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What is sensory overload? All you need to know

It is pretty common for most of us to react to the stimuli in our environment – after all, the word stimuli imply that these act as a source of reaction. Things like a sudden loud noise, a bright flash of light, or harsh material dragging against the skin are all examples of stimuli that produce a reactionary response from the human body.

However, many times – especially for those on the autism spectrum, or suffering from certain mental health disorders – people can become overly sensitive to stimulus. What might be seen as an ignorable sound or sight in the environment becomes a massive trigger point for people who experience sensory overload.

What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?

People who experience sensory overload have described it akin to an unbearable sensation that cannot be shaken off. While a loud bang for someone might simply induce shock and a slight jump of surprise, for someone who experiences sensory overload, it can cause sheer panic, disorientation, and even a prolonged attack of anxiety and distress. 

Sensory overload can manifest in something as day-to-day as acute irritation to the sound of typing, or a fan whirring – or the inability to sleep if you can hear the clock ticking or a tap dripping. It is more than just the screeching sensation that 
nails on a chalkboard might produce. Patients who experience sensory overload often feel the need to escape the source of distress – by means of running away, avoidance, or even more drastic reactions like screaming, crying, hyperventilating, and panicking. 

What Do the Studies Show?

Recent research has shown that a part of the brain called the thalamus might be the reason why some people cannot tolerate stimuli that, otherwise, would not affect the average human being. The thalamus is the part of the brain responsible for filtering stimuli. It is located in the middle of the brain and acts as a delivery or relay station for all information that is received via the sensory organs (the eyes, ears, and more). 

Needless to say, if there is some kind of damage to the thalamus, or any kind of defect in its processing capabilities, this relay system would not work the way it is intentioned to work. As a result, the person might be experiencing stimuli in a drastically different manner, unable to filter out what is normal and what needs to be responded to with distress.

Who Experiences Sensory Overload?

Most of us experience sensory overload at some point or the other. However, this type of sensory overload that is caused by seemingly irrational stimuli takes place in cases of different mental health disorders, either genetic or environmentally caused.

The most common patients of sensory processing issues are those who belong on the autism spectrum. Another condition associated with sensory overload is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), where sensory information can compete for attention and importance. Other conditions that have shown cases of sensory overload are generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some cases of fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis also show abnormal processing of sensory information. Research is still being done on the correlation between these cases and sensory overload (along with cases of chronic fatigue syndrome and Tourette Syndrome).

What Can Be Done About Sensory Overload?

One of the most obvious and immediate ways to combat sensory overload is to recognize the triggers for it. Knowing what causes a distress reaction is a great way of identifying what needs to be removed or avoided in your (or your child’s) environment. Common examples include avoiding noisy places, finding alternate routes, replacing fabrics of clothes, switching diets, and changing light sources in one’s home.

However, avoidance only goes a long way. People who experience sensory overload are often in a world which has little patience, or understanding, for their responses – nor is it an environment that can be controlled or modified.

Occupational therapy is one of the main forms of treatment to help patients and children manage their responses to overstimulation. Sensory integration is another form of treatment that was developed, where patients are introduced to controlled environmental conditions in order to improve sensory modulation. There are also some pharmaceutical treatments, but research on allopathic intervention is little and does not show enough success rates for it to be considered a definite option.

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