Have you ever heard of sensory processing disorder? Sensory overwhelm? Sensory integration disorder? Sensory overload?
Today, I want to discuss what all this stuff is, and give you some go-to tips that I use in my everyday life to avoid sensory overwhelm.
What is Sensory Overwhelm?
First, let's talk about sensory processing disorder briefly. Sensory processing disorder is also called SPD, and in some places is called SID, for sensory integration disorder.
This refers to the idea that you have a set of senses. You are processing information from your eyes, your ears, your nose, your mouth, your skin, at every moment of every day. Some of us process all this information coming in from all our senses very quickly, very smoothly, without any bumps in the road, and can use that information quickly and clearly to inform our understanding of their environment.
Some of us have more trouble doing that than average, and those of us with autism, ADHD, and certain other neurodivergences tend to have more trouble managing, and being able to use our senses in a way that is helpful to us, as opposed to distracting or painful to us.
So sensory processing disorder, or sensory integration disorder, is this idea that, as this information comes in from your senses, you might be getting too much information from some senses and too little information from other senses. Basically your brain is not managing the information that's coming in appropriately or helpfully for you.
This can cause a variety of issues like sensory overwhelm, autistic meltdowns, shut down, and more, depending on how severe the sensory issues are in the individual.
What's It Like to Experience Sensory Overwhelm?
I tend to get very overwhelmed from sensory input, especially auditory input, so if things are too loud, too bright, and I'm getting overtouched, I will absolutely have a meltdown, unless I can leave the room and find a better environment. I do best outside because the sounds that echo within a room can be really horrifying for my ears.
I can get overtouched very easily. I have a post up specifically about sensory overwhelmed while breastfeeding, because I think that's something that comes up a lot for people who breastfeed their babies who are autistic or who have ADHD or have other reasons for sensory overwhelmed.
Breastfeeding is a really good example of a common situation that can cause sensory overload. You're touching your new baby at least every 3 hours for six months just to feed them, and it's very easy to feel overtouched and like you don't have control of your body. Add to that exhaustion, overwhelming stress from work, anything else that's going on, and it can push you over the edge into having more meltdowns and more shutdowns.
I can say that in my head, when I am overwhelmed with sound, touch, or light, I cannot think about anything else. It is to the point of pain and severe discomfort.
I am known to go hide in my room, turn off all the lights, get under my weighted blanket, and just be like, "Mom is on a break!" And my kids, who are both neurodivergent, and who both deal with sensory overwhelm as well, they both will take breaks if they get overwhelmed.
Because we all know that brains work differently! Sometimes just because something isn't loud to you doesn't mean that it's not loud to your sibling or your mother, and we might have to go take a break to get away from the noise.
Who Gets Sensory Overwhelm?
My understanding is that right now, diagnostically, sensory processing disorder is usually or diagnosed with autism. My personal opinion, as not a medical professional and so take this with a grain of salt, is that I have met lots of people who have what looks like sensory overwhelm who do not fit autism criteria and are not autistic.
So, there seem to be at least some people who do experience sensory processing difficulties and sensory overwhelm, but are not on the autism spectrum. Also, plenty of ADHD people seem to experience sensory overwhelm as well. But, even people who are otherwise neurotypical sometimes seem to have experiences that, when described, sound a lot like sensory overload.
I would say that currently, sensory overwhelm is not particularly well understood, especially outside of autism spectrum disorder.
Getting Ahead of Sensory Overload
There are some basic things that you can do to get ahead of sensory overwhelm.
You're not always going to be able to control what your senses are doing at any given time. For example, if I didn't sleep well the night before, despite best efforts, I am going to have a lower tolerance for auditory input, touch, flickering lights, etc. that day, compared to days that I slept better. If I am stressed or distracted, then I am going to have a lower tolerance for sensory input.
Those are issues that you can't always control. What you can do, though, is notice what your triggers are and try to get in front of them.
So, here are a few things that I do to keep myself as regulated as I can, and minimize meltdowns and shutdowns. These are skills that I'm also teaching my kids to be able to notice and do.
