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What Is Sensory Overload With Anxiety?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 18, 2021

Sensory overload and anxiety are mental health conditions that are deeply related to one another. When a person feels anxious or already overwhelmed, they may be more prone to experiencing sensory overload in certain situations. Likewise, experiencing sensory overload can make you feel a sense of anxiety. 

There are many causes of sensory overload and some underlying conditions that can make you more sensitive to sensory overload. However, there are many ways to manage this kind of sensitivity and prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed.

What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is when your five senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste — take in more information than your brain can process. When your brain is overwhelmed by this input, it enters fight, flight, or freeze mode in response to what feels like a crisis, making you feel unsafe or even panicky.

Sensory overload can be triggered by a wide variety of situations, sounds, or sights. Each person may be overwhelmed by something different. Some examples of situations that can trigger sensory overload include: 

  • Loud noises or music
  • Crowded spaces
  • Emotionally intense people or groups
  • Drastic environmental changes (temperature, light, etc.)
  • Unexpected or unwanted physical contact (hugs, etc.)
  • Heavy traffic
  • Tactile triggers (scratchy or uncomfortable clothing, etc.)
  • Intense smells

What Are Symptoms of Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is not the same as a simple sense of annoyance at some kind of input. Rather, it's a sense of overwhelm or overstimulation that does not feel manageable in the moment. People with this condition typically experience different triggers and symptoms. Some signs of a sensory overload reaction can include:

  • Anxiety and an inability to relax
  • Irritability
  • Tantrums (in children)
  • Restlessness and physical discomfort
  • Urge to cover your ears and eyes to block out the source of input
  • Stress, fear, or panic
  • High levels of excitement or feeling "wound up"
  • Desire to escape the situation triggering the sensory overload

Children often respond to sensory overload with a tantrum or meltdown — a response that caregivers sometimes mistake for misbehavior. Recognizing the source of a child's overwhelm can help differentiate between stress induced by a sensory overload with anxiety experience and a behavior problem.

What Conditions Are Associated With Sensory Overload?

There are a handful of other conditions that are often associated with experiencing sensory overload. Here are a few of them:

Autism. Neurodivergent individuals are susceptible to experiencing sensory overload. People with autism or who are on the spectrum of autism disorders tend to feel overwhelmed by situations that have a great deal of sensory input. While the exact cause of this is unknown, some research suggests that helping children with autism slowly gain exposure to potentially triggering situations and stimuli can help them learn to avoid experiencing sensory overload to an intense degree.

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Studies have shown that nearly two-thirds of children with ADHD also have another condition, with the two most common associated disorders being oppositional defiance disorder and anxiety. People with ADHD typically experience difficulty focusing and may feel particularly challenged when they have to detect and interpret sensory input. This can easily trigger both sensory overload and anxiety.

PTSD and Generalized Anxiety. People who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or both can be vulnerable to experiencing sensory overload in intense situations. Sometimes, it's triggered by something specific. For example, a combat veteran may be easily overwhelmed by the sounds and flashing lights of a fireworks show. Alternatively, someone who suffers from severe social anxiety may find a crowded stadium has too many sensory inputs to process and may become more anxious and overwhelmed.  

Other conditions. Doctors have noted that people with certain conditions can be more vulnerable to sensory overload with anxiety, but the links are less clear and are still under research. Some of these include:

Some people can experience sensory overload and accompanying anxiety even if they don't have one of these other conditions. Ultimately, it's possible for anyone to feel overstimulated and have an intense response, especially to an unexpected or overwhelming situation. 

How Can Sensory Overload With Anxiety Be Managed?

There are a variety of ways that you can prevent sensory overload or manage the anxiety that it can trigger. While experiencing sensory overload with anxiety can be disruptive, there are ways you can manage it and live a healthy, full life.  

Speak to your doctor. Your doctor can help you navigate mental health resources by suggesting specific therapy sessions, for example, that address the issue. Additionally, your doctor can also discuss medications that could be helpful. Depending on your age, particular triggers, and any associated conditions that you may have, your doctor may recommend some kind of anti-anxiety medication or antidepressant

Self Care. Keeping yourself well-rested, well-fed, and hydrated are easy ways to empower yourself should you encounter an unexpectedly difficult or overwhelming situation. You can also explore techniques like meditation, mindfulness, and breathing to help yourself de-escalate if you find your sense of anxiety on the rise. 

Therapy. Many people — both children and adults — find that therapy can be very helpful in navigating anxiety and developing tactics for managing difficult situations.

Avoid triggers. Once you're aware of the particular sensations, situations, or stimuli that make you feel overwhelmed, you can make efforts to stay clear of them. Being upfront with your friends and family can allow them to help you avoid these triggers, too. For example, instead of enjoying a birthday celebration in a busy restaurant, opt for someone's quiet backyard. Instead of visiting a crowded, loud theater, host a video viewing party at home. 

Outlook for Sensory Overload With Anxiety

With the support of medical and mental health professionals, as well as the development of self-care techniques, it's entirely possible for someone with sensory overload to live a full, healthy life. Additionally, identifying and managing any other accompanying conditions can help minimize stress reactions to sensory overload responses. Even if some situations are extremely triggering, many people can avoid them or mindfully navigate them with the help of medication and support from loved ones. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Anxiety & Depression Association of America: "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)."

Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: "Multisensory Hypersensitivity in Women With Fibromyalgia: Implications for Well Being and Intervention."

Greater Good Magazine: "How to Deal with Sensory Overload as a Sensitive Person."

MSFocus Magazine: "MS and Sensory Overload."

Psychiatry Investigation: "Sensory Processing Problems in Children with ADHD, a Systematic Review."

Spectrum: "Sensory overload in autism may stem from hypervigilant brain."

Tourette Association of America: "Processing Disorder/Sensory Issues."

Understood: "Sensory Processing Issues and Anxiety: What You Need to Know."

University of California San Francisco: "The Unbearable Sensation of Being."

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