Sensory Overload

Sensory overload overtook me yesterday afternoon. This used to be a problem I faced far more frequently, but once I received my sensory processing diagnosis and became aware of what that meant and how to moderate the sensory stimuli I’m exposed to in a day, it’s been less of a daily battle. For example, when I was studying prosthetics in graduate school, I used to get physically ill every day I had to be in the lab or clinic for more than an hour or so. The fluorescent lights, blend of antiseptic and chemical smells, loud tools, and uncomfortable professional clothing I had to wear would rapidly overwhelm my brain and cause nausea, unparalleled exhaustion, migraines, anxiety, and irritability. I wasn’t self-aware enough to understand what was happening or why; all I knew was that I couldn’t tolerate the clinic or lab and I’d have mild-to-moderate panic attacks every week in anticipation of my required hours there. I’m so relieved to be out of that environment now and grateful that I understand what was happening in my brain’s interpretation of the competing and “loud” sensory signals.

Occupational therapy helped me learn about sensory integration and I continue to do exercises designed to train my brain and body to improve their ability to identify and tolerate sensory information. Although a moderate amount of progress has been made, and I can now discern and handle certain sensory signals slightly more “normally,” the primary difference now in terms of experiencing sensory overload less frequently is that I consciously try to limit the length of time or exposure in general to sensory-offensive stimuli (bright lights, loud noises, strong odors, unpredictable environments, etc.). Far more often I hear myself saying “no” to things, either out loud or in my head, such as Target, movie theaters, and crowded places like big community events or popular museums. It’s disappointing to feel so limited in what I can comfortably manage, but it’s a necessary loss for a greater gain, in that I feel much better these days without the constant draining feeling of running up against my sensory threshold or spilled beyond into the place of sickness.

I maxed out on my sensory tolerance by midafternoon yesterday, despite the fact that there was no clear offending events or environments that would have precipitated the feeling of being overwhelmed past workable levels. That does happen sometimes as well—instances where I’m sensory overloaded for no obvious reason. In such cases, the handling strategies are the same as if the causative factors are known, except for the key starting place of removing myself from the problematic environment or somehow curtailing the stimuli (turning off a loud air conditioner, changing into more comfortable clothing without tags, turning off bright lights, etc.). I still tried to put myself in a relaxing, sensory deprivation environment, so I needed to go up to my bedroom where it’s dark and quiet and my weighted blanket can envelope me in a calming hug. It meant missing out of some of the final hours of the leisure part of the weekend time, but I was miserable enough downstairs in my overloaded state that it was the more attractive alternative. While it would be nice to know why I felt so strung out and overwrought from a brain and body capacity, it’s an exercise in futility to try and force answers when they aren’t readily apparent. I can’t conjure up evidence or reasons that are true when oftentimes the cause is idiopathic. I need to just be okay with that, take it for what it is, handle the result regardless of the cause, and move on. I find that this same acceptance and lack of ability to always point to a cause is needed when I’m suffering the flare-ups and symptoms of my physical health and autoimmune issues. It’s a waste of energy and likely to result in false positives if I always must “know” why I don’t feel well.

When I got up this morning, I didn’t feel as “reset” as I imagined or hoped I’d be. Usually, a long, quiet night of sleep, or at least rest, helps restore my sensory tolerance for the next day, but I felt like I only got about halfway back to my normal starting level, which means I have much less working capacity today. This doesn’t bode well for a day with a gyn exam; not only are those invasive and uncomfortable, but like all medical offices, the sensory environment is taxing. I will wear my earplugs, but that’s only somewhat helpful.

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