Sensory overload, such as feeling like your nervous system is being bombarded and overwhelmed by visual, auditory, taste, touch, and smell stimuli, is a common symptom of anxiety disorder.
This article explains the relationship between anxiety and sensory overload symptoms.
What happens when you have sensory overload?
Examples of symptoms of sensory overload include:
- Extreme irritability.
- Urge to escape.
- Urge to cover your eyes or ears.
- Overly excited, anxious, or antsy.
- Senses are overloaded with stimuli.
- Senses feel overwhelmed.
- Senses are taking in too much information at once.
- Any extra visual, auditory, taste, smell, or touch stimulation overloads your ability to stand it.
- Sensory overstimulation.
- Sensory stimulation sends you into a panic attack.
- It can also feel like your entire nervous system is being bombarded with sensory stimulation.
- It can also feel like you are getting so much sensory information that your brain can’t sort it all out.
- You have difficulty focusing due to too much sensory information coming in at the same time.
- Overloaded senses can make you feel like you’re about to explode.
- A strong desire to escape to a less stimulating environment.
- Elevated anxiety.
- An overly strong reaction to normal stimuli.
Sensory symptoms can affect one sense only, can shift and affect another sense or senses, can migrate and affect many senses at the same time, and can affect all senses just once or repeatedly.
Sensory overload symptoms can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist 24/7 day after day. For example, it feels like you can’t take any more sensory stimulation once in a while and not that often, feel it off and on, or have it all the time and every day.
Sensory overload symptoms can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.
They can also precede, accompany, or follow a period of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress, or occur "out of the blue" and for no apparent reason.
Sensory overload symptoms can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. They can also come in waves where they are strong one moment and ease off the next.
Sensory overload anxiety symptoms can change from day to day, moment to moment, or remain as a constant background to your struggle with anxiety disorder.
All of the above combinations and variations are common.
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Many medical conditions can cause issues with sensory overload. Visit our Medical Advisory for more information.
1. Anxiety sensory overload
The Sensory Nervous System, a part of the nervous system, is responsible for receiving and processing sensory information.
The sensory system is comprised of sensory neurons (which includes sensory receptor cells), neural pathways, and parts of the brain involved in sensory perception.
The sensory system is made up of six main systems:
The sensory organs receive stimuli that are transmitted through the nervous system network to the brain for interpretation. In brief, the sensory system takes physical information and transduces it to the mind.
The sensory system is an integral part of how we make sense of and interact with the physical world.
When the body and nervous system are healthy, our senses perform flawlessly and seemingly invisibly as we go about life. However, anxious behavior can change how they function. For instance:
2. Anxiety, stress, and hyperstimulation causes of sensory overload
When we’re anxious, the body produces the stress response. The stress response causes many body-wide changes that give the body an “emergency boost” of energy and resources when we think we are in danger.
Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about the many body-wide changes.
Some of the stress response change include:
- Heightens most of the body’s senses.
- Stimulates the nervous system, which includes certain parts of the brain.
- Stimulates the body.
This combination of changes can heighten sensory reception.
Many anxious people experience heightened senses when they are anxious.
When we’re anxious too often, the body doesn’t have sufficient time to recover from the stress response changes. Incomplete recovery can cause a state of semi stress response readiness, which we call “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are stimulants.
Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about its many physiological, psychological, and emotional changes.
Hyperstimulation can cause chronic body-wide changes, including persistent heightened senses, which can lead to sensory overload. Many people experience sensory overload symptoms due to chronic anxiety and stress.
Take our "Hyperstimulation Test" to see if hyperstimulation might be playing a role in your anxiety symptoms.
3. Fatigue and sensory overload
Chronic stress, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, can cause physical, psychological, and emotional fatigue. When fatigued, our resiliency to stress diminishes, making even normal stimuli seem intense.
When you combine hyperstimulation-caused hypersensitive senses with fatigue, you the perfect recipe for a “sensory overload” feeling.
4. Sleep deprivation, insomnia
Just as fatigue can cause and contribute to sensory overload, so can sleep deprivation, such as from insomnia. As the effects of sleep disruption increase, so can the likelihood of issues with sensory overload.
5. Certain types of behavior can lead to sensory overload
Issues with anxiety can be caused by certain types of behavior, such as worry, impatience, frustration, rigid thinking, and catastrophizing, to name a few. These behaviors can lead to chronic stress (hyperstimulation), fatigue, and sensory overload.
6. Other factors can cause or contribute to sensory overload
Associated with anxiety, there are other factors that can cause and contribute to anxiety symptoms, such as sensory overload, including:
- Recreational drugs
- Hyper and hypoventilation
- Low blood sugar
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Hormonal changes
Select the relevant link for more information.
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Children, especially anxious children, can experience sensory overload symptoms. Sometimes struggling with sensory issues is the first indication that a child is anxious.
While most children don't have trouble organizing and processing sensory information, some do. Noisy environments, bright lights, strong odors, and sharp tastes can create anxiety and stress in children who are sensitive to sensory stimuli.
Sensory overload anxiety can be so strong that it creates additional anxiety in children when they worry about possible situations and circumstances that could create sensory problems. In some cases, these types of worries can lead to the development of generalized anxiety disorder.
Children who struggle with sensory overload may be highly sensitive to sights, sounds, flavors, textures, smells, and other sensory input. Sometimes their reactions are so strong that they experience other symptoms of anxiety, such as nausea, trembling, and dizziness.
Some children can be oversensitive and undersensitive. For instance, they could be overly sensitive to visual and touch sensations while being under sensitive to noise and temperature.
Some children are so sensitive that they are classified as having Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) – when the nervous system (which includes the brain) has trouble receiving and integrating sensory information.
