Sensory overload

Hannah Massarella
Jan 22, 2019 · 3 min read

By Lucy Payne

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

I’m at work…

Squinting to read the spreadsheet glaring at me from the computer screen, inputting data from scribbled notes in front of me, on the phone to a customer, my colleague trying to catch my attention re the next tea round, my mobile notifying me that my mother has replied, office lights dazzling overhead, the sickly sweet scent of my Frosted Plum body lotion wafting from my arms as I type

… when I suddenly crack. A wave of nausea hits me, my mind goes blank and I’m incapable of stringing a sentence together.

I’ve reached sensory overload.

According to Wikipedia, sensory overload occurs when “one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment,” and in this age of constant communication and expected availability, it’s becoming more and more common.

Ever come over funny when jostling against multiple strangers on a tube? Entered a stadium and become disorientated by the reverberating noise of the crowd? Felt queasy when your mate sprays a pungent perfume? Felt dizzy when scrolling through your Instagram feed? All of these things can lead to sensory overload, and multi-tasking can tip your brain over the edge.

Here comes the science bit: when your senses become overwhelmed, your brain doesn’t know which to prioritise or process first. It can’t deal with everything at once which can cause you to feel stuck. This leads to panic, your body’s “fight or flight” mode to kick and normal bodily functions to shut down.

People’s reactions to this vary — from becoming snappish, stressed, disorientated, tired, dizzy, confused, anxious, depressed, hyperactive, unable to concentrate, through to physical effects such as headaches, sickness or skin irritation . . . the list goes on and on.

Well, if there’s any truth behind the “women can multitask” stereotype, I am failing miserably. It can take me a good couple of hours to fully feel myself again after an episode, and there’s no prescribed medical treatment.

So, what can you do to prevent the onset? Or get out of it when you’re in it?

1. Know your triggers — if you know what situations to avoid, avoid them!

2. Take a break (from your desk/ your phone/ the Electronic Dance Music you’re listening to.)

3. Breathe! Slowing your breathing down can counteract your fight/flight mode.

4. Drink plenty of water to optimise brain functionality.

5. Mindfulness and/or meditation helps train the brain to focus on the present, reducing incessant internal monologuing.

6. Focus on one thing at a time! Write a to-do list and check things off one by one instead of trying to tackle everything simultaneously.

7. Plan ahead — if you know an environment could bring on sensory overload, what can you do to prevent it?

8. Tell someone — people can then accommodate your needs and will know what to do if an episode strikes.

9. Get enough sleep! You’re more likely to get overwhelmed if you’re running on empty.

10. Don’t be so hard on yourself! Don’t feel the pressure to be available and on the go 24/7! You’re twitter feed may be constantly updating, but your brain doesn’t have to — the pace of modern life is faster than our heads can handle.

With our escalating reliance on technology and the birth of ‘tech-stress’, it’s never been more important to look after your brain. In her book How to be Human, Ruby Wax quantifies the average person spends 100 hours on their phone each month — that’s 11 years of your life! Is that how you want to spend your valuable time — trapped in a phone induced brain fog? Take time to experience life away from the screen.

Just like a computer that freezes when you’ve opened too many windows, you too can become overwhelmed. So perhaps this year make time to switch off and stop your brain becoming stuck on the loading screen.

The Third Space

A wellbeing and resilience publication for the not-for-profit sector

Hannah Massarella

Written by

The Third Space

A wellbeing and resilience publication for the not-for-profit sector

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