Sensory overload, also known as hypersensitivity, occurs when the brain’s filters no longer work properly. Unlike a healthy brain, which can identify and filter out irrelevant or unnecessary information, an injured brain often cannot.
As a result, normal, everyday stimuli can be uncomfortable, overwhelming, or unbearable. Sounds that before your injury were barely noticeable may be alarming and uncomfortable. Crowds may feel overwhelming. Clothing that was once comfortable may be irritating. Bright light can be distressing and might give you a headache.
Flooded is a word that is often used to describe the overstimulated brain. A brain that is flooded with information can shut down or freeze. It can become difficult or even impossible to continue a conversation or make a decision. Agitation and anxiety are common symptoms, but some may even experience panic attacks, nausea, or vomiting.
Hypersensitivity is more common after a mild brain injury, whereas people with severe brain injuries more often experience a loss of sensory function.
Types of Sensory Overload
Sensory overload can affect one, several, or all the senses.
- Sight (light intensity, light color)
- Touch (heat, cold, pressure)
- Balance (movement, spatial awareness)
Factors that can Exacerbate Hypersensitivity
There are some factors that can stress your brain, lowering your ability to adapt to stimuli and exacerbating hypersensitivity. It is good to keep these in mind and plan accordingly.
- Lack of sleep
Common Symptoms of Sensory Overload
- Unable to think clearly
- Unable to respond/ feeling “frozen”
- Panic attacks
- Difficulty breathing
How to Deal with Sensory Overload
Common Triggers and Coping Suggestions
*Note* Hypersensitivity is not something that I personally deal with. If you feel that I have misrepresented any information please let me know. If you know other tips or strategies let that I have neglected to include let me know and I will promptly add them.
- Try avoiding bright light and fluorescent lights
- Limit exposure to TV, phone, and computer screens
- Adjust electronics to display yellow light instead of blue light
- Wear sunglasses when needed, even indoors
- Wear syntonic light therapy glasses (see below)
- Limit time spent in noisy stores or at events
- Wear earplugs or noise cancelling earmuffs (see below)
- Ask family members to use headphones when listening to music or watching TV shows
- This may seem counter intuitive, but for some people adding quiet, calming background noise can help – sound machine, fan, or peaceful music
- When attending an event that you know will be taxing, plan to stay for a short time and/or plan time to rest afterwards
- If you feel a situation start to become overwhelming, excuse yourself to a quiet place like the bathroom, close your eyes, and take slow deep breaths
- Go grocery shopping and run other errands early in the morning
- Eat at restaurants between meal times when they are less busy
- Plan time to rest after going out
More General Coping Strategies
Plan any even that could potentially lead to overstimulation. You may need to plan time to rest before and after the event or plan to only stay for part of the event. Sometimes it may even be helpful to plan what you will do if things do not go as expected.
Make a grocery list before going shopping. If there is a chance that the store might not carry an item, consider if you will buy a substitute or go without.
If you are attending an event for the first time since your injury and do not know how it will affect you, explain this to the people joining you. When going to the movies, a concert, or a sporting event it may be a good idea to sit towards the back. It will be slightly less stimulating and you will be able to leave easily, if the need should arise.
Include other senses
Identify the stimuli that is bothering you and add in one that isn’t. For example, if a sound is bothersome try sucking on a peppermint or cinnamon candy. Or if a crowd is overwhelming squeezing a stress ball.
Syntonic light therapy glasses
I would love to get feedback from you guys on this one. Prior to researching for this post, I had not heard of syntonic therapy. But, if the claims made about it are true, it seems that many survivors could benefit from syntonic therapy.
Syntonic therapy glasses have colored lens. Depending on your symptoms, a certain color can be prescribed to alter signals the brain is sending and positively influence the vision system. They claim to be particularly beneficial for brain injury survivors, especially those suffering from light sensitivity and headaches.
If you are interested here is a little more information:
Explanation of Syntonic Therapy (article)
Explanation of Syntonic Therapy (short video)
Brain Injury Success Story
I would suggest trying cheap foam ones from the grocery store first, as these seem to work well enough for most people. However, if you find that they do not block enough of the background noise, you can be prescribed custom earplugs by audiologist.
These custom earplugs are traditionally used by musicians but can be helpful for brain injury survivors with hypersensitivity to sound. The article below explains the benefits of musicians’ earplugs over traditional earplugs for sound hypersensitivity resulting from brain injury.
Musicians’ Earplugs vs. Traditional Earplugs
Try to slowly build up tolerance to the problematic stimuli. Though avoiding the stimulus entirely may be the most comfortable, doing so could increase your hypersensitivity to that stimulus overtime. When doing this pay close attention to your body and plan an “out” for yourself should you feel the need to rest.
You cannot expect family members, friends, and coworkers to know what you are going through if you have not told them. Let them know which stimuli are troublesome for you and what they can do to help – be as specific as possible.
What Can You do as a Loved One of a Survivor with Hypersensitivity?
The single biggest thing you can do is to be supportive. Ask your loved one what triggers sensory overwhelm for them and actively try to create an environment that is not overwhelming for them.
If they ask you to stop talking so that they can process what has already been said, listen to them. Do not continue talking until they are ready for you to do so.
When planning outings keep in mind that heat, pain, and lack of sleep can intensify hypersensitivity. Be understanding if they need to cut the outing short.