Sometimes, things get a bit too much. Noises are everywhere. A pencil moving. A person breathing. A stereo. Then there’s lights; flashing lights, coloured lights, a quick flash, a constant light. There’s textures, tastes, smells, sights and sounds consistently – all of the time. All of these merge together and create a jumbled blurred mess of colours and sounds. This is sensory overload…
A sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment. I am over sensitive to sounds, sights and tastes. I can’t hear you very well when you’re talking next to me, but if you’re on the other side of the room its not a problem. I can hear a door close on the other side of the house. I can hear someone sigh a mile away or turn a page in their book. Lights and objects jump around; and little details stand out more than the whole object or situation. In terms of touch, I am under sensitive. I have a high tolerance to pain, and I need deep pressure from others when I feel completely overwhelmed.
Imagine a sensory overload. A complete rush of sounds, sights, smells, textures and tastes. A complete blur of people, noises, the environment, cars, the street, even your own mind.
A noise in your head that rumbles and screeches. People, lots of people. Heat. Too much touch. No time to think. Too many flashing lights and sign posts. Too much visible information. Too much sound. People talking. People typing on laptops. A page of a book. A pencil hitting the floor. People laughing. Music. Not enough touch. Trapped. Cold. Heavy breathing. Sweating. Tired….a sensory overload.
How do you spot a sensory overload?
Signs of a sensory overload or meltdown include:
- “Shuts down”, or refuses to participate in activities and/or interact with others
- Avoids being touched or reaches out for touch
- Gets agitated or upset
- 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
- Has difficulty focusing
- Over-sensitivity to touch, movement, sights, and/or sounds
- Has trouble with social interactions
- Extremely high or extremely low activity levels
- Muscle tension
- Stimming – repetitive behaviours such as rocking, hand flapping and skin picking
- Fidgeting and restlessness
- Panic attacks
- Angry outbursts
- Difficulty concentrating
Helping somebody with sensory overload
The quickest way to calm somebody down during a sensory overload is to remove that person from the environment in which the overload occurred.
If other symptoms alongside a sensory overload occur, work on these also. Panic attacks include heavy breathing, disorientation, low body temperature and severe panic. Once a person recovers from this, their senses may calm down also. Anger should be dealt with alongside an overload if it occurs.
Deep pressure against the skin combined with individual input often calms the nervous system in places such as the legs or the hands. Constantly reassuring and pressure to the person’s body allows them to know you’re there whilst keeping them with reality.
Reducing sensory input such as eliminating distressing sounds and lowering the lights can help. Calming, focusing music works for some.
Talking or repeating the person’s name may help them establish their surroundings, the people they are with and what they are currently going through. This may encourage the person to calm themselves down, or reaching out to somebody to help.
Stimming or self-soothing behaviours should not be stopped unless they pose risk to the person suffering the sensory overload. These behaviours often allow the person to calm down and come out of an overload.
If a quick break or intervention does not relieve the problem, an extended rest is advised. It is important in situations of sensory overload to calm oneself and return to a normal level.