Sensory Overload Anxiety: Understanding the Causes and Symptoms to Manage Overwhelming Sensations

Introduction

Sensory overload anxiety, also known as sensory processing disorder (SPD) or sensory integration dysfunction, is a condition that affects how the brain processes information received through the five senses – touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. People with SPD have difficulty regulating or filtering out sensory stimuli, which can lead to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, stress, and even physical pain. It is a relatively common condition that affects children and adults alike and can negatively impact daily life, including school, work, and social relationships.

Causes of Sensory Overload Anxiety

The exact causes of sensory overload anxiety are not yet fully understood, but there are several factors that may contribute to the condition:

Genetics

Research suggests that SPD can run in families, indicating a genetic component. Studies have found that children who have a close family member with SPD are more likely to develop it themselves.

Brain Differences

Some studies have found that people with SPD have structural and functional differences in specific areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which plays a role in emotional regulation, and the thalamus, which helps filter out irrelevant sensory input.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors, such as exposure to noise, pollution, or high levels of stress, may also contribute to SPD. Children who experience chronic stress or trauma may be more likely to develop sensory processing issues.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload Anxiety

The symptoms of sensory overload anxiety can vary depending on the individual and the specific sensory input involved, but some common symptoms include:

Difficulty Filtering Sensory Input

People with SPD may have difficulty blocking out or filtering irrelevant sensory input, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed or distracted. For example, a person may have trouble focusing on a conversation in a noisy environment or may become distressed by the texture of certain foods.

Hypersensitivity to Sensory Input

Some individuals with SPD may be hypersensitive to certain sensory input, which can cause discomfort or pain. For example, a person may feel overwhelmed or distressed by certain smells, sounds, or textures that others don’t find bothersome at all.

Hypo-Sensitivity to Sensory Input

In contrast, some individuals with SPD may be hypo-sensitive to certain sensory input, which means they have a reduced sensitivity to it. This can lead to seeking out intense sensory experiences, such as loud music or spicy foods.

Anxiety and Distress

Sensory overload anxiety can cause significant anxiety and distress, leading to changes in mood and behavior. For example, a person may become agitated, irritable, or withdrawn in response to sensory input. This can impact daily life, including work, school, and relationships.

Managing Sensory Overload Anxiety

There are several strategies that individuals with SPD can use to manage overwhelming sensory input and reduce anxiety:

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy is a type of occupational therapy that helps individuals with SPD learn to process sensory input more efficiently. Therapy may include exercises that involve movement, touch, and other sensory input to help the individual better understand and regulate their response to different stimuli.

Environment Modifications

Modifying the environment can also help reduce the impact of sensory input on individuals with SPD. For example, using noise-cancelling headphones in a noisy environment or reducing lighting can help create a more comfortable and calming environment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help individuals with SPD learn how to manage their emotional response to sensory input and change negative thought patterns. This may involve relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to help reduce anxiety.

Dietary Changes

Some research suggests that dietary changes, such as reducing sugar intake or avoiding certain food additives, may help reduce sensory overload anxiety in some individuals.

Conclusion

Sensory overload anxiety is a condition that affects how the brain processes sensory input, leading to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, stress, and physical pain. Although the exact causes of SPD are not yet fully understood, there are several strategies that individuals with SPD can use to manage their symptoms, including sensory integration therapy, environment modifications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and dietary changes. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of SPD, it is recommended to speak with a healthcare professional for evaluation and further treatment.

FAQs

FAQs About Sensory Overload Anxiety

What is sensory overload anxiety?

Sensory overload anxiety is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the various sensory input around us. This can affect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Common triggers include loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, crowded spaces, and certain textures.

How can sensory overload anxiety affect daily life?

Sensory overload anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate, process information, and communicate effectively. It may also lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue. Over time, living with sensory overload anxiety can affect one’s mental health, leading to depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

What are some coping strategies for sensory overload anxiety?

There are many ways to cope with sensory overload anxiety, including creating a calming environment at home or work, taking breaks when feeling overwhelmed, practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness, and seeking professional help such as therapy or medication. It is important to find strategies that work for you and to seek support from loved ones.


References

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2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

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