Do you experience confusion, fatigue or pain that you can’t explain? One possible cause is sensory overload: receiving more sensory information than your body can process.
There are many causes of overload, including sensory information coming from several sources at the same time (e.g. TV on when having a conversation), noisy environments, fluorescent lighting, socializing in large groups, being touched or the feel of clothes on the skin, weather changes, strong aromas and sometimes specific people.
Sensory overload is a significant part of many people’s experience of CFS and FM. When we ask our groups to tell us what things make their symptoms worse, sense overload usually ranks in the top four, sometimes as high as number two. (Being overactive is the perennial number one; other common answers include poor sleep and stress.)
Any sense can be a source of overload. Ears: loud noise or sound from multiple sources, such as several people talking at once. Eyes: bright lights or environments with lots of movement such as crowds or frequent scene changes on TV. Smell and taste: strong aromas or spicy foods. Touch: tactile sensations such as being touched by another person or the feel of cloth on skin.
Treatment: Taking a Time Out
People in our groups reported using two strategies in response to sensory overload. One is to remove themselves temporarily from the situation that triggered the overload. For example, when at a noisy social event, they might go outside, take extra time in the bathroom or retreat to a bedroom to lie down for a while.
One person who takes such breaks at family gatherings says that by using them “I’m able to recover in less time and I don’t experience the achiness and fatigue that used to follow family gatherings.” Another person says that she has trained her family to recognize if noise generated by visiting grandkids gets too great that “grandma is apt to suddenly disappear and go into her room to lie down.”
If taking a short break is not enough, the second strategy is extended rest. This means spending time lying down, often in a dark and quiet environment, until the sensitivity ends and symptoms return to a normal level. One person says that if sensory overload triggers brain fog, she lies down and does a meditation. She reports that usually such a break “is enough to clear my head and I’m ready to go again.”
In addition to treating sensory overload once it appears, people in our groups also report using two forms of prevention: avoidance and setting limits.
The most common form of avoidance is the creation of a quiet and orderly home environment. This usually involves keeping the amount of noise in the home to a minimum, for example by avoiding use of the TV and/or radio as constant background noise.
One person says, “I keep the TV off and I only play music when I am giving my full attention to it.” Others report keeping light at low levels, sometimes through the use of dimmer switches. Another way to control sensory overload in the home is through order or reducing the sense of clutter.
Quite a few people report using earplugs and sunglasses to avoid sensory overload. The former may be employed to aid sleep and to cut noise while in groups. One person says, “I carry earplugs in my purse and regularly use them at the movies and sometimes in church when the music gets loud.”
Another way to control overload from sound is through the use of headphones, usually by a spouse. One person reports, “my husband was given a pair of remote headphones that he can connect to any device around the house. Not only has this given him the pleasure of the sports etc wherever he wanders but allows me to share the sitting room when the TV is on!” Some people use noise cancelling headphones to reduce the amount of noise they hear.
Staying with one’s limits is another way to avoid sensory overload. Many people reported being less vulnerable when they were inside their energy envelopes, which includes getting adequate rest. One says, “I have found that often I can handle more when I am less fatigued.” Another reports that she does better “if I am well-rested, so I think that is a significant way to limit the effects of things that would typically cause sensory overload to me.”
In contrast, another person says, “When I have pushed myself to do more than I should or if a lot of activity has been around me, it all intensifies.”
Another form of prevention is to rest up ahead of big events, like the person who says, “when the family gets together, I rest for several days beforehand.” Others report that they minimize the effects of too much sensory information by responding quickly when they observe overload: “When I am tired or really pushing things my sensory overload is worse. The best thing that I can do is to drop what I am doing and totally rest.”
A final prevention strategy is to do one thing at a time. “I try to only do one thing at a time with very clear lists of what I will achieve next e.g. Put on a load of washing, pay the phone bill, have lunch. I try to complete the first task and then go and look at my list for the next task so I am not trying to hold all the tasks in my head at once.”
In addition to avoidance, another form of prevention is setting limits. Some people set limits on the amount of time spent at various activities, such as the length of sessions on the computer, the length of phone calls or amount of time spent watching TV. Other people report putting limits on socializing, for example getting together with others only in small groups or for limited periods of time.
A third type of limit is to select settings carefully to avoid crowds and noise. This may mean going to restaurants or movie theaters during slack times or sitting on the perimeter in public places such as theaters. Finally, it may involve putting limits on interactions with specific people, either avoiding entirely people who are negative or animated, or limiting the length of time spent with such people.
About the Author: Dr. Bruce Campbell directs the educational CFIDS and Fibromyalgia Self-Help website (www.cfidsselfhelp.org), and online self-help group discussion courses focused on practical ways to deal with the daily challenges of chronic illness.