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Too Loud, Bright, Crowded, Confusing? Dealing with Sensory Overload

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Dr. Bruce Campbell directs the educational CFIDS and Fibromyalgia Self-Help website (www.cfidsselfhelp.com), and online self-help group discussion courses focused on practical ways to deal with the daily challenges of chronic illness – such as the following.


Sensory Overload: Sources and Strategies

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 chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

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.

[Earplugs] 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.”

Setting Limits

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.


See also:

•  “Coping with Phone Issues When Illness Limits Energy”

•  “How I lessen Stress,” by Elena Rosen, a “once highly social person.”

Note: This article is reproduced with kind permission from www.cfidsselfhelp.org – which offers a large resource library on all aspects of coping with ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, and associated health issues.

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One thought on “Too Loud, Bright, Crowded, Confusing? Dealing with Sensory Overload”

  1. donnamarieanne says:

    Most of us who have chronic Lyme Disease already know that Sensory Overload is just another burden to bear from having Lyme. However, the general population may not be aware of that fact. I have enthusiastically planned to visit a new store, travel on vacation and stay at a hotel, etc. only to find myself surrounded by a variety of overwhelming smells, clattering sounds, too much activity, differing volumes and tones of other’s voices, lighting, etc. only to find myself break down. This is a physical reaction. Let me repeat this. This is a neurological response by the Lyme damaged brain in response to being exposed to too many stimulus at one time.

    Now, I have had everyday people misunderstand and believe it is anxiety or a panic attack and that would be easy to understand their confusion since many are not familiar with the central nervous system. However, it is unnerving when a vast majority of doctors, consistently mistake this condition to be attributed to anxiety, panic disorders or hypochondria. In fact, it is deplorable, especially when you are on the receiving end of what is likened to what is like an inquisition, especially if you are taking any anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds.

    There are many neuro-psychiatric components to Lyme Disease that are almost too difficult to live with in addition to neurological problems like Sensory Overload.

    I used to be someone who did everything at lightening speed, understood how computer systems worked inside out; understood how to operate all components of computer usage, for e.g. Word, Excel, etc. I worked from memory and knew every aspect before I could blink my eyes. Now I’m at the point that I’m blessed if I can even research anything over the Internet and spell words correctly.

    You would never be able to tell by my outward appearance that I’m so ill. I look like the picture of health. The Sensory Overload and memory problems are just the tip of the iceberg. I won’t even list the approximately 50-60 other symptoms/illnesses that have deprived me of my once good health. Lyme Disease can be a slow killer and antibiotics don’t always work if you haven’t been diagnosed for over a decade.

    I tell you this story, not to feel sorry for me, for I face each day with joy and am grateful for what I do have and not for what I don’t have. I still have so much. God has blessed me abundantly! This is merely for information to be passed on and for those who don’t understand so that they may have empathy for others who have this dreadful disease.

    Thank you for listening and please excuse any spelling errors.

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