Sensory overload can feel like a million tabs opened in your mental browser, and your brain doesn’t know how to process them. You may freeze or shut down altogether without the coping skills to de-stress.
Anyone can experience sensory overload, but some people are more prone to overwhelm in certain situations. Let’s dig into the science behind sensory overload and practical tips to overcome it.
Important Note: We are not medical professionals, and nothing on this website should be misconstrued as medical advice. We love helping our readers improve their life through professional and personal development. However, if this issue significantly impacts your daily functioning, please consult your doctor or licensed therapist for professional help.
What is Sensory Overload? (Sensory Overload Definition)
Sensory overload is when your brain becomes overwhelmed by input from your five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). As triggers like bright lights, loud noises, or crowds of people flood your environment, one can experience extreme emotion or discomfort. This can lead to a cascade of stress hormones that cause the body to fight, flight, or freeze mode. In this state of extreme fear or panic, it becomes difficult to focus or function normally.
Sensory Overload Symptoms
Anyone can experience sensory overload, but the symptoms vary widely. Sensory overload is not a medical diagnosis; however, it can make it more challenging to function in certain scenarios.
Symptoms may include:
- Difficulty focusing due to an overload of sensory input
- Urge to cover your ears and eyes
- Feeling “wound up” or anxious
- Extreme stress or panic
- High level of sensitivity to touch (e.g., fabric against your skin)
- Extreme irritability
- Intense feelings of anxiety and fear
- Avoiding specific situations (e.g., crowded public areas or parties)
In addition to these symptoms, sensory overload in children may include:
- Tantrums or outbursts in crowded public areas
- Unexplained crying or panic
- Reckless or destructive behavior
- Sudden mood swings
- Inability to speak or respond to others
Potential Causes of Sensory Overload
In some situations, sensory overload is due to a new, overwhelming experience that someone doesn’t know how to cope with. In others, it is caused by a bad memory or past traumatic event.
Many of the symptoms of sensory overload can overlap with other mental health conditions and personality traits, including:
- Generalized anxiety
- Social anxiety
- Social awkwardness
- Introverted personality traits
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Attention Hyperactive Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
- Highly sensitive person (HSP) personality traits
Sensory Overload Test
You may be dealing with sensory overload if you feel panicked and overstimulated in loud, busy, or crowded situations.
Remember: This test should not be misconstrued as a diagnosis of any form. It is solely here to help you understand the signs and experiences of someone with sensory overload. Sensory overload is not an illness or medical condition; a licensed mental health professional can help you or someone you love overcome it.
Answer these questions for yourself or someone that you know:
1. I feel very irritable and annoyed in loud environments.
2. I cannot relax or go to sleep after interacting with many people.
3. When faced with too much activity or noise, I panic and want to escape.
4. My body becomes physically tense or painful in overstimulating scenarios.
5. I struggle to focus on someone in front of me if multiple conversations occur in the surrounding room.
6. I often have to remove myself from parties or social gatherings because the amount of commotion is overwhelming.
7. I avoid crowded or busy places.
8. I often had meltdowns or tantrums in busy public places as a child.
9. Subtle sensations like fabric or tags on clothing feel really bother me.
10. I have a hypersensitivity to loud noises.
11. It makes me very anxious when people make sudden movements.
12. If too many sights, smells, or sounds are happening at once, my brain feels like it is shutting down.
13. I can’t think straight when there is too much noise in my environment.
14. I feel overwhelmed at parties to the point where I cannot function.
15. I often feel the urge to cover my eyes or ears when too much input enters my brain.
Mostly A: You may be dealing with sensory overload in certain situations. Consult with a mental health professional and implement some science-backed tips below to avoid and overcome your triggers.
Mostly B: You may feel stressed in some scenarios, but you do not show signs of dealing with sensory overload.
9 Tips to Cope With Sensory Overload
Think of sensory overload as having too many tabs open in your browser. The computer (your brain) is trying to process too many websites and applications simultaneously. The result is a frozen screen in need of a reboot. Thankfully, there are plenty of science-backed ways to reboot your mind and calm your body before, during, or after a sensory overload experience.
#1 Identify your triggers
The triggers for sensory overload are heavily situation-dependent. For example, a war veteran with PTSD may not mind a crowded airport but panic in a large stadium with fireworks. Similarly, a sensitive child may not feel triggered by their classmates at school but get very overwhelmed by the commotion of a theme park.
