Dealing with Sensory Overload

Updated: Oct 2

Do you ever get overstimulated? Like all of a sudden everything is super overwhelming, and you feel like you just want to scream? It happens to a lot of us at some point in our lives and it's nothing to be ashamed of! If you are reading this blog, you have probably felt what it's like to be overstimulated, otherwise known as sensory overload.

Person with their head laying on a desk, looking overwhelmed.

Sensory overload can happen when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process at one time. Things like multiple conversations going on in one room, flashing overhead lights, or a loud party can all cause the symptoms of sensory overload.


Sometimes life gets to be WAY too overwhelming, and it's not always just because of the more obvious things like school, work, or relationships! Our brains are constantly absorbing information - sights, sounds, smells, textures, etc. And having a lot of loud noises, strange smells, or flashing lights is definitely not something that is going to help the situation when you are already dealing with life's daily stressors.

 

Signs you might be dealing with sensory overload

Maybe you aren't sure if what you are feeling is sensory overload, but you know for sure that something is making you feel "off." Some of the most common signs of being overstimulated are:

  • difficulty focusing

  • extreme irritability

  • restlessness and discomfort

  • feeling overly excited or “wound up”

  • stress, fear, or anxiety about your surroundings

  • Higher sensitivity to textures, fabrics, clothing tags, or other things that may rub against skin

  • urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes

 

3 easy tips for when you are overstimulated

If you are or have dealt with sensory overload, just know that you are not alone! I struggle with it a lot, almost everyday in fact. I've had to learn how to manage it so that I can still get done what needs to be done everyday, so I'd like to think I've gotten pretty good at dealing with it! So here are my three steps to dealing with sensory overload:


#1 - Step away and breathe

Young person meditating with their eyes closed.

The first thing you need to do is stop what you are doing, step away, and just BREATHE. When your senses are on fire from too much input, the best thing we can do for ourselves is give ourselves a moment to gather our wits.


Something I like to do when I am overwhelmed is find myself a quiet spot away from other people and put my headphones in. I might not even listen to anything in my headphones - I just like that this helps me separate myself from the world around me for a short moment. And I personally find that when I have headphones in, other people tend to take that as a sign that I need to be alone for a minute, so I don't have to worry about someone striking up a conversation when I am trying to regulate myself.


Taking the time to meditate or do some yoga is really helpful as well, but this isn't always possible if you're at school or work. If that is the case, then maybe go a nearby bathroom stall and take a second without people talking to you to regulate yourself.


#2 - Do some focused self-care

When our brains are overwhelmed by too much new information, it's good to give it something it recognizes and will make happy. Something familiar, something safe, something relaxing. If you aren't sure of small self-care activities you can do, here are some of my favorite self-care activities for when I am overstimulated:

Girl massaging forehead

Giving myself a massage on my face, neck, and shoulders

If I am stressed, I like to take a few minutes to gently rub my temples, unclench my jaw, and relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders. I hold a lot of tension from my shoulders and up, so this tends to help in those moments. Brushing my hair also helps release some of this tension, plus it helps me feel more confident and makes me feel like I look nice after something stressful. Keep in mind that many of us hold tension in different parts of our bodies, so this might not be exactly what will work for you - you might need to massage your arms or legs instead. Everyone is different!

Girl listening to music in headphones with eyes closed.

Listening to something calming

Listening to something calming (like nature sounds, spa music, or even hair brushing ASMR) helps me give my brain something it likes without giving it too much sensory input. It's easy for my brain to digest and process, so it isn't too hard to absorb after I have already felt overstimulated.



Person drawing on paper, surrounded by markers and pens.

Decompress with a calming activity

When the world feels chaotic around me, scribbling out random lines and shapes helps put my energy into something tactile and rewarding. I'll do this while I listen to my soft music or ASMR. What's important to remember if you choose to do something like drawing, crafting, or making music is to not put too much pressure on doing it well or to hold it to any kind of standard. You are doing this to relax and take expectations off of yourself for a moment, so don't focus on the end result of it. Instead, focus on how it makes you calm and feel centered.


#3 - Remember that nothing is wrong with you

You are not alone in dealing with sensory overload - most of us will experience it at some point in our lives. Sure, some of us might experience it more than others, but having it more than the person next to you doesn't make you "too sensitive." It just makes us human! So don't be too hard on yourself if you are finding yourself feeling overstimulated - you are NOT a weirdo, you are NOT a burden on others, and you are NOT selfish for taking the time to regulate yourself when it happens.


As with all mental and emotional health challenges, the best thing we can do is be gentle with ourselves. Healing is a lot harder if we are too busy beating ourselves up for struggling with overstimulation, depression, anxiety, manic episodes, or whatever else it may be.