Sensory Overload

Janet Coburn
3 min readFeb 18, 2024

I know that sensory overload can be a problem for people on the autism spectrum. Too much noise, uncomfortable touch, and assaults on the other senses can affect them negatively.

I discovered this firsthand when my best friend, Robbin, and her ten-year-old daughter, Kelly, visited my house. My husband collects clocks, and the sound of all the ticking bothered the young lady. Then the clocks started to chime. They were not synchronized, and they sounded off one after the other, sometimes overlapping. It was noon. Kelly was visibly distressed by the sound, and they left soon after.

I’ve had some indication that, though I’m not on the spectrum, I’m sensitive to noise as well. When Kelly was six, I brought Robbin a fluffy black-and-white kitten that she had admired. The squealing noises the little girl made cut right through me. I looked over at Robbin, who just shrugged.

It turned out that I’m particularly sensitive to the high-pitched sounds of children laughing and shouting. I learned to avoid Chuck-E-Cheese and Cici’s pizza — basically, any place with a ball pit. High-pitched women’s voices like Judy Holliday’s in Born Innocent bother me. It’s one of my husband’s favorite movies, but I can’t stand to watch it with him. Loud voices are a problem, too. If I’m in a room where people are shouting at each other, I make an excuse to leave until they settle down.

Much more typical is my aversion to two or more sounds. TV and talking, for example. If my husband talks to me while the TV is on, I can’t make out either one, which is particularly difficult when what he’s saying is, “What did that guy say?” And if I’m doing something on the computer, I’m completely lost. I’d be lost at a cocktail party, too, so it’s lucky we’re never invited to them.

WebMD has this to say about sensory overload: “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.” They also say, in addition to autism, that PTSD, ADHD, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Tourette Syndrome are mental conditions associated with sensory overload. They recommend anti-anxiety or antidepressant meds, self-care, therapy, mindfulness, and meditation as ways to address the problem. Avoiding triggers is another recommendation, and that’s the one I use (see not going to Chuck-E-Cheese, above). That’s the one that seems to have the most beneficial effects.

PsychCentral lists the stimuli that can lead to sensory overload:

  • bright lights, chaotic movement, or a cluttered environment
  • rough, tight, or itchy clothes
  • loud noises, voices, or music
  • scents including chemicals and perfumes
  • foods with strong flavors
  • hot or cold temperatures

And they list the possible effects:

  • overwhelm that makes you want to either shut down or have a meltdown
  • irritation or rage
  • tension in your face, neck, shoulders, or back
  • having either too many thoughts in your mind, or none at all
  • exhaustion
  • dissociation, or being separated from yourself and your surroundings

They add: “It’s possible for sensory overload to cause a panic attack. This could be because much overlap exists between parts of the brain involved with the panic response and those responsible for sensory processing.”

Not being a neuroscientist of any stripe, I can’t speak to the truth of that, but it also seems to me that a panic attack can lead to sensory overload. My other notable experience with sensory overload was having an anxiety attack in the grocery store, where I was overwhelmed by the visual noise of the bright colors on the cereal boxes. As I recall, I took an anti-anxiety pill, went home, and lay down. I don’t remember if I bought the cereal or not.

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Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.