Unloading the senses

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Sensory overload

What are the senses?

How do they get overloaded?

How can I manage this?


eight senses

1. The visual system processes information from the eyes, including light intensity, colour, movement, location, depth.

2. The auditory system process information from the ears, including sound frequency, complexity, intensity, language sounds, non-language sounds, distance, and location.

3. The olfactory system processes information from the nose, like identifying different smells.
It’s closely linked to memory.


4. The gustatory system processes taste. It distinguishes safe food from harmful food, and distinguishes between five base tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.

5. The tactile system processes physical sensation from the body, including touch, pressure, heat, and pain.

6. The vestibular system processes information regarding where the head is in space, including balance, orientation, and movement.


7. The proprioceptive system processes information regarding the position, location, orientation, and movement of the body muscles and joints.

8. Interoception processes information regarding the physiological and physical condition of the body, including hunger, thirst, and the need to use the toilet


Sensory processing cup

Sensory overload is when there is more sensory input than the brain is able to process and sort through.

Each time there is sensory input which takes time and effort for the brain to process, you pour some coffee in the sensory cup.

[Coffee drip are falling into a cup, and they read:
Had to wear a face mask on bus
Construction work outside the house
New shoes feel odd]


Sometimes the coffee cup starts the day empty, and you have more room for sensation before it’s full.

Some days, perhaps you didn’t sleep very well, or perhaps you’re fighting a small illness or stress, the cup already has some coffee in it. There’s less room for sensation before the cup is overflowing.

On some days, if you’re sick, or close to a burnout, you might wake up and find that your cup is gone. It is nowhere to be found.
Every sensation is like
trying to hold hot coffee in your hands. It’s hot, it’s spilling, and you’re
already overloaded.

[Coffee drips are falling straight into a hand. They read:
Child is crying
Clothes touching body
Felt hungry]


Sensory Overload

– Unable to focus on anything other than the sensations
– More sensitive to sensation than usual; cannot cope with things you can usually cope with
– Working to avoid sensation, like covering the eyes or ears
– Feeling irritable, upset,
and/or angry
– Feeling very tired



– If unable to leave the situation, see if you can create repetitive and predictable sensation (stimming) to try and over-ride the unpleasant sensations

– If possible, remove yourself from the situation, and go to somewhere which is safe, quiet, and dark (perhaps your bedroom)

– Eat. Your body and brain uses a lot of energy during overwhelm. Eating also helps to override anxiety responses

– Sleep. Overwhelm is very exhausting. Give yourself permission to rest – you need it! Often, by the time you wake, your brain will have stopped being overwhelmed and you can begin to feel better


Unloading the senses


There is visual information to process all the time. From when you wake up and open your eyes, there’s the changing intensity of light from the sun and from bulbs and screens.

You are constantly processing the location of objects, their depth, how far from you they are. You are constantly scanning for new information and for movement. This is for threat detection.


Reducing visual input

– Wear a hat or hoodie to help reduce the scope of your visual field

– Wear sunglasses to mute the intensity and colour of light coming into your eyes

– Have a workspace which has a muted light, such as from a desk lamp, instead of an overhead light. LED lights seem to be especially troublesome due to their fast flickering

– Try to keep your space free from clutter. Processing lots of items can be overwhelming

– Don’t force yourself to make eye contact with people if it’s uncomfortable. If you look at a point between peoples eyes, or slightly above their eyes, they usually can’t tell



Auditory information tends to be more overwhelming when it is complex, rather than loud. Noise is complex when it has multiple sources. It can be overwhelming because there is a lot of information to sort through and attend to.

For example, if you’re at a coffee shop, you might be able to hear not only the conversation you are engaged in, but also music, two conversation in the background, the sound of people breathing, the sound of traffic, and the sound of birds outside. This is complex noise.


