Finding out about sensory overload after brain injury has been tricky.
Many months, (maybe over a year ago), I received a letter asking for information about sensory overload in adults after brain injury.
While I did not have a lot of first-hand experience, I figured when researching all things ‘brain’ – information is usually plentiful.
I was surprised that I could not find a whole lot of information on sensory overload for adults after brain injury. Consequently this article has been a long time in the making.
Please feel free to help out with additional information and references.
Sensory Overload – Sensory Flooding
“Sensory Flooding” is another term I discovered. I like the clear picture that the term “flooding” gives.
Brain injury can reduce or remove filters. This enables sensory information to ‘flood’ the brain. Overwhelming it. Creating surges just as flood waters do.
What is Sensory Overload?
One important function of the brain is to filter incoming information from every part of the body:
What needs to be paid attended to?
What needs to be acted upon.
What can be ignored?
Damage to the brain can mean that sometimes this filter function is reduced, or removed. The brain no longer has clear ideas on what to pay attention to.
This can include the filtering of messages coming in from each of the sensory organs to the brain creating chaos and sensory overloading.
How Does Sensory Overload Happen?
Within a very short time I feel irritable, a little panicked, I make poor decisions, and I want to escape.
Like many people with, or without, brain injury my senses become overloaded.
Unlike a person living with brain injury, my experience is momentary.
For a person with sensory overload after brain injury this can be a debilitating and ongoing outcome. It does not go away with a simple strategy.
Which Senses Can Be Affected?
One, or more, or all, of the senses can be affected.
It can change a person’s ability to tolerate sensory input – such as sound, sight, touch, movement, taste, smell. It may be altered or absent.
This sensory overload can occur – with excessive levels of sensory input. With normal levels of input. When it’s sensory input we like. And in one or more of the senses.
Depending on your reading you will find differing numbers of senses listed. I will talk about 6 senses. Sometimes it might be only 4. The Body is Not an Apology lists 8 senses. Here they are – some with their fancy titles:
· Visual System (sight)
· Gustatory System (taste)
· Olfactory System (smell)
· Auditory System (sound)
· Tactile/Somatosensory System (touch)
· Proprioceptive System (muscle/joint movement, where body is in space)
· Vestibular System (balance)
· Interoceptive System (state of internal organs)
What Might Cause Sensory Overload?
Here are just a few examples of what might cause sensory overload.
Sensory overload for some people can be caused even when the sensory experience is something they enjoy.
Music and announcements playing in shopping centres and other public venues.
Groups of people talking or shouting.
Sounds of a city: traffic, sirens, trains
For some even the sound of your own voice can be difficult to tolerate.
Busy, multicoloured venues
Classrooms with a lot of display and decoration
Visiting places where one is taking in a lot of visual information – art galleries, sightseeing, museums.
Bright flashing lights
New and/or exotic tastes
Tastes that are unpleasant
Strong tasting things
Being patted, poked, stroked
Touching