How Sensory Overload Can Sneak Up On You

Everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time. The underlying cause is usually some form of sensory overload. Described simply, this means your brain is getting too much input from any or all of your five senses at once. The sensory information competes for attention and it turns into mental confusion for your brain.

This is normal for most people. For some people, it’s part of a more chronic issue. It could be a sign of Sensory Processing Disorder. It might be related to another condition, e.g. autism, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), etc. Regardless of the source, sensory overload has a tendency to sneak up on you.

Common Symptoms of Sensory Overload

In teens and adults:

  • An agitated version of feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability and/or restlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Sleep disturbances
  • A unique blend of stress, fear, and anxiety
  • Discomfort with certain textures (including articles of clothing)
  • Unable to not notice sensory input like strong scents or loud noises

In children:

  • Trying to shut everything out, e.g. covering their eyes, ears, or nose
  • Doing anything to leave even if it means running away
  • Complaining which leads to whining and then to crying
  • Gagging or feeling nauseous in response to particular smells, textures, or tastes
  • Fixation on fabrics and textures
  • Having a complete meltdown

How Sensory Overload Can Sneak Up On You


There are obvious sources, of course. These may involve barring music, loud talking, barking dogs, or something extreme like fireworks. The sneaky triggers include:

  • Someone tapping their finger or a pen on the table or desk
  • Whistling or humming
  • Eating or drinking-related: slurping, chewing, crunching, and swallowing

Choices like white noise machines, earplugs, and noise-canceling headphones can be helpful.


Almost anyone can feel stressed in the presence of bright or flashing lights. For some folks, this list may also include any type of screen (TV, phone, computer, etc.) being used for any purpose (video games, Zoom meetings, etc.).

The more you familiarize yourself with your triggers, the easier it is to avoid or ease them. Yu may start by regulating screen time. In addition, sunglasses can be helpful when you know you’ll be in the presence of bright or flashing lights.


Not everyone likes hugs. Some people do but only when they initiate. Therefore, boundaries must be set and respected. Unexpected triggers to bear in mind:

  • Tight clothing
  • Itchy clothing or fabrics
  • Tags on clothing
  • Brushing one’s hair
  • Brushing one’s teeth

As sensory awareness grows so does the availability of clothing and other products to accommodate the sensitive people among us.


We each have taste preferences. What’s too spicy for one person is ideal for the other. The same can be said about salty, sweet, and so on. Sensory overload can sneak up on you if you don’t realize that other forms of taste/food issues exist, e.g. hot vs. cold, crunchy vs. smooth, etc.

You may reach the point of gagging from taste-related sensitivity. This is where it becomes essential to identify the triggers and their reactions. Keep an eating journal and put yourself in the best position to avoid becoming overwhelmed.


Virtually no one likes cigarette smoke or chemical-based products. But sneaky triggers can make you nauseous, too. From perfume to colognes to animals to fresh paint, there are countless causes. As with tastes, step one is identification. Use your journal to monitor food and smells and whatever else feels relevant. Also, remember that you have the right to ask friends and family to avoid certain smells when you’re around.

Sensory overload needs to be addressed to maintain your peace of mind and productivity.  I’m here to help and support you. Let’s connect for a free consultation soon.

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