sensory overload. this is what happens when one or more senses are overstimulated. it looks different in different people, and can cause massive amounts of anxiety, panic, headaches, migraines, extreme tension and pain, agitation, rage, dissociation, and more.
finding out that so much of my anxiety was really sensory-related was a massive relief, because it was an explanation as to why i was so irritable all the time. i was having sensory overload constantly but didn’t realize it.
please note that everything i say on here comes from what i’ve learned reading online and what other people have said, as well as my own experiences with it. this blog post is for those that have spd or know someone and want to understand more of the spd perspective. i’m still learning as i go. i’m not an expert.
what sensory overload can look like…
sometimes when i have to leave the house i can’t bring my noise cancelling headphones with me, for whatever reasons. let’s say…walmart on a rainy day. the first thing i notice is the feeling of the rain drops on my skin when i exit the car. it’s cold, wet, and unpleasant. this may not seem like much but i continue to feel it even after it dries. the next thing that happens, is i notice the sounds of the air conditioners running. then the people. the sound of carriages. children screaming. people rushing past. food smells. bright lights. it all builds up quickly.
if it’s a good day, i’ll be able to handle this. but if i’m overly tired, lacking sleep, or if i haven’t had any time to recharge, these sensory inputs will be totally overwhelming. i immediately feel uneasy and anxiety begins to make me feel weird. talking is difficult, thinking is difficult, being aware of surroundings is more difficult. i’m too tired to function. my body turns on the auto-pilot or i can stop responding altogether.
after an hour or two of being in walmart, or wherever i’ve gone, i have to recharge the rest of the day and kinda recalibrate my whole brain. if i go a long time without being able to recharge, my ability to be a human rapidly deteriorates and the rest of my mental health goes down the drain. gotta be careful.
people react to sensory overload is different ways. it’s important to remember that. no two people are exactly alike.
one important thing to know is that meltdowns in people with sensory issues are not the same as tantrums. it’s not something that happens intentionally. it’s the result of so much input overload that a person can’t handle it and all control is lost. it’s not something done for attention. it feels embarrassing to have others witness. it’s exhausting and can take forever to recover from. they’re preventable though sometimes.
when someone is going into a meltdown and there’s no way to stop it, it’s extremely distressing. i know that when i’m going into meltdown mode, i want to smash my head into the wall, punch things, wreck everything, be total b*tch to people, cry, etc. and it lasts for hours sometimes. i feel really guilty after every time. i always end up with bruises, muscle pain, headaches, fatigue…etc…
people of any age can have sensory meltdowns, children, teenagers, adults, it doesn’t matter. please don’t judge if you see someone having a meltdown. they don’t want to be having one.
occasionally, and i don’t know if it’s like this for anyone else, but meltdowns can happen hours after leaving a stressful situation. if i need to, i can force one down long enough til i can get somewhere private, and then let myself freak out. i like being alone when this happens because it’s less stressful. less stress means it’s over quicker.
shutdowns are like an internal meltdown. other people might not notice that a shutdown is happening. when i shut down, i can go nonverbal for a few hours, or only speak when absolutely necessary. i don’t want to move or do anything at all. sometimes when the sensory overload becomes too intense, i can even just fall asleep. there have been so many times where i’ve gone somewhere noisy and bright, and just fallen asleep right there. i used to fall asleep at school for this reason, especially in the cafeteria.
sometimes shutdowns can happen before or after a meltdown occurs. sometimes one might happen but not the other. it depends on the person and the situation i guess.
managing sensory overload
finding out what kind of sensory input you enjoy or avoid is important to knowing how to cope with sensory overload. if you find something that relaxes you, such as looking at shiny things (such as this keychain from Stimtastic), watching shadows for hours, or playing with slime, listening to certain sounds or music repeatedly, then do it! it’s self care. within reason, of course. don’t do anything that will harm you.
if you know the sensory stuff that gives you anxiety, like certain sounds, lighting, textures, smells, etc…then avoid them if you need to. i always avoid things like flickering lights, harsh lighting, crowded areas, and bleach fumes.
fidget toys are good option if you leave the house a lot and go to places where it’s not totally acceptable to stim, if you do that. there are all kinds out there. you can get fidget cubes or spinners anywhere online or at stores like walmart. there are also tangles which you can twist around in your fingers. some tend to creak and squeak though, which can be irritating. they make quiet ones though but i’m not sure where. i always carry these things with me, or at least one of them. i also have a chewy necklace from Stimtastic that i always wear. the texture is really nice and if i need to bite things, it’s soft and doesn’t hurt your teeth. there are also weighted blankets out there you can buy, for those that like the pressure feeling of heavy blankets.
one thing that always helps me, is every time i have to go into a stressful situation that overloads me, i have one or two sensory reset days. at least that’s what i call them. i just do nothing that day. i’ll do the things that are required to do if i have to, but then i just get under a nice heavy blanket and lay there in the dark for a while, where it’s warm. i hate the feeling of water on my skin, but i’ll also take a slightly longer than usual hot shower. put cleanish clothes on, watch my favorite show or special interest documentary, and not interact with anyone. it’s really nice and makes me feel better.
helping someone else with spd??
if someone you know has sensory issues and you want to help, just ask them what you can do. asking the person themselves is the best thing to do. it’s not special treatment, it’s a necessity. don’t push someone who seems like they’re going into an overload. ask them if they need to go somewhere quiet or dark, or ask if there’s anything that needs to be removed from the situation or area. don’t yell at them, don’t touch them. at least not without their consent. that can make things worse. you want to make sure they are safe and won’t hurt themselves if they have a meltdown. if they have problems with loud noises, let them wear their headphones if they need to. ask them if they want something to drink or eat that might give the person some sensory comfort. i personally like drinks that are sweet, it calms me down instantly. in conclusion: ask the person, but don’t treat them like a child.
to read my first post about sensory issues, click here.