Reducing auditory input

– Noise cancelling headphones or earbuds can filter out background noise while allowing speech to be heard

– If possible, work in an environment which is free from background noises, such as an empty meeting room

– Drown out complex background noise using white noise, such as a fan

– Rugs on the floors and hung on the walls can help a room to be more soundproof



Olfactory information is everywhere, although not everyone appears to notice it. You might be very sensitive to smells which others appear not to notice at all.

Common daily smells include the smells of people’s bodies, of their clothes and deodorant, the smells from bins, smells carried on the wind, smells from food, and smells trapped in small spaces such as on busses or in the office.


Reducing Olfactory Input

– Carry a specific pleasant smell, such as a lavender oil, to smell if other scents become overwhelming

– Using a face mask helps to filter out some the odours (if you are able to wear one)



Gustatory information refers to taste. This is closely related to the olfactory system. Sometimes, when you smell something strong, you feel as though you can taste it. This can be particularly overwhelming for unpleasant odours.


Reducing gustatory input

– Some tastes may be particularly overwhelming. Bitter tastes typically indicate a dangerous food to the brain, so avoiding bitter tastes, like coffee, may help

– Use mint-free or flavourless toothpaste

– If there is a type of gum you like, this can be used to “reset” the palate after eating or drinking



Tactile information is another thing which is relatively constant.

You can feel your clothing, the tags and seams in your clothing, specific texture of fabric, such as polyester or velvet, can be incredibly uncomfortable to
the touch.

Many people find make-up to be an overwhelming tactile experience; not only applying it with brushes, but the act of it remaining on your face


Reducing Tactile Input

– Try looser/tighter clothing, to see if this reduces the sensation on the skin

– Tags in clothing can be unpicked and removed

– You do not have to wear make up if it makes you uncomfortable

– Wearing gloves can prevent your fingers coming into contact with unexpected or unpleasant textures

– Try seamless clothing, such as leggings. Remember, clothes do not have a gender and you can wear whatever makes you comfortable



Vestibular stimulation can be harder to avoid, as this is information about the physical location of your head in space.

You may become overwhelmed by activities where your head is not upright, or where you are required to close your eyes.


Reducing Vestibular Input

– Take a seat on public transport instead of standing

– Avoid activities which involve fast or unsteady head movement, such as cycling, swinging, or rollercoasters

– Hold onto the handrail on staircases and escalators, and try and fix your gaze at a location at the top (but be aware of trip hazards!) 



Proprioceptive information is about where in space your body is, and how to move it.

For example, putting your hand to your mouth while your eyes are closed relies on our internal map of our bodies location in space.

If you are sensitive to proprioceptive information, you might become easily tired or overwhelmed upon having to physically move your body. 


Reducing Proprioceptive Input

– Be patient with yourself. Allow yourself time to sit quietly if you need it. Reducing the movement of your body can help if you feel overwhelmed

– Use gentle yoga and stretching exercises to stimulate the muscles in a controlled way, in your own time

– You might find that having something heavy on your body, like a weighted blanket, a pet, or a friend, helps. This creates one consistent sensation to be processed, rather than a lot of different sensations 



This refers to the sense of your internal body.

This includes feeling pain, feeling hot and cold, feeling an itch or a tickle, feeling the need to eat, drink, or use the toilet.

Sometimes, it might be hard to distinguish between these feelings (for example, experiencing a tickle as pain), or these feelings may be overwhelming (e.g. the experience of hunger makes you feel nauseous). 


Reducing Interoceptive Input

– Try and complete your body’s needs before the feeling arises. This might mean setting a timer for every couple of hours to use the toilet, or eating lunch at noon every day even if you don’t feel hungry yet

– Some mindfulness techniques may be able to help you distinguish between different interoceptive feelings 


There will often be situations where you are overwhelmed and unable to do any of the above. Also, we often are in environments which are overwhelming for multiple sense, and sometime we experience hypersensitivity in one sense and hyposensitivity in another!

These are some really basic techniques. Our relationship with our sensory needs is an ongoing and dynamic situation! But you will find coping mechanisms for your individual situation. 

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