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Sensory processing issues and anxiety: What’s the connection?

By Peg Rosen

People with sensory processing issues often feel anxious. That’s because they can’t control every aspect of their daily lives. Something can pop up that makes them extremely uncomfortable. Bright lights. Loud noises. Strong smells. All of these can create stress — and sensory overload. 

Most people have no trouble organizing the information they get from their senses. But kids and adults with sensory processing issues struggle with it.

Some may be much more sensitive to things like sounds, sights, textures, flavors, and smells. They may try to avoid sensory input they can’t tolerate. Other people may be less sensitive to things like temperature and noise. They may seek out sensory input. Some people are both oversensitive and undersensitive.

Anxiety is most common in people who are oversensitive. They often worry about what lies ahead. Sources of stress may include:

  • Trips to places they know to be noisy or crowded, like the mall

  • New places that they might find intolerable

  • Feeling unprepared or worrying that something unexpected may happen 

Sometimes anxiety disorder can be mistaken for sensory processing issues, and vice versa. Learn more about sensory overload and anxiety — and how to help.

Dive deeper

Sensory overload and anxiety

Sensory overload happens when one or more of our senses is overstimulated. There’s suddenly too much information coming in for our brain to process. 

Maybe it’s the roaring hand dryers in a public restroom. Or a sports bar with each TV showing a different channel. Or the morning routine of getting dressed.

Different things can trigger sensory overload in different people. But it’s so intense that it can make people anxious about everyday activities. People may worry about when or where their senses will get flooded and how they’ll escape. 

Learn more about sensory overload .

Examples of sensory overload anxiety

Here’s what anxiety might look like in people with sensory processing issues:

  • A grade-schooler who’s oversensitive to food flavors and textures may refuse to go to a sleepover because she’s worried about what she’ll have to eat at her friend’s house.

  • A teen who’s oversensitive to touch may stand off by himself at family gatherings, hoping no one will try to hug him.

  • An adult who can’t tolerate the sound of buzzing insects may fret about going to a barbecue — or may panic if a bug (buzzing or not) comes too close.

Explore more examples of how sensory processing issues can affect daily life .

Understanding root causes

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if you’re seeing signs of a sensory issue or something else. 

For instance, kids who dread getting dressed in the morning may be oversensitive to clothing. Or they might be anxious about going to school because of an undiagnosed learning difference. 

One big clue is that it’s rare for sensory issues to be limited to one thing — like getting dressed. Another clue is timing. A child with sensory issues might dread getting dressed every morning. But a child with anxiety might only dread getting dressed on school days.

Learn how an evaluation can pinpoint what’s going on

How to help

Learn more about sensory processing issues and what may be adding to the anxiety. For instance, kids with ADHD often have sensory issues and anxiety. The same is true for kids with autism spectrum disorder.

There are ways you can help manage both sensory issues and anxiety: 

Related topics

Stress and anxiety Stress and anxiety Root causes Root causes

Did you know?

Many people have anxiety at some point in their lives — including kids. But people who learn and think differently are more likely to have anxiety than other people.

More on: Stress and anxiety

Kids with ADHD are much more likely to have a learning disability than kids who don’t have ADHD. They’re also more likely to have anxiety or depression.

More on: Root causes

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom