or have a seizure if you don’t know enough about it to recognise the warning signs that your brain is not coping. When I didn’t know that I had Dysautonomia, I also didn’t know about sensory overload, so I couldn’t do anything about it.

        Now, if my brain gets overwhelmed, I know what’s happening, and I just take myself off to a quiet place, or pop my sunnies on and my earphones in, and give my body a break from sensory stimuli. It’s harder to manage in a place like a grocery store (you can’t make everyone stop moving, and make them turn off the music, and remove all the smells!), so it just means that I can’t spend lots of time in places like that.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m glad you at least know what the problem is and can do something to make yourself feel better most of the times. It’s sad to think how tough it must’ve been for you when you had no clue what was going on and how tough it must be for people who still don’t know.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes! Dysautonomia is a horrible illness, with lots of terrible symptoms, but it’s always better to know, so that you can work on helping your body! Being undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed) makes it so hard to manage an illness.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is brilliant! I love your blog! It’s so hard to describe dysautonomia to people, especially the sensory overload symptoms. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Rachel! It IS really hard to describe dysautonomia to people, isn’t it? I think it’s because:

      a) It affects a part of the body they’ve never heard of (the autonomic nervous system)

      b) It affects so many different parts of the body, so explaining all the symptoms gets kind of overwhelming.

      I’m so glad you found my blog, and that it was helpful πŸ™‚
      I hope it can help the people around you to better understand ❀

      xx S.

      Like

      1. And there I thought I had ADD with my dyautonomia! There is a tablet for that atleast.😒

        Like

  5. Thank you for also mentioning autism! As someone who has dysautomia and is also autistic, I feel you did an excellent job describing what sensory overload feels like and how it inhibits your ability to communicate. It’s always nice to hear other people are going through similar things. Your blog is always so well done, and thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that you also suffer from this 😦 It’s such a horrible thing.

      But thank you for the encouraging words about my blog ❀ I always feel so silly posting my writing on the internet (why would people want to read what *I* write?)! But at the same time, I feel like I have so much to say! I love writing posts that help sufferers to feel understood, and help non-sufferers to better understand.

      xx S.

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  6. Thank you for writing about sensory overload, you have captured what it feels like precisely. I mainly struggle with sound type sensory overload; I couldn’t go into a pub or noisy restaurant for example. In the evening after work, i tell my husband to switch off the TV because it’s too much. I even struggle if someone speaks to me, but someone else is having a conversation nearby. Touch also, most touch types feel ultra tickly and i jump about! Thankfully I have a patient husband! I also couldn’t walk on grass in bare feet. Grocery shopping i avoid too because of people moving around, lights and noises out of nowhere such as PA systems and alarms. Ugh. I mentioned all of this stuff to my GP once but she looked at me like I was an alien, so I have no idea why I have it. Perhaps PTSD, as you suggest above.

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