Sensory overload is something I don’t think that we give enough attention to. The world we live in has evolved massively over the last 50 years, each year seems to accelerate the speed of that change. The more technology advances, the more it speeds up, and the more we then have to run to keep up.
If we go back 50 years, back then we barely had computers. There weren’t any mobile phones or even colour televisions, let alone ‘digital’ anything. The speed at which we communicated with each other was slower, we weren’t looking at bright LED screens. Life was slower, not so bright, maybe quieter in some respects. There were more family businesses and less huge shopping centres. With all change there are different pros and cons, but as humans we have had to do a lot of adapting in a short space of time.
All the information we take in is through our senses, through our sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. This information is what we use to make sense of things, to communicate and to regulate our nervous system. When we consider this, then it’s not hard to see how sensory overload could be a real thing and could affect the way we feel, how functional we are and our general wellbeing. Some fast food chains deliberately use brash colour schemes, which initially looks inviting and attractive but quickly makes customers feel uncomfortable and like they want to leave soon after they finish eating. Specialist autistic schools have only pastel colours in their classrooms, as primary colours are dysregulating for children with autism. This obviously does not stop when these children leave school, but they have to learn to live in a very bright sensory jangling world.
I have many clients who are becoming aware of their own sensory overload. It makes sense when we live with the effects of trauma, as we are used to being on edge, or hyper vigilant, taking in all kinds of information at a high speed. We are likely going to be super sensitive to sensory stimulation. I know how disorientated I get inside shopping centres and sometimes supermarkets. I lose my already poor sense of direction, I go offline and begin feeling very tired and confused, especially if it’s busy.
If we are looking at screens, our mobile phones, our laptops or TV’s for several hours a day, that’s a massive amount of sensory information coming at us. Maybe what we need to do is be more mindful about taking a proper break from these sources of stimulus. With so much amazing technology available, we expect each other to be available 24/7. If we don’t get a text back within minutes, we wonder what’s wrong. It’s almost unheard of to not carry our phones with us everywhere. It’s an immediate world, where we don’t have to wait for anything. We get immediate replies, we can order food in minutes, we get next-day deliveries and can access any information instantly. Time out needs to be the opposite of this so we can give our brains, bodies and our nervous systems a break, and time to just settle, not having to constantly work so hard.
So how can we manage a sensory overload?
In order to slow down and avoid a sensory overload, we need to start doing things slower. Starting with something simple like walking slower, deliberately taking our foot off the accelerator so we can take our time. If we go for a slower walk, it means we can take in more of our surroundings, be more curious and in the moment. We could also try eating slower, or drinking slower and savouring what we are actually eating. That way we can feel the process of eating and pay more attention to it.
We could try looking at only natural things for a while, studying things like the grass around us, or plants, trees, stone, wood or water. We can study them with our eyes and touch them with our skin. We can smell the different smells they bring. Children love playing with water, we could learn something from them and just see what it’s like to swish our hands around in cool water, or put our feet into a bowl of warm water. We can close our eyes and just feel some objects lying around the house, soft things, hard things, cold things and rough things, just to heighten the sense of touch.
If we all gave our senses a 15 minute break every day, it would be interesting to see what affect this would have on us. If we put it at the top of our priority list and made a point of looking after our senses, it might help us to feel calmer, more settled and not in such a rush all the time.