When I had my kids, I started becoming overwhelmed really often, much more often than I did before I had my babies. This was before I was diagnosed with autism. I wasn't diagnosed until my first child was almost two and a half.
When I had my first child, I went from being able to seclude if needed, to schedule my own time the way I needed to, to do my work the way I needed to, to basically being able to organize my life in a way that worked best for me without too much struggle, to having this baby! This baby who is nursing every 3 hours, who was loud, who cried, who had their own schedule and their own routine! I could no longer organize myself in the best way for me.
I was always exhausted. I was breastfeeding; I was up all night. All of those things just out of nowhere exacerbated my sensory processing difficulties.
I also had postpartum depression. I had postpartum anxiety. It was a really hard time. The sensory processing, because it was mixed in with the depression-anxiety-new baby stuff, it took me a really long time to recognize it for what it was and to realize that it was a separate issue from all the other issues that were going on.
Tips for Handling Sensory Overload
So if you have recently been diagnosed with autism or ADHD, even if you're not, if any of this sounds familiar to you, look into sensory processing disorder. It might apply to you! Even neurotypical people have periods in their lives when they have lower resources, and sensory processing becomes difficult for them. That's my experience, as Not a Medical Professional.
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Tip 1: Consider A Schedule or Daily Routine
But there are a couple of things that you can do kind of regardless of what your brain type is to get in front of sensory processing disorder and give yourself some more tools to stave it off, if you can. The first thing is, if possible, keep yourself on a schedule or a routine.
The reason I say this is because, if you know what you're going to be doing ahead of time, you can plan for whatever sensory input you're likely to get. So, if you know ahead of time that you're going into a loud environment, you can bring your ear defenders with you. If you know ahead of time that the place you're going to has the worst lighting in the world, then you can bring sunglasses.
If you can plan out your day and make it somewhat routine, or regular, then you can build ways of minimizing sensory overwhelm into your routine . Other important things about being a schedule are things like:
- Are you sleeping enough?
- Are you eating enough?
- Are you drinking enough water?
All of those types of bodily maintenance can really help you process better. If your brain is working better because you're not starving and you slept, you are going to be able to process stimuli better.
Keeping on a routine or schedule to the best of your ability (and I understand this is not possible for everybody, but doing the best you can) will give you a best-foot-forward situation, where you are going into any kind of potential sensory environment with as much energy as much facility as you can.
If you have kids, I know that it's not always possible to keep kids on a strict schedule. And, I don't know that all kids benefit from a strict schedule in the same way. However, I will say that if you're keeping bedtimes on schedule, if you're keeping eating times on schedule, if you are watching to make sure that the kids are getting enough energy, getting enough sleep, getting enough playtime, then you are setting them up for success in terms of managing their own sensory input and reducing the likelihood of their overwhelm or shut down. That helps you out to as a parent!
So there's my first suggestion for managing sensory overwhelm: Schedule yourself! Give yourself a routine so that you can know what you're going into, and have tools set aside for yourself to manage those situations.
Tip 2: Give Yourself A Break
The second thing I want to say is: You are allowed to take a break from your responsibilities.
Now, generally, we all have tasks we need to do everyday to keep our lives moving forward - especially if you're a parent, and you're responsible for more than one person's life. You know you need to eat, you need to sleep, you need to do the dishes (so you have clean dishes from which to eat), you need to do grocery shopping, need to go to the bank, whatever it is.
On a really bad week, I will not do my dishes. Is it kind of gross? Yeah! Does it preserve my energy for the important things so I'm not constantly dealing with auditory overwhelm and crying in my room? Yes, it does!
I will trade a gross sink that I have to deal with later - temporarily - for more energy.
Now, if this is happening all the time, like if you are constantly dealing with dirty dishes because you can't manage to do the dishes and also not cry all the time, that implies that your life is overwhelming, that there is too much going on, too much for you to do, and that is something that requires further thought. For example, are there other things you could minimize routinely, so that you're not constantly dealing with the same problems?
