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What is Sensory Overload & How is it Treated? | Causes and Symptoms of Sensory Overload

What is Sensory Overload?

Our body has five main senses, namely touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing. A person is said to have Sensory Overload if there is overstimulation of any one of these five senses. Sensory Overload can occur in any person of any age but is seen more commonly in adults who have PTSD and autism. People with sensory processing disorder can also at times have Sensory Overload. Sensory Overload can occur at any place like a rock concert, an overcrowded restaurant, or in the midst of a strong fragrance of a perfume. In such situations, there is too much information that is fed to the brain and it is not able to process it resulting in a variety of symptoms.[1,2,3]

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory Overload causes a very discomforting feeling that can be at times very severe. Everybody experiences some symptoms of Sensory Overload at some point in their lives. However, in some people this occurs more frequently than others. In such people even everyday chores become very challenging.[1,2,3]

A child may have Sensory Overload in the middle of school whereas an adult may have it in the office cafeteria or while driving in heavy traffic. The noise of people talking and screaming like in a rock concert, strong smell of food in a restaurant, or flashing lights like in a disco all can be very overwhelming for a person with Sensory Overload.[1,2,3]

What Causes Sensory Overload?

Sensory Overload is said to occur when the brain finds it very tough to interpret and process sensory information that it gets. It then triggers a response which tells the body to get out of the situation that is providing these inputs. This results in the body going into a panic mode and causing symptoms that are quite discomforting to the individual.[3]

Some people with sensory processing disorder may have a biological basis to Sensory Overload. Studies indicate that children with sensory processing disorder have significant differences in the structure of the brain than children who do not have this disorder. However, these structural changes are not seen in everyone who has Sensory Overload.[3]

With regard to sensory processing disorder, studies estimate that 1 in every 6 children have this problem. This is seen especially in children with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, and fetal alcohol syndrome. It may be quite a challenge to diagnose Sensory Overload in children especially when there is no condition that may be associated with Sensory Overload.[3]

Some parents may take it as bad behavior as children tend to run away from situation that can cause panic. They may also avoid such places which they feel will trigger off an event. They may become irritable and restless. All of this tends to occur as the brain in such children is still developing and is not able to process complicated sensory inputs.[3]

What are the Symptoms of Sensory Overload?

The symptoms of Sensory Overload are quite variable and differ from person to person. While some people may become overly sensitive to sounds, others may have a problem with flashing lights. However some of the symptoms that are common to everyone with Sensory Overload include sense of discomfort with strong smells, loud noise, or bright lights. They also have severe anxiety and fear with Sensory Overload. They often are agitated, overwhelmed, and irritable. They lack focus and it is difficult for them to stay on a task consistently.[3]

In cases of children with Sensory Overload, they exhibit significant restlessness, irritability and agitation. They may throw tantrums to avoid places where they have symptoms. They may cry or cover their face and close their eyes in situations that cause Sensory Overload. If they find a sound too loud for them they may place their hands over the ears.[3]

How is Sensory Overload Treated?

Sensory Overload does not have specific treatment. The focus of the physician is to help the patients be better equipped to manage their reactions better in case they are in a situation where they can have Sensory Overload. For some children occupational therapy has been found to be beneficial in curtailing the symptoms of Sensory Overload. In this, the focus of the therapist is to make subtle changes to their environment to minimize the intensity and frequency of the symptoms of Sensory Overload.[3]

For conditions that are often seen concomitantly with Sensory Overload, medications may have to be given. As an example, for people with autism, Abilify is a great medication to use. There are many people who are able to manage the symptoms of Sensory Overload in their homes by following certain strategies. These include[3]

  • Maintaining a diary of the symptoms and what triggers an event and avoiding them whenever possible.[3]
  • Asking help from others to dim the lights, lower down the music, and sit at a place where there is not a lot of noise in a restaurant whenever the feel that they may have Sensory Overload.[3]
  • Identifying places where it will be safe in case symptoms of Sensory Overload worsen.[3]
  • Staying near the exit in case if attending a concert so that it will be easy to go away if required.[3]
  • Talking to friends, family, and well-wishers and garner their support in fighting with Sensory Overload.[3]
  • Getting enough sleep and rest.[3]
  • Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated.[3]

In cases of children parents or caregivers can practice the following:

  • Preventing child from any situations that may trigger an event.[3]
  • Asking the child to inform when they feel any symptom of Sensory Overload.[3]
  • Supporting the child during an episode.[3]
  • Taking help from a therapist or a physician in finding ways to combat the symptoms of Sensory Overload.[3]

To summarize, Sensory Overload is a condition that occurs when the brain is not able to process complicated sensory inputs like bright lights, loud noise, or strong fragrances. This can happen to anyone but is commonly seen in people with autism and PTSD. Sensory Overload causes a person to feel anxious, scared, and overwhelmed. They tend to go away from the place in a panic mode. Once they are away from the source of these sensory inputs their symptoms improve.[1,2,3]

There is no specific treatment for Sensory Overload aside from occupational therapy and plenty of support from family and friends. There are some strategies that have been mentioned above that a person or a parent can employ to cut down and manage the intensity and frequency of Sensory Overload.[1,2,3]


Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 19, 2021

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