Little boy wearing glasses bites his nails as he deals with sensory overload anxiety.

From a very young age, we are taught about the five senses and how our brain uses sight, scent, sound, touch, and taste to better understand our surroundings. Although the concept itself is pretty simple to understand, the actual act of sensory processing may not be as straightforward for some individuals. We have recently discussed sensory processing issues and how they can be more common in individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, did you know that other conditions such as PTSD and general anxiety often overlap with sensory issues? Understanding how sensory issues play into other conditions and disorders can be the first step to better assisting your child in stressful situations.

Today, we will discuss everything you need to know about sensory overload anxiety and how to help your child manage it.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload and anxiety are both mental health conditions that are closely related to one another. A person can experience one without the other, but generally speaking, the two go hand in hand.

Sensory overload occurs when the brain is overwhelmed by one or more sensory inputs at once. Suppose your senses are being triggered faster than the brain can process. In that case, it can cause the brain to enter into a fight, flight, or freeze mode, resulting in an individual feeling unsafe, anxious, overstimulated, and overwhelmed. Similarly, when people have anxiety, they may be more likely to experience sensory overload in certain situations. It must be noted that there is a difference between sensory overload and simply being annoyed with various sensory inputs. An individual who hates loud sounds and prefers silence is most likely not experiencing sensory overload. People with this condition generally experience one or more of the following signs:

  • Inability to relax
  • Tantrums, meltdowns (specifically in children)
  • Physical discomfort
  • Tactile defensiveness
  • Covering of ears, eyes, etc. (in an attempt to block out the input)
  • Fear and panic
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Strong desire to escape the situation immediately

Although each person may experience sensory overload differently, it can generally be triggered by new or unfamiliar situations, sights, sounds, or other external stimuli. Some examples are:

  • Loud sounds or music
  • Crowded rooms, tight spaces
  • Emotionally intense people or groups
  • Drastic environmental changes such as light or temperature.
  • Unexpected physical contact
  • Tactile triggers
  • Intense smells

So what is the cause of sensory overload? Well, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think because it can be caused by underlying conditions that cause sensory sensitivities.

Here are some of the conditions most commonly associated with sensory overload:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder - More than half of all individuals diagnosed with ASD also deal with sensory processing issues such as sensory overload. They may experience hypersensitivity to external stimuli, resulting in sensory avoidance, or they may be hyposensitive to stimuli, resulting in sensory-seeking behaviors
  • ADHD - ADHD makes it difficult for many people to regulate their emotions or actions, even in relation to things that may seem simple to other people. When people with ADHD become overstimulated, they may be unable to focus as environmental factors or sensations crowd their brains. People with ADHD typically experience difficulty focusing and may feel particularly challenged when they have to detect and interpret sensory input. This can easily trigger both sensory overload and anxiety.
  • PTSD And Generalized Anxiety - Individuals who have post-traumatic stress disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can be more sensitive or vulnerable to experiencing sensory overload, stress or anxiety in certain situations. With PTSD, it can be triggered by something more specific (i.e. a war veteran who experiences sensory overload anxiety during a fireworks show) whereas, an individual who suffers from generalized or social anxiety may be triggered by any environment that has too many inputs to process.

Managing Sensory Overload Anxiety

If your child has a neurodevelopmental condition that overlaps with sensory overload anxiety, it can cause a lot of stress to both you and your child. However, there are plenty of ways to help your child manage their sensory issues.

A great place to start in terms of managing your child’s sensory overload anxiety is to speak with your doctor. They will be able to help you navigate mental health or specialized resources in your area. Depending on the severity of the condition, they can also prescribe any necessary medication that could be helpful for your child. If medication is not an option, your doctor can recommend or refer you to alternative treatments such as dietary interventions or various types of behavioral therapy.

Sensory overload can be common in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, and although each child may exhibit different symptoms, these behaviors are part of what makes each child so unique!