What’s inside this article: An in depth look at sensory overload. Including what it is, what it looks like and feels like, and how to help stop or prevent sensory overload and sensory meltdowns.
Is there a child in your life who seems to become anxious, panicked, or overwhelmed very easily? Do they seem to be more sensitive to sounds, smells, and textures compared to other children their age?
If you said “yes” to those questions, they may be experiencing sensory overload.
Never heard of sensory overload before? Not sure what it is or what it looks like? Or maybe you already know that’s what’s happening, but you aren’t sure how to help.
Read on to learn everything you need to know.
What Is Sensory Overload?
Put simply, sensory overload occurs when the brain receives more information from the senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound) than it can process and interpret at one time.
When this happens, people tend to feel overwhelmed or anxious. They may even start to panic, or meltdown.
Just about everyone experiences sensory overload at one time or another. However, for some, including highly sensitive people and those with certain conditions, it can happen more frequently, and it may be triggered more easily.
It may even interfere with their quality of life and make it hard (or sometimes impossible) for them to participate in certain activities.
What Causes Sensory Overload?
At this time, it’s not clear exactly what causes sensory overload. However, some research suggests certain people may be more biologically inclined to struggle with it. We all experience stimuli differently, some people’s senses being more sensitive than others – this is known as the sensory spectrum.
We are also more sensitive to different stimuli due to external factors — if we haven’t slept, have a headache or aren’t feeling well, we are more easily bothered by noises, people, temperature, etc.
The researchers who conducted this study discovered abnormalities in the white matter of the brain in children with sensory processing disorders. White matter is composed of nerve fibers and is responsible for transferring information within the brain.
There may be a biological component to a person’s experiences with sensory overload. There is also, in some cases, a “nurture” component to this issue. For example, someone who experienced trauma may be more sensitive to certain types of sensory inputs (such as loud noises) than others.
The Sensory Spectrum
The term “the sensory spectrum” describes the array of sensory differences that exist from person to person. How we experience and interpret various stimuli is an individualized experience.
Additionally, we all have sensory preferences. These are things we enjoy and avoid. This is called a sensory bias. It’s the reason why we like different foods, music, activities, etc.
A sensory bias is only a problem when it severely restricts or limits productivity. Or, when it chronically interferes with enjoyment in life.
Conditions Related to Sensory Overload
Anyone can feel sensory overload. However, people with the following conditions may be more sensitive to stimuli and more likely to experience sensory overload symptoms:
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- PTSD (or children who had adverse childhood experiences – ACE’s)
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
- Down Syndrome
- Other developmental disorders
What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?
Sensory overload can cause a variety of physical and emotional symptoms. It can also vary from person to person.
The following are some of the most commonly reported ones:
- Extreme irritability or agitation
- An urge to cover your ears, eyes, or run away from a situation or place
- Feelings of anxiety or fear
- Wanting everything around you to just “pause”
- An inability to ignore sensory inputs (loud sounds, strong smells, etc.)
- Unable to focus
- Overheating or dizziness
These feelings can range from mild to severe and worsen the longer the person is exposed the overwhelming stimuli.
What Does Sensory Overload Look Like?
If a parent or teacher doesn’t know what to look for, it might be hard for them to tell when a child is experiencing sensory overload.
Sometimes, it seems like kids are intentionally acting out, avoiding school work, or being defiant. This is especially the case during a sensory meltdown.
If your child is experiencing sensory overload, you may notice some of the following behaviors:
Restlessness and difficulty sitting still
- Unable to sit still
- Trying to leave certain locations or situations (for example, the classroom during group activities)
- Covering their face or closing their eyes
- Covering their ears
- Outbursts or sudden intense frustration
- Aggression or agitation
- Not communicating what’s wrong
- Not listening to what you’re saying to them
Children often can’t communicate directly that they are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing sensory overload, so it’s important to notice their behavior and try to reflect on what’s happening on the inside.
There’s always a reason for misbehavior, even when we can’t see it.
How To Deal With Sensory Overload
This is important. So you have a child or student who is getting overstimulated – how can you help?
If your child frequently struggles with sensory overload, it may be beneficial to speak with an occupational therapist.
Occupational therapists know how to assess children’s sensory needs and create a sensory diet to help them. A sensory diet is a carefully designed set of activities that support a person’s sensory needs and help to reduce sensory processing challenges.
When children are experiencing sensory overload, parents and teachers can use a variety of strategies to calm them down, as well.
If your child starts experiencing sensory overload, scolding them or telling them to “get over it” is not a helpful strategy
What they need is to feel supported and have their feelings validated. Emotion coaching is a great communication tool for this.
If possible, they should have an exit strategy, if they need to get away from an overwhelming situation. For example, if there’s a party at the house, maybe they need to go to their room and take a break from all the guests who are talking loudly around them.
Basically, they need a way to dim or remove the sensory input that’s overwhelming them.
Afterwards, guiding your child through some breathing exercises or mindfulness exercises to help calm down the nervous system is helpful, too. However, you need to teach these calm – down skills when your child is calm, not in the heat of the moment.
Knowing how to help stop sensory overload is important. But, being able to prevent it from happening in the first place is even better.
Some of the most effective strategies to try are listed below:
- Identify your child’s triggers, and plan ahead to avoid them or reduce their intensity
- Have a safe, calming space your child can use when they’re overwhelmed.
- Have a sensory room where they can explore sensory input safely or using calming sensory tools
- Use tools to minimize sensory input, such as noise-reducing headphones, or fluorescent light covers.
You can read more detailed and specific prevention tips here.
The more you know about sensory overload, the easier it is to support your child and help them to feel safe.
The following articles may help you prevent, or stop, sensory meltdowns or overload.