Sensory Overload: What’s Your Threshold of Tolerance?
Sensory overload may show up as fatigue, irritability or shutting down. When I was growing up, I used to wonder why someone wouldn’t just rest or go to bed if they were that tired, but it’s not always that simple. When we are overly stimulated, it can be hard to wind down. This can impact our sleep routines and create additional problems that make us vulnerable to overstimulation. Still under investigation, is the link between sensory overload and certain medical conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Perhaps you are not aware of the signs of sensory overload. Warning signs and symptoms of sensory overload include:
- Stress, anxiety or panic
- Showing aggression
- Snapping at others
- Feeling the urge to lash out
- Difficulty focusing
- Experiencing an urge to cover your ears and eyes to block
It can get rather tricky when sensory overload also looks like under stimulation:
- Difficulty paying attention
- Slow heart rate and breathing
- Slow thoughts
What is trickier still, is that these same symptoms can show up in different diagnoses such as depression, ADHD, PTSD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
For example, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a diagnosis that is usually applied to children, but can be experienced by adults. Adults who experience SPD can feel like everyday activities in the world land like an assault: Buzzing lights, car horns, clocks ticking. We can all find loud music annoying, (unless it’s really good reggae and/or rock), but SPD often plays out with things that wouldn’t register with many such as clothing labels, a loose hair on skin, scented detergent, or thunder. It can be socially crippling when the activity is something as simple as being hugged.
Your Eight Senses
Clearly, how our bodies receive input from our environment and how well it is tolerated is key to self-regulation. In this way, our senses play a key role in our feeling safe and responding to others in a balanced and mature way. By our senses, I don’t just mean the five that we learn about in grade school. In addition to touch, smell, sight, sound and taste, we have three other key senses that affect how we feel and react to our environment.
The Vestibular, Proprioceptive and Interoceptive Systems
Our vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive systems are also sensory systems that support body awareness, equilibrium and awareness of different internal sensations (e.g. knowing when we are hungry, if our heart is beating fast or if we are itchy or ticklish). Our vestibular sense provides us with information related to movement and balance.
It’s sometimes referred to as an internal GPS. Proprioception lets us know where our body is in space. (This is why we don’t throw our tea all over our face when we pick up a cup to drink or smash our gums when we brush our teeth). Interoception informs us about how we feel. All of our eight senses coordinate to play a role in regulating our emotional responses and sensory input.
Daily Check-In: What's Your Body Telling You?
An experienced therapist can help you work with all of these senses to build your tolerance for processing painful experience. This is an end goal for many in treatment, but it is also foundational to deeper trauma processing with interventions such as EMDR.
Just as significant, is the impact that organization and processing of sensory input by your central nervous system has on the way you perceive others, yourself (i.e. identity), and your physical environment.
In other words, it will affect what you think about the world, work, your family and yourself (self-esteem). Whether or not you feel safe or regulated will factor into how and what you communicate and the activities in which you wish to engage or avoid.
Whether you consider yourself a highly sensitive person, (someone with sensory processing sensitivity- “SPS”), on the autism spectrum or with neurodivergent traits, a sensory based approach to self-regulation can help you become more self-aware, self-soothe, improve self-esteem and engage in self-care that creates meaning and balance in your interactions. Talk therapy and medication, while helpful, might only explore the outer layers of behavior and emotion. In just minutes a day, you can practice sensory strategies such as autogenic training and daily centering that can help provide immediate sensations of relief and calm that overtime help you stay within a tolerable threshold of sensory perception and self-regulation.
A sensory-based approach reflects an individually tailored plan. It is not a generic worksheet of coping skills printed out for you to memorize as part of your treatment plan. Indeed, some techniques that are widely circulated for emotional regulation can be counterproductive and increase distress rather than provide relief. A well-tailored and individualized plan often requires deliberate and knowing focus on the myriad of stimuli and amounts that a person experiences and translation into an accessible and practical guide for that specific person and the particular way in which they interact with their world and input the sensory data from that world.
Below are some links to information that provide more information on some of the items discussed here. As always, reach out if you have comments about this journal entry or need more information:
You can find other soundbites related to preparation for therapy here . Stay in tune with issues related to your well-being and mental health right here in the Urim Recovery Journal updated 2x a week.