Have you heard of the term “sensory overload“?
As an introvert by nature, struggling with anxiety, living in a city, with a relatively demanding job, this happens to me a lot.
Personally I know this is coming when:
- The small noises that don’t bother others start to irritate me. Like music in the coffee shop, chatters of the next table, neighbor’s TV, or even the sound of thunderstorm/fireplace/beach that serves as background for guided meditation.
- All the shiny objects that are meant for joy/pleasure are flying right at me; and it feels like they are attacking me.
- I have the urge to shout at everybody to shut up/stop messaging me. And the urge to go hide in a small, dark place with absolutely no stimulation.
- My breaths turn shallow, my heart rate goes up, I can feel my chest going up and down– I found it hard to keep my breaths even.
- I turn completely to stone, and have the urge to withdraw from whatever activity/environment I was in.
To be honest, others say it way better. Here’s a good article on how people describe their experiences with this.
Why does it happen?
I wish I had a better answer. Personally it happens when
- I am sleep deprived/physically weak. This describes the state I am currently in.
- When there is simply just too much going on, on my phone, around me, or in life/work in general. I cannot stand the red badge on my messaging apps. If 3, 4 people are messaging me at the same time, with conversations that are more involved and need braincells, and my phone keeps buzzing from emails, that’s basically pushing it.
- When I’m at a dazzling, new place. I remember having the urge to run outside when I first set foot in Galeries Lafayette in Paris: the colorful balloons in the shape of ice cream cones, shiny gift boxes, croissants, champagne flutes, and macarons were flying all over the ceiling, moving up and down the multi-colored floating Christmas tree made of balloons. Underneath that was hundreds, if not thousands of shoppers, with at least 10 simultaneous conversations taking place in English, French, Chinese, and whatever other languages within my hearing distance at any given time. All I wanted to do was to get the hell out of there just so I could breathe.
- When I feel anxious about my ever growing todo list. This alone will not trigger the all-consuming feeling of sensory overload. But it does serve as a great catalyst, and make my threshold for environmental stimulation a LOT lower.
What do I do about it?
Whelp. This is where I throw my hands in the air and say “ugh fuck. I am overwhelmed again.”
For real– the above is actually one of my coping methods. tbh I don’t think there is anything I could do to “control” it. But I can anticipate it, catch it early, and regulate it before it goes out of control.
I get anxious/overwhelmed a lot. And sometimes when that happens I just go hide in the closet in the dark, practice paced breathing and willing hands, until my heart rate returns to normal. It is effective.
But if it happens in the middle of a workday or when I’m in public, and do not have a small, dark room to hide in, things get trickier.
Focus on the present:
Over the past year and half I’ve trained myself to shift my focus from my emotion of “anxiety/overwhelmed” to how I’m experiencing it physically: how my chest feels, or how my nostrils feel with each breath.
I also try to find something to touch, and focus my attention on the physical sensation of touching the object: is it cold? warm? hard? soft? What material is it? Along the same lines, I try to remind myself, I am in the physical location of x, y, or z. Nothing is going to attack me. No one will eat me. I am safe.
This is a DBT skill. It just means to accept whatever is happening right now unconditionally. When I am experiencing sensory overload, I am overwhelmed. And I will feel nervous/agitated. It is part of how my body deals with stress.
By the end of the day there isn’t *one* thing to do about it. I myself practice a lot of DBT skills and it has been very helpful towards understanding what goes on in my head.
We are just all wired differently. What triggers me to feel completely overwhelmed might be the right amount of stimulation for another person. Sometimes I can’t change my environment. But I can now mentally prepare for it, and not let this trigger a huge fight or flight urge that ultimately takes over my actions and leads to self sabotaging behaviors.