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3 Tips for Managing Sensory Overload

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Graphic against a purple and white ombre background, a cartoon androgynous person with olive skin and long, dark hair, wearing a khaki t-shirt and large headphones. A busy scene surrounds the person; in front of a circular, beige representation of Earth, with high-rise blocks, a crane, vehicles and a loudspeaker.

Sensitivity to Sound

I have a sensitivity to sound which I believe to be linked to also having OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). I find sounds that I am not in control of to be difficult to process when I hear them, and when a sound is particularly loud or there are multiple sounds at once, this can cause me to experience sensory overload.

For me, to experience sensory overload is to be over-stimulated by my environment. It means that I can no longer concentrate properly, that I find myself irritable, and that I have the urge to remove myself as soon as possible.

Supermarkets are a great example of an environment in which I frequently experience sensory overload. They’re too loud and have too many sounds; when I go shopping at a supermarket, I often find that I rush just so that I can leave and therefore avoid over-stimulation. This means that I usually forget to buy some of the items I originally went in for. Sometimes, this whole experience can lead me to having a panic attack.

Over the last few weeks, whilst working with my therapist and my partner on how I can better manage sensory overload, I’ve discovered some useful strategies. I want to share them to help anyone else who might be on a similar journey and looking for some relief.

Tip 1: Ear Plugs

Ear plugs seem to have come a long way from the little yellow pieces of foam that I used to find on my mother’s bedside table while growing up. There are so many options available now, all offering different levels and types of sound reduction.

I started using them to help me sleep, but currently I have a pair that I regularly use throughout the day to ‘take the edge off’. When I used to cycle to work, the noise of traffic and the wind caused me to feel discomfort and pain. When I use my ear plugs, I can still hear the sound of my immediate area but it is dampened; I don’t have such a visceral reaction.

Tip 2: Identify Sounds

I’ve found it useful to try and identify sounds in my environment when I start to feel overstimulated as it helps me prevent ‘hearing them all at once’. For example, if I’m in the bathroom and all the sounds that I can hear are stopping me from being able to relax in the bath, I’ll listen to each one for a short time and name them. The noise of the fan, the noises from outside, the noise I make from being in water, the noise coming from the light – once I separate the sounds and hear them individually, they become more manageable.

Tip 3: Be in Tune with Your Body

There have been many times where I’ve experienced sensory overload when I might’ve been able to avoid it because I didn’t know or notice ‘the warning signs’, or in other words, how I physically react when experiencing sound sensitivity. Recently, I’ve managed to identify and implement micro-strategies that help me effectively avoid sensory overload by being aware of my body and how it reacts to different sounds.

For instance, if I ever realise that I’m feeling tired, anxious, or unwell I now know that I’m also more likely to experience sound sensitivity and therefore that I should prepare to feel overwhelmed if I’m to go anywhere that might be loud. By regularly checking-in with myself to see how I feel, I have more opportunity to make adjustments and improvements to my lifestyle and routine that will assist me in managing my sensitivity to sound. These include changing the devices that I use and how long I use them for, as well as deciding what times are best for me to go shopping.

Even though that making these adjustments and improvements doesn’t mean that I eradicate the problems I face, they do help me feel like I have more control over them. This gives me more confidence to do what I enjoy without the fear of becoming overstimulated.

What are your tips for managing sensory overload? Leave a comment below or across any of our social media channels!

- Written by a member of the Equal Lives team.

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