Sensory overload. For many people, if asked, they would associate the phrase sensory overload with autism. The condition is much less associated from being chronically ill, specifically by having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia. Today, I am going to talk about sensory overload from the viewpoint of chronic illness, since that is why I have it. So, what even is sensory overload? Farlex Medical Dictionary describes it as, “A condition in which sensory stimuli are received at an excessive rate or intensity. Sensory overload can produce increases in heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, confusion, anxiety, mental distress, and/or erratic behavior.” Ah, that does not sound like very much fun to experience.
Why does sensory overload happen with chronic illness and why specifically in those two disorders? I found out that the hypersensitivity of the body has been shown to be linked to sensory overload. “Hypersensitivity is a condition in which there is an exaggerated immune response to external stimuli” (Sensory Overload). Smells, touch, light, temperatures, foods, and touch are all examples of things that people can be hypersensitive to. In my life, I am very sensitive to sounds such as chewing, stiff clothing, the smell of spicy food, temperatures above the mid 70’s (in farinheight), and bright light. Scientists think that our sensitivity may come from a dysfunction in the chemical serotonin. Serotonin is thought of as a type of mood stabilizer for your body. So it makes sense that when it disfunctions, things go haywire.
Another reason scientists believe we develop sensory overload, is because of broken inhibition. Inhibition allows your brain to selectively tune out what it knows is unimportant. When it is not working right, for example, we can hear everything when we are trying to make a phone call. This causes an overload to our already hypersensitive bodies. We get anxious and may even have a panic attack because our system is essentially fried. Places that tend to draw a gathering of people to them is a big trigger for many people. Movie theaters, grocery stores, and shopping malls are all good examples. Such a terrifying experience can even lead to us avoiding a certain place in the future.
What do I feel when I experience sensory overload? Soon after becoming sick, I would often completely shut down. For example, if I went to Walmart, the noises would overload me. I could feel every sensation coming at me all at once, except it was 100 times the usual force. This ended up making me not being able to talk for awhile until my system had calmed down. Today, I find that those noisy places do not bother me as much. However, when I do get overloaded, I will rock, tap my foot, or go to my room and play quiet music to let my body and mind calm down. Most times I am able to catch it before I have a full blown panic attack, but it still happens here and there.
Sensory overload is not a fun experience to have. Whether you are sensitive to sounds, like I am today, or whatever else, it is a personal journey. It takes time to figure out how to handle all the senses propelling themselves at you. You will probably need to try a number of different things like therapy, psychiatry medications, and meditation. Different things work for different people, but you just need to keep trying. I have faith that you will get there, because I did. I know that sensory overload feels very scary, but each step taken, is a step forward.
Thanks for reading this article today! Do you deal with sensory overload? Tell me about your experience. Please subscribe and I’ll see you next time, my Un-imaginables!
“When Your Senses Overwhelm You With Fibromyalgia & ME/CFS.” Verywell Health, http://www.verywellhealth.com/sensory-overload-in-fibromyalgia-and-chronic-fatigue-716021.
Good, Lee, et al. “Hypersensitivity To Sensory Stimuli In Fibromyalgia.” Fibrodaze, 4 Feb. 2019, http://www.fibrodaze.com/hypersensitivity-fibromyalgia/.
“sensory overload.” Medical Dictionary. 2009. Farlex and Partners 2 Apr. 2019 https://medical-dictionary.thefDellwo, Adrienne.
“Sensory Overload, The Connection To Your Chronic Illness.” Just Another Moment, 15 Mar. 2019, justanothermoment.co.uk/sensory-overload-the-connection-to-your-chronic-illness/
Original photo by Kat J on Unsplash