Get Help Now - Call 24/7 888-401-1241 100% Confidential
Who Answers?

“Sensory overload happens when input from any of your senses — sight, sound, taste, smell — feel overwhelming and trigger a physiological response,” says health psychologist Grace Tworek, PsyD. “It’s your sympathetic nervous system letting you know that something is up.” While anyone can experience sensory overload, it’s commonly associated with conditions like autism. However, for those in recovery from an addiction, challenges that come with recovery, such as stress and anxiety, can lead to challenges surrounding sensory overload. From the full scope of the matter to how challenges like noise overstimulation can be successfully managed, sensory overload doesn’t have to be as frustrating as it sounds.

 Understanding sensory overload 

Sensory overload is broadly defined as the overstimulation of one or more of the body’s five senses due to an environmental factor. In reference to Dr. Tworek’s explanation regarding the sympathetic nervous system, the Cleveland Clinic delves further into its role during sensory overload, noting that the sympathetic nervous system is the part of the body that is responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. The fight-or-flight response is known to “switch on” when an individual feels as though they may be in danger. During sensory overload, The Cleveland Clinic states that this response occurs when feeling ‘suddenly stressed by some aspect of the world around you.’

Loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells are just a few examples that can lead to sensory overload. Noise overstimulation, for example, can be particularly bothersome due to its unpredictable and often uncontrollable nature. For those who are in recovery and who live in a city, for instance, noise overstimulation can come in many uncontrollable forms — such as rush hour traffic, people outside, construction, etc. However, loud noise can be found in other situations, too — from the loud music of a nextdoor neighbor to a roommate vacuuming the floor at the worst of times.

According to Medical News Today, individuals will respond differently to feeling overstimulated, though common symptoms include anxiety, discomfort, and even fear. Those on the autism spectrum, those who experience sensory processing disorder (SPD), or individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are known to experience sensory overload, though it’s imperative to note that it can affect anyone. Symptoms of sensory overload vary depending on the individual. For example, some may only experience mild symptoms that result in slight feelings of discomfort, while others may be unable to function when feeling overloaded. While the experience will vary depending on which sense(s) are overloaded, commonly shared symptoms include panic attacks, a lack of focus, anxiety, agitation, difficulty sleeping, irritability, or stress — to highlight just a few.

 Sensory overload during recovery 

While sensory overload commonly affects certain individuals, it may rise during recovery for a few different reasons. For example, those who are on their recovery journey and who experience a mental health condition (referred to as a co-occurring mental health issue) like anxiety or PTSD may be particularly susceptible to sensory overload. Healthline notes that mental health conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD can trigger sensory overload. “Anticipation, fatigue, and stress can all contribute to a sensory overload experience, making senses feel heightened during panic attacks and PTSD episodes.” It’s also noted that with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory information “competes for your brain’s attention,” a factor that can contribute to symptoms of sensory overload.

In addition to the difficulties that co-occurring mental health issues can bring, sensory overload can become a problem even for those on a recovery journey without a co-occurring issue. For example, those going through recovery (who don’t experience another condition like PTSD) can often find themselves faced with strong emotions, stress, or depression. Such feelings may arise due to the fact that those recovering from an addiction are typically used to coping with certain emotions via substances or alcohol. When alcohol or substances are no longer an option, learning to successfully manage cravings can become a daunting challenge all on its own. As a result, it’s not illogical to think that additional challenges like noise overstimulation can add to the stress of recovery. This can be particularly true in uncontrollable situations, such as noise overstimulation that results from environmental factors.

 Navigating noise — the power of simple solutions

When in the presence of loud, overstimulating noise, figuring out how to manage the symptoms of sensory overload in the moment can feel nearly impossible, from teelings of overall discomfort, the anxiety and stress that results from overstimulating sounds, and simply being overwhelmed. While there is no specific treatment for sensory overload, Medical News Today notes that medications for co-occurring conditions may help. On the other hand, there are several ways to successfully navigate noise overstimulation.

Avoiding certain situations like concerts and loud music are ideal when avoiding overstimulation — however, because loud volumes can be found even at home, simple solutions like noise canceling headphones can provide instant relief, whether they mute the sounds or block them out altogether. Noise canceling headphones can present a particularly convenient option for those who are surrounded by constant noise on a daily basis, too. For example, those going through recovery while managing a remote career in a busy household may get easily overstimulated even by the daily happenings at home (chatter, kids playing, the television, etc.). “Continuous exposure to loud or distracting noises can lead to stress and fatigue,” said Dr. Sapna Sriram, a chiropractor and injury expert at Integra Health in Toronto. “Noise-canceling headphones can create a more peaceful work environment, which is essential for maintaining mental well-being.” With that in mind, it’s necessary to note that noise canceling headphones are far from being the only option.

Those who are particularly susceptible to noise overstimulation may seek a more ‘permanent’ solution when aiming to successfully navigate sensory overload. Creating a ‘safe space’ of sorts can be a particularly great way to escape it all, so to speak, whether it’s a room designated as a home office or a spare bedroom that is rarely used. When aiming to create a serene atmosphere for working, for example, it’s imperative to keep in mind the fact that the right noise level is imperative for a distraction-free workday. Practical noise solutions for office environments include using acoustic panels or blankets, which work to reduce reverberation time while improving the overall acoustics of the room. Decorating with curtains, a rug, and throw pillows and blankets can further work to absorb sound, while ensuring that the window is free of cracks or gaps will prevent any noise leakage from the outdoors. In the end, you’ll have the perfect space for working quietly or focusing on mindful, calming activities (such as journaling throughout your recovery).

For those who are on a journey to recovery, successfully navigating challenges in regard to sensory overload, like noise overstimulation, can seem particularly daunting — especially if it’s a new issue. However, successfully managing noise overstimulation can be achieved in several different ways, from avoiding loud situations to creating a safe and quiet space away from it all.


Write A Comment


Who Answers?

Calls to the general helpline will be answered by a paid advertiser of one of our treatment partners.