Sensory overload is a phenomenon that occurs when the brain is bombarded with more sensory input than it can efficiently process. This can result in feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and fear, making it difficult for the affected individual to function normally in everyday situations.
Of course, it sometimes affects anyone, but it’s more commonly experienced by people with certain conditions, such as autism, ADHD, PTSD, and sensory processing disorder. In this article, we explore the symptoms, causes, and how it impacts children. Additionally, we discuss the linked conditions and the available treatment options.
Understanding Sensory Overload
This occurs when one or more of the body’s five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) become overwhelmed by the amount of sensory input they receive. The brain struggles to interpret, prioritize, or process this information, leading to a sense of being overwhelmed and uncomfortable. This can happen in various situations, such as a crowded restaurant, loud concerts, or exposure to strong scents.
Although everyone may experience sensory overload at some point in their lives, certain individuals are more prone to it, particularly those with autism, ADHD, PTSD, and sensory processing disorder. For these individuals, everyday situations can be challenging and even distressing.
Symptoms of Sensory Overload
The symptoms vary from one person to another, as different individuals may be more sensitive to specific types of sensory input. Common symptoms include:
- Inability to ignore loud sounds, strong smells, or other types of sensory input
- A sense of discomfort
- Anxiety and fear
- Extreme sensitivity to clothing or other textures
- Feeling overwhelmed or agitated
- Loss of focus
In children, it may manifest as:
- Anxiety, irritability, and restlessness
- Avoiding specific places or situations
- Closing the eyes
- Covering the face
- Placing the hands over the ears
- Inability to converse with others or connect with them
- Running away from specific places or situations
Causes of Sensory Overload
The primary cause is the brain’s struggle to interpret, prioritize, or process the sensory inputs it receives. As a result, the brain sends a message to the body that it needs to escape the overwhelming sensory input, causing feelings of discomfort and panic.
In some individuals who regularly experience this condition, such as those with sensory processing disorder, there may be a biological basis for these processing problems. Research indicates that children with sensory processing disorder have quantifiable differences in their brain structure, suggesting a biological basis for the issue. However, not everyone who experiences sensory overload will have these structural differences.
Children and Sensory Overload
It is relatively common in children. A 2018 report states that 1 in every 6 children has sensory processing difficulties. In certain groups, the prevalence ranges from 80% to 100%. These groups include children with:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Down syndrome
Recognizing this condition in children is often challenging, especially if there is no co-occurring condition. Parents and caregivers might mistakenly attribute the symptoms to bad behavior, as it causes children to avoid situations, have meltdowns, or appear irritable and restless. In children without a related condition, it may simply occur because the brain is still developing.
It is crucial for parents and caregivers to learn to recognize the triggers and signs of sensory overload in children. Taking swift action reduces the impact on the child and help manage their reactions.
Sensory overload is often associated with several health conditions, including:
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. Sensory overload is a common symptom in autistic individuals, as they may have difficulty processing and filtering sensory information.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulty focusing, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. Sensory overload can be a symptoms in people with ADHD, as they may become overwhelmed by sensory input and struggle to focus on the task at hand.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. Sensory overload might be a symptom of PTSD, as individuals with the disorder may be more sensitive to sensory input and prone to feeling overwhelmed in certain situations.
➳ Sensory processing disorder:
This disorder is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing sensory information, leading to difficulties in daily functioning. Sensory overload is a common symptom in people with this disorder, as their brains struggle to filter and interpret sensory input.
Diagnosis of Sensory Overload
Though sensory overload is not an official disorder, many doctors and healthcare professionals recognize it, especially in autistic individuals and those with ADHD and other related conditions.
Before consulting a doctor about sensory overload, it is helpful for the individual to keep a diary of any sensory overload signs, symptoms, and triggers. The doctor will likely ask several questions about the triggers and events surrounding episodes of sensory overload to gain a better understanding of how the person experiences it.
In the case of children with suspected sensory overload, a doctor may refer them to a developmental pediatrician or an occupational therapist for further evaluation and treatment.
There is no specific treatment for this condition. The primary goal is to help individuals plan for such situations and manage their reactions.
Occupational therapy is, however, helpful for children. For example, occupational therapists help individuals make changes to their environments to minimize the frequency or severity of sensory overload.
Medications for co-occurring conditions may also help reduce sensory overload. For example, autistic individuals may benefit from aripiprazole (Abilify), in which studies show improvements to sensory processing.
Individuals also manage episodes with specific techniques and home care, such as:
- Keeping a diary of signs, symptoms, and triggers of sensory overload
- Avoiding triggers, like loud concerts or events with flashing lights, where possible
- Asking others to help reduce sensory inputs, like turning down bright lights or opening a window when strong smells are present
- Identifying safe spaces to escape to when sensory overload occurs at school, work, or other venues
- Staying near the exit when at a concert or party for easy departure if necessary
- Talking to teachers, colleagues, friends, and others about sensory overload and asking for their support in reducing sensory inputs
- Taking regular breaks, getting enough rest and sleep
- Drinking plenty of water and eating a balanced diet
What You Can Do for Children
Parents and caregivers can help children by:
- Assisting their child in avoiding triggering situations
- Providing the child with words to explain what is happening and how it feels
- Validating the child’s feelings and experiences
- Informing teachers of the possibility of sensory overload and asking for their support
- Seeking help from a doctor, occupational therapist, or another specialist
Using Essential Oils to Reduce Sensory Overload
The first essential oil that is great for reducing sensory overload is lavender.
Lavender has been used for centuries to promote relaxation and reduce feelings of anxiety. It has a soothing scent that can help calm your mind and body. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by sensory input, taking a few deep breaths of lavender essential oil can help you feel more grounded and centered. You can use lavender essential oil in a diffuser, or you can mix a few drops with a carrier oil and apply it directly to your skin.
Another essential oil that can be helpful for managing sensory overload is peppermint.
Peppermint has a refreshing scent that can help improve focus and mental clarity. It can also help reduce feelings of nausea and discomfort, which can be common symptoms of sensory overload. You can use peppermint essential oil in a diffuser, or you can mix it with a carrier oil and apply it to your temples or the back of your neck.
The third essential oil that is great for reducing sensory overload is chamomile.
Chamomile has a gentle, calming scent that can help soothe your nerves and promote relaxation. It can also help reduce inflammation and discomfort in the body, which can be helpful if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of sensory overload such as headaches or muscle tension. You can use chamomile essential oil in a diffuser, or you can mix it with a carrier oil and apply it to your skin.
Last but certainly not least is bergamot oil.
This citrusy oil has a bright, uplifting aroma that can help boost mood and reduce stress levels. Bergamot also has anti-anxiety properties, making it an effective choice for managing sensory overload symptoms. Diffuse bergamot oil in your home or office, or apply topically with a carrier oil for a natural mood boost.
Bonus: Quotes for Sharing
While it is true that depression might affect anyone, it’s more common in individuals with conditions such as autism, ADHD, PTSD, and sensory processing disorder. It causes feelings of discomfort and being overwhelmed, making it difficult for the affected person to function normally in everyday situations.
By identifying triggers and learning coping mechanisms, individuals can better manage this condition and minimize its impact on their daily lives. If you or a loved one experiences frequent sensory overload, consult a doctor to discuss potential related conditions and available treatment options.
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