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Do you ever experience a sense of anxiety, overwhelm, or panic around too many choices, bright lights, or loud noises in the grocery store after a long day at work? Sensory overwhelm occurs when a person feels bombarded by an excessive amount of sensory information and it creates a sense of overwhelm for their nervous system. This can occur due to a variety of reasons, such as loud noises, bright lights, crowded spaces, or even too much interaction with other humans in one day.
While sensory overwhelm can happen to anyone, it is often experienced more intensely by those who are hypersensitive to sensory experiences and their external environments. Hypersensitivity can be connected to intense emotional experiences, as both are linked to the way our brains process and respond to sensory input.
How does sensory overwhelm affect people with intense emotions?
Hypersensitivity to sensory experiences can be thought of as a heightened awareness of sensory information. This can include being more sensitive to sounds, textures, smells, tastes, and visual stimuli.
For some individuals, this sensitivity can be an overwhelming vulnerability factor to intense emotional reactions, leading to feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and even physical pain. Hypersensitivity can be caused by a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, developmental disorders such as autism, and past traumatic experiences.
There is a connection between hypersensitivity and intense emotional experiences. When we experience intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, or anger, our brains go into a heightened state of arousal and often hyper-vigilance for people who struggle with the effects of past trauma.
Trauma and sensory overwhelm
People who have experienced traumatic events in life often experience hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance, which can cause our senses to become more alert and sensitive, making us more likely to notice and react to sensory information. For example, if you are feeling anxious, you may be more likely to notice the sound of a dog barking or the smell of someone’s perfume. This heightened sensitivity can make it difficult to focus on anything else, leading to sensory overwhelm.
In some cases, hypersensitivity to sensory experiences can also be a result of trauma. When we experience a traumatic event, our brains can become hypersensitive to certain sensory cues associated with the trauma.
For example, someone who has been in a car accident may become hypersensitive to the sound of car horns or the smell of gasoline. This hypersensitivity can make it difficult for them to function in everyday life, as they may constantly be triggered by sensory cues that remind them of the trauma.
Helpful tools for sensory overwhelm
It is important to note that hypersensitivity to sensory experiences is not a weakness or a choice. It is a natural response that some individuals have to their environment. While it can be challenging to manage, there are strategies that can be helpful in coping with sensory overwhelm.
These include avoiding sensory triggers when possible, taking breaks in quiet or calm environments, using sensory tools such as earplugs or weighted blankets, and seeking support from a therapist or support group. The following tools can be incredibly helpful in coping with sensory overwhelm and helping your nervous system to relax when overstimulated.
- Loop Earplugs
Using Loop earplugs to help reduce overstimulating noise in your surroundings can help to reduce overwhelm throughout your day. Imagine the difference of grocery shopping with the beeps, voices, and noises of your environment at a 30% volume, instead of 100% after a long day of work. By reducing your level of sound input you can prevent feelings of sensory overwhelm or overstimulation and reduce vulnerability to intense emotional reactions.
- Weighted Blankets
Mosaic Weighted Blankets are a helpful tool in managing sensory overstimulation for many people who struggle with sensory overwhelm. The gentle pressure provided by a weighted blanket can have a calming effect on the nervous system, helping to regulate sensory input and reduce the feeling of overwhelm. The weight of the blanket can provide a sense of security and comfort, similar to a hug or a gentle touch, which can help individuals feel grounded and more relaxed.
The pressure from the weighted blanket may also stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are associated with relaxation and mood regulation. This can help individuals feel more calm and focused, reducing the impact of sensory overload. Overall, weighted blankets can be a beneficial tool in managing sensory overstimulation and promoting a sense of calm and well-being.
- Sensory objects and Fidget Toys
Fidget and sensory toys can be valuable tools in managing sensory overwhelm and helping to create a sense of safety by grounding in the present moment. These types of toys provide a tactile outlet for sensory input, allowing individuals to engage their senses in a controlled and calming manner. The repetitive motions or sensory sensations of fidget and sensory toys can help redirect excess sensory input, providing a focal point and helping to regulate the nervous system.
These toys can also serve as a form of self-soothing, providing comfort and reducing anxiety associated with sensory overload. Additionally, fidget and sensory toys can promote grounding by helping individuals stay present in the moment, as the sensory input from the toys can help shift attention away from overwhelming stimuli and towards a more controlled and manageable sensory experience. My favorite fidget toys for grounding and sensory overwhelm are the fidget cube, fidget rings, and sensory toy packs, which can all be found below!
- Calming Sensory and Self-Soothe Activities
Self-soothe skills can be helpful in creating a sense of comfort and allowing someone who is experiencing sensory overwhelm to ground in one comforting sensory experience. If you focus on deep breathing and use of TIPP skills to bring down the intensity of sensory and emotional overwhelm, it can then feel comforting to focus on the comforting sense of a favorite candle (earth gifts), your favorite beverage, or the sound of the rain outside.
- Environmental Modifications
Modifying the environment to reduce sensory triggers, such as using dimmer lights, removing clutter, or creating designated quiet spaces, can help create a more sensory-friendly environment.
In conclusion, sensory overwhelm and hypersensitivity to sensory experiences can be challenging to manage, especially for those who are also experiencing intense emotional experiences. While the connection between the two is complex, it is important to recognize that hypersensitivity is a natural response and to support yourself through the above tools and seek support from a professional when needed. By understanding and validating our own sensory needs and taking steps to manage them, we can improve our quality of life and feel more in control of our experiences to heal both in the present and from past trauma.