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sensory overload

What is Sensory Overload?

People living with sensory overload don’t have the ability to ignore competing stimuli in their environment. A simple trip to a grocery store or going to a movie can be uncomfortable for them because their brains have difficulty regulating the sensory inputs.

The discomfort of loud sounds, bright lights, strong smells, uncomfortable textures, or other scenarios common to people with sensory processing issues can produce anxiety along with avoidance of the place where they experienced discomfort.

Causes and Symptoms of Sensory Overload

People with certain brain conditions are more prone to developing sensory overload. Some of these include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and sensory processing disorder.

Normally, the senses communicate information about the environment to the brain. The brain then responds with the correct reaction. Most of the time, the correct response is to ignore the incoming information from sensory input because it’s not important to the task at hand.

However those with sensory overload issues may get overwhelmed by bright lights or screaming children in a grocery store. As a result, they may feel instant anxiety as the brain doesn’t instinctively know which sensory inputs to focus on and which to ignore.

When anxiety turns to panic, a person with sensory overload may seek to flee the source of overstimulation. Consequently, they often cover their ears or eyes, or act in ways that can be difficult for others to understand. Children or adults with sensory sensitivities or autism may also wear special headphones to reduce stimuli.

Other symptoms of a sensory overload problem include:

  • Auditory overstimulation
  • Agitation and/or irritability
  • Problems with focus
  • Fear and/or stress reaction
  • Feeling keyed up in a manner that does not align with the situation.
  • Physical discomfort
  • Restlessness
  • Sensitivity to clothing tags or fabrics that rub against skin.

A Special Focus on Auditory Sensitivity

People with auditory processing disorder are more sensitive to some sounds that others. For example, high-frequency sounds may cause major issues while low-pitched sounds cause none at all. Because of this, noisy places such as a baseball games or busy restaurants become problem areas.

Auditory sensitivity also impacts the ability to ignore background noise and focus on conversation or learning. A classic example is struggling to converse with a friend at a party. Another common one is an inability to focus on the teacher in a busy classroom. It is common for adults and children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome to struggle with auditory sensory overload.

The Amygdala’s Role in Auditory Sensitivity

The amygdala is in the approximate center of the brain and about the size of a pea. One of its main jobs is to interpret sensory inputs and send signals to other parts of the brain.

Another job of this part of the brain is to determine which sounds are important and which are safe to ignore. Researchers believe the amygdala in a person with auditory sensitivity is faulty. As a result, it directs the rest of the brain to pay more attention to some sounds than necessary.

diagram of amygdala and brain's response to perceived threats

People with this brain disorder tend to startle easily and pick up on sounds that others don’t hear. Because of this, the fight or flight response may automatically kick in.

In a typical brain, the fight or flight response helps keep people safe by making them aware of unusual sounds in their environment. Since this natural instinct becomes exaggerated with auditory sensitivity, it is difficult to relax and anxiety is more common.

Help for Children and Adults Who Struggle with Auditory Sensitivity

Not reacting to sounds the same way their peers do can make children feel different, anxious, and sad. Since kids can’t always verbalize what they’re experiencing, parents should look for signs of a potential sensory issue. These signs may include covering the ears or avoiding activities that most kids enjoy.

If parents suspects a sensory overload issue, the next step is to have their child complete an evaluation with an occupational therapist. A professional can help kids succeed by talking about and preparing for potentially challenging settings in advance.

Paying attention to what triggers their auditory overload symptoms is important for people with this brain difference. As a result, they gain a greater sense of control and can reduce the discomfort or avoid situations that haven proven problematic for them.

Smart earbuds such as IQbuds2 MAX may assist those with sensory overload issues. Examples of features include the ability to:

  • use active noise cancellation to minimize disruptive sounds for those with sensory disorder
  • reduce background noise
  • make speech clearer in a noisy environment
  • control the direction of sound
  • establish a personalized hearing profile based on strengths and weaknesses in hearing at various frequencies.

Wearing the earbuds, which come with tap touch controls, is an effective way to minimize the stress and anxiety associated with auditory overload. The following video features a child from Australia who’s dealt with sensory and auditory overload for most of his life. He first tried  IQbuds back in 2016 which made a life-changing difference at school and at home. Below is his experience with the new and improved IQbuds2 MAX.

January 25th, 2021