But if you're a pseudo-perfectionist and you want to keep things together all the time and you are working yourself to the bone trying to stay on top of stuff and also you're dealing with sensory overwhelm, it might be worth it to consider:
- ordering pizza instead of cooking dinner
- not doing the dishes for a little while
- letting the laundry not be folded for a couple days
...or whatever you need to be doing to redirect your energy away from lower priority tasks, temporarily, to do what you need to do and keep yourself healthy, to keep yourself not in constant overwhelm.
There are seasons in our lives where we are just overwhelmed people - that is just part of life, unfortunately. But that doesn't mean that you can't look at what's happening and analyze it. Try to figure out if there are things you could be reducing so that you are not struggling so much all the time.
If you are a nursing parent, for example, order some pizza! You're already working really hard! You don't necessarily need to also be cooking a five-star meal. If you are working overtime at work, then let the laundry go. It does not matter. If your mother-in-law is making you want to rip your hair out because you have a disagreement, don't do the dishes. Put your energy where it needs to be right now and worry about the dishes later.
Certain folks really need to hear this! I know some of you are laughing at me, but certain folks are just trying to do too much, and it is not a weakness to drop some of that work for a little while and focus on what you need to be doing to keep yourself well.
Tip 3: Hibernate Occasionally
Now my third suggestion would be that you are also allowed to take a break from people! The autistics might be laughing at me because we're really good at this. I promise parents, you're allowed to take breaks from your kids. People, you're allowed to take breaks for your friends and your spouses. All people become overwhelmed sometimes, but those of us who have sensory processing difficulties are at an even bigger disadvantage.
Some people get a lot of their energy from socializing, and if you're one of those people, I don't have a great grasp of your sensory processing overwhelm because I am a huge introvert. So if you're an extrovert and you do a sensory processing overwhelm you should email me, so we can discuss what extroverts should do if they are dealing with sensory processing issues.
As an introvert, even though I love my friends, I love my partner, I love my kids, my partner will be the first one to tell you that I need to go hide from my very, very, very chatty 5 and 7 year olds very often! Because, if I have to hear one more thing about reptiles and how they lay eggs, I will tear my hair out. I just cannot. I cannot hear it one more time.
I'm so proud of my kids: they are so clever, and they are such good people. But, the chattiness can waste my energy. I could be hearing anything else and processing anything else, but instead I'm processing what is essentially gibberish, because I'm being told the same thing over and over again all day, because my kids are really excited about whatever factoid they've latched onto that week.
But that means that all of my sensory energy that's available is being used processing what is essentially junk input.
That means I don't have anything left over sometimes for actually needed input, because I've used all my energy on junk. So, there's something to be said for saying, "Hey, I'm already overwhelmed. I don't think I should do this coffee date with my girlfriend. I don't think I should talk on the phone with my father. Maybe I shouldn't go on a date with my boyfriend tonight."
It is not being selfish to make time for yourself, to prioritize your own mental well-being, to say, "I just need it to be quiet for 10 minutes so I can give my brain something else to do besides think about snake eggs!"
...Real examples from real life - that's what you get here, on Neurodiverging!
If you need to take a break from your kids, if you need to take a break from your partner, if you need to take a break from your best friend, if they are your people, they will get it. Set up a way to signal to them that you need breaks.
If my five-year-old can understand that mama needs a break and it doesn't mean that my kid has done anything wrong but that I am allowed to take breaks, if she can understand that and she can be happy to give me a break, your kids can do it too.
It might take some conversation between you to figure it out and to set the boundaries and to be kind with your boundaries, but it can absolutely happen! And it should definitely be able to happen with any adults in your life.
To Sum Up:
- You are best on a schedule or routine.
- You are allowed to take breaks from your responsibilities.
- You are allowed to take breaks from social obligations.
I hope these tips are useful as you learn to work with sensory overwhelm!
What tips or tricks do you have for others dealing with this issue? Leave a comment below and let us know!
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