Furthermore, children who struggle with sensory overload could also indicate giftedness – have an intellectual ability associated with an IQ of 130 or more.
When children are highly intelligent, they often have deficits in other areas. Being overly sensitive to sensory stimuli is an example.
If you have a child who is overly sensitive to sensory stimuli, it’s wise to have your child assessed by a professional. Early detection can prevent misunderstanding a child’s reaction to sensory stimuli as being temperamental or rebellious rather than having a true sensitivity.
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When sensory overload symptoms are caused by anxiety and an active stress response, containing your anxiousness and calming yourself down will bring an end to the active stress response and its changes. As your body recovers, sensory symptoms should subside.
Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. This is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
When sensory overload is caused by hyperstimulation, eliminating hyperstimulation will cause the cessation of sensory overload symptoms.
The Recovery Support area has many chapters that explain how to eliminate hyperstimulation.
Short-term ways to get rid of sensory overload symptoms
I experienced many episodes of sensory overload symptoms during my 12-year struggle with anxiety disorder. I also worked with many clients who also had them.
I, and others, have found the following tips helpful in reducing sensory overload symptoms:
- Reduce stress - Any stress reduction strategy can help alleviate sensory symptoms, such as overload. Visit our “60 Ways To Reduce Anxiety And Stress” article for natural ways to reduce stress.
- Deep relaxation/meditation – Since sensory overload is often caused by anxiety and stress, regular deep relaxation can reduce stress and its symptoms, including sensory symptoms.
- Regular good sleep - Sleep disruption is a common cause of stress-related symptoms, including episodes of sensory overload. Getting regular good sleep can reduce and eliminate stress symptoms caused by sleep disruption. If you can’t sleep at night, cat naps can help make up for lost sleep, as well as relax the body so that good sleep can return.
- Remove yourself from the environment – Sometimes, sensory overload can feel too strong, and sometimes the environment you are in is too stimulating. Removing yourself and going to a quieter location can help alleviate this sensory overload symptoms.
- Avoid triggers – If your body is hyperstimulated and sensitive to sensory stimuli, avoiding triggers can be helpful. For instance, avoiding environments that are noisy, too bright, have flashing lights, and have strong smells, as well as avoiding foods with strong tastes and wearing clothing that isn’t irritating, can help reduce the impact on your senses.
- Don't react to this symptom – Preventing stress responses by not reacting to your symptoms can help the nervous system settle and recover from hyperstimulation. As it recovers, it stops exhibiting symptoms, including sensory overload symptoms.
- Keep well hydrated – Dehydration is a common cause of anxiety- and stress-like symptoms, including sensory overload symptoms. Keeping your body well hydrated can reduce and eliminate these types of symptoms. Some doctors recommend drinking two or more liters of water per day.
- Address anxious behavior - Addressing the behavioral aspects that can cause issues with anxiety and stress can reduce their symptoms, including episodes of sensory overload.
Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address the behavioral aspects of anxiety disorder.
- Avoid stimulants – Stimulants can aggravate hyperstimulation and its symptoms, including sensory overload. Avoiding stimulants can allow the body to recover from hyperstimulation.
- Eat a healthy diet – Fast, high sugar, and junk foods stress the body and aggravate hyperstimulation and its symptoms. Eating a healthy diet of whole and natural foods can help a stressed body heal. As the body recovers from stress, it stops sending symptoms of stress, including sensory overload episodes.
Even though some or all of the above short-term strategies can alleviate episodes of sensory overload, eliminating hyperstimulation eliminates this symptom in the long-term. Eliminating hyperstimulation should be your overall goal if you want to eliminate all anxiety and stress symptoms.
NOTE: Some people with ADHD, Autism, and those who are “gifted” often experience sensory overload. Limiting exposure to triggers can reduce the incidences of sensory overload.
Sensory overload frequent questions
Can fatigue cause sensory overload?
Yes! Fatigue irritates the nervous system and diminishes our ability to withstand stimuli. As the level of fatigue increases, our ability to tolerate sensory stimulation diminishes.
You can read the other sections on this page for more information.
Can sensory overload cause fatigue?
Yes, it can. Being bombarded with sensory stimuli can tax the nervous system, which can cause fatigue. In this case, you can create a negative cycle where sensory overload causes fatigue, and fatigue exacerbates sensory overload.
Even though sensory overload can be disconcerting, it’s not harmful. It’s just an indication that your body is overly stressed and needs attention.
Can sensory overload cause anxiety?
Anxiety is caused by apprehensive behavior, such as worry. If a person is worried about becoming sensory overloaded, worried about how sensory overload symptoms feel, or worried about what other might think of them for having to deal with sensory overload symptoms, yes, that worry can create anxiety.
However, with professional help, you can overcome issues with worry, including worrying about anxiety symptoms, such as sensory overload.
Recovery Support members can access more in-depth information about all anxiety symptoms in chapter 7, the Anxiety Symptoms section.
If you are having difficulty with anxiety, what seems like uncontrollable worry, fearing or eliminating your anxiety symptoms, or fears that seem to be controlling your life, we recommend connecting with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome issues with anxiety.
Common Anxiety Symptoms
- For a comprehensive list of Anxiety Disorders Symptoms Signs, Types, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment.
- Anxiety and panic attacks symptoms can be powerful experiences. Find out what they are and how to stop them.
- How to stop an anxiety attack and panic.
- Free online anxiety tests to screen for anxiety. Two minute tests with instant results. Such as:
- Anxiety 101 is a summarized description of anxiety, anxiety disorder, and how to overcome it.
Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.
anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Sensory Overload.
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