What is sensory overload?

ByEllen Braaten, PhD

What is sensory overload? A student zones out in a classroom.

We’ve all experienced sensory overload at some point. We just don’t stop to think about it, or give it a name.

Sensory overload happens when something around us overstimulates one or more of our senses. That could be a loud TV, a crowded room, or a noisy, smelly cafeteria. There’s suddenly too much information coming in through our senses for our brains to process.

It’s usually easy enough to escape the discomfort we’re feeling. We leave the party, eat somewhere else, or walk out of the room where the TV is. And if not, we just put up with our discomfort.

But overload is more intense and much harder to deal with for kids and adults with sensory processing issues. Many everyday situations can trigger a response.

Take going to a public restroom, for instance. The noise of the hand dryers, the smell of the bathroom, and the echo of the voices can all be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload.

Also, many items in a restroom can operate automatically and are out of our control. Toilets flush without anyone flushing them. Dryers dry without anyone pushing a button. Some people might have so much difficulty coping with these things that they have a meltdown.

The best way to avoid sensory overload is to know what triggers it. Here are some signs that someone may be experiencing sensory overload.

  • Plugging their ears, shutting their eyes, covering their face
  • Avoiding certain places
  • Crying
  • Running out of certain situations
  • Shutting down and not responding to questions
  • Complaining about certain clothing or textures

If you see or experience any of these signs, you can try to remove the person or yourself from the environment. You can also try to change the environment itself. You might ask to change tables at a restaurant to move away from speakers playing loud music, for instance.

You may not be able to avoid some of these situations. But you can prepare yourself or your child for what’s coming, and brainstorm ways to manage. Also, trying out things like a sensory diet or a sensory-friendly chair at home may help improve self-regulation and make the overload feel less intense.

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About the author

About the author

Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.