Sensory overload isn’t usually due to one thing on its own—it is the combination of several triggers that cause a cumulative feeling of overwhelm and fear. Common triggers include:
- Bright flashing lights
- Loud music or noises
- Crowded areas
- Lots of simultaneous conversations
- Emotionally intense people or groups
- Sudden environmental changes (e.g., temperature or light)
- Strong, intense smells
- Unexpected physical contact (e.g., hugs or scratchy clothing)
- Heavy traffic
Create a note on your phone or a page in your notebook where you can jot down specific situations that trigger you. Think about exactly what was happening in your environment that caused you to “shut down.”
For example, if you became overloaded at a work party, identify the phase when things become so bad that you felt the need to escape. You might have been OK with the music, crowds of colleagues, and buzz of conversations, but the strobe light and your friends calling you to the dance floor really sent you over the top.
When you can notice these specific triggers, it becomes easier to avoid them later. This doesn’t mean you should never go to a work party again! Maybe you should stick to the sides of the room and go earlier in the night when things aren’t quite as wild. Here is How to Survive a Holiday Party if you feel awkward or easily overwhelmed.
#2 Create a plan ahead of time
Now that you know your triggers, you can create a plan for the next time you have to enter a really stimulating environment.
- If you have to visit a big city for work and get easily overloaded by the crowds and noise of public transit, your plan may include noise-canceling headphones and a calming podcast or playlist to distract your mind from the outside chaos.
- If you need help focusing on a discussion when there are too many other conversations around you, show up to restaurants or cafes ahead of time so you can pick a quieter seat location. If your friend or date beats you there, ask them, “Would you mind if we moved over to a quieter table so I can hear you better?”
- If you are heading to a party or social event with a friend or significant other, tell them that you may get overwhelmed and have to leave. You can create a secret hand signal or motion to let them know that you are reaching the point of overload.
It can be helpful to write down your plan and go over it with anyone close to you who may experience these situations with you.
#3 Try a sensory diet
When people go on a standard diet, they avoid certain foods that trigger unwanted outcomes. A sensory diet does the same with your five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and vision).
A sensory diet is a planned sequence of sensory-based activities that help someone feel calm and organized. This method has been effective for children with autism and adults with neurological disabilities, as well as anyone facing overwhelming situations. It can help you self-regulate your senses and emotions to prevent or recover from sensory overload.
Sensory diets are often custom-designed by a mental health professional or occupational therapist. They involve moving to a quiet space to focus only on the “diet” activity with all other stimuli removed. Here are examples of different sensory diet activities you can combine to suit your own needs:
- Practice yoga for 5-10 minutes
- Slowly rock in a chair
- Practice self-hug
- Massage your hands or feet
- Use resistance band exercises
- Use a stress ball
- Apply lotion to the skin
- Use aromatherapy like lavender or chamomile
- Gently inhale the smell of coffee or tea
- Dim or change the lighting
- Eliminate visual clutter in an office or room
- Listen to calming music
- Listen to running water from a fountain or river
- Eat crunchy, chewy, or soft foods
#4 Relax with nature
Over 50 studies have scientifically confirmed that nature improves mental health and decreases anxiety. Connecting with the earth is a free and easy tool you can access whenever you feel overwhelmed.
There are several ways you can connect with nature when you’re inundated with triggers:
- Take off your shoes: Grounding or “earthing” is a research-backed method for calming your nervous system and reducing stress. All you have to do is go outside, take off your shoes, and walk around. Of course, you’ll only want to ground on surfaces like grass, garden soil, sand, or
- Cloud watching: If you feel stuck or panicked during an indoor event, go outside and watch the clouds pass for a moment while you let your nerves calm. You can also wear sunglasses, close your eyes, and meditate without anyone knowing.
- Listen to birds: The sounds of birds singing is naturally soothing to your mind and body. If you live near a river, trees, or a park, find a quiet place to sit and listen to the birds chirp.
#5 Politely excuse yourself
Sometimes overload can strike you right in the middle of a conversation or social event. As your stomach churns and your heart races, you feel mounting anxiety that you cannot escape the situation without appearing rude or awkward.
Fortunately, exiting conversation is a people-skill that anyone can learn and practice.
Master Your People Skills
- Create a Memorable Presence
- Communicate with Confidence
- Achieve Your Goals
Have a question about the presentation or People School? Email Science of People support.
It’s important to keep some quick phrases in your back pocket to “save” yourself from these uncomfortable scenarios. You should also remember that your mental health is your number one priority. If someone or something triggers you, you should never feel guilty for removing yourself from the situation until you feel safe again.
“Start prioritizing your mental health instead of adjusting to toxic spaces.”—Thema Bryant-Davis
These are some easy phrases you can use to remove yourself from triggering situations politely:
- “Excuse me. I need to get some fresh air.”
- “I have to get going. It was so nice talking to you.”
- “Oh, I just realized the time.” [glance at watch or phone] “I’ll see you later!”
- “Please, excuse me. I am having trouble focusing in this environment.”
- “I’d love to continue this conversation another time in a quieter place.”
Notice that there is no need to apologize. You can still be respectful without saying sorry. Here are 62 Ways to Politely End a Conversation In ANY Situation.
#6 Talk to yourself in the third person
Psychologists have found that talking to yourself in third person can reduce anxiety and help regulate your emotions. This tactic creates “psychological distance” between your mind and the perceived threat (the overwhelming situation). If you start to feel overloaded, try quietly talking to yourself or in your mind with soothing words like, “It’s OK to be overwhelmed, Vanessa. We are going to be just fine.”
Here are another 24 Powerful Tips to Deal with Anxiety in any situation.
#7 Reduce your stress
Sensory bombardment is far more difficult to deal with when you feel stressed and exhausted. When your body is stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and you become hyper-aware of your surroundings. Every sight, sound, or trigger can feel too much to handle.
One of the best ways to prevent a negative episode is to manage your stress levels daily. Try to:
- Get enough sleep
- Stay well hydrated
- Exercise daily, such as weightlifting or running
- Practice meditation or mindfulness
- Set aside specific time for yourself in the morning or evening
- Prevent burnout at work
- Read a book
- Do a relaxing creative activity
- Spend quality time with loved ones and pets
Remember that stress is a natural part of life, but it becomes harmful when our bodies stay in a constant “fight or flight” mode.
When sensory triggers overload you, a simple mindfulness activity can calm your mind in as little as three minutes. Here are 30 Mindfulness Activities To Keep Your Mind Calm (At Any Age).
#8 Consider adaptogens
People who struggle with sensory overload tend to become acutely stressed during intense stimulation. Finding ways to moderate and manage stress could help you feel less overwhelmed when facing unavoidable daily circumstances.
An adaptogen is anything that helps your body adapt to and buffer stress. Leading Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, PhD divides adaptogens into three categories:
- Nutritional adaptogens: These vitamins or minerals are found in food and can help the body cope with stress at a cellular level. High-adaptogenic foods include dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli. Dr. Huberman recommends at least 2-4 servings of dark leafy greens daily for maximum stress-buffering.
- Behavioral adaptogens: Changes to your behavior and lifestyle can help improve your body’s reaction to stressful situations. Huberman recommends going outdoors in the morning to expose your eyes and brain to morning sunlight, which can balance your cortisol (stress hormone) levels throughout the rest of the day. Daily exercise is also proven to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Supplement-based adaptogens: In double-blind placebo studies, supplements like ashwagandha and lion’s mane mushroom significantly reduced participants’ stress (measured by cortisol levels) and improved their sleep.
Watch his video to learn more:
#9 Talk with a mental health professional
If you have difficulty implementing coping mechanisms for sensory sensitivity, an occupational therapist can help you design a maintenance plan for your unique needs.
If you are still looking for the help you need, please note that all content on this website should not be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a doctor or licensed therapist with any questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health.
You can check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of a good resources for therapists.
Key Takeaways: Prevent Sensory Overload With Planning, Awareness, and Emotional Regulation
Sensory overload doesn’t have to prevent you from enjoying life. The world is full of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and experiences. It is empowering to filter through them and find the ones that bring you peacefulness. When faced with overstimulation, remember to:
- Know your triggers: Use a sheet of paper to track and document specific triggers over time. Pinpointing the source of overstimulation can help you properly plan to avoid it or cope with it next time.
- Prevent stress in advance: Reducing chronic stress can lead to a greater feeling of calmness in overstimulating environments. Practice mindfulness and self-care, or consider using adaptogens to buffer your reaction to stressful scenarios.
- Make a plan to self-regulate: Beating sensory overload requires knowledge of your triggers and how to recalibrate your sense of safety and inner calm. Find ways to self-regulate and create an action plan in advance of big events or triggering environments. Share your plan with a trusted friend or significant other so they can help you find clarity at the moment.
Learn to better regulate and express your emotions with this guide to The Emotion Wheel: How to Use it And Master Your Emotions.