“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.
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.
Just another gift from my snoozing autonomic nervous system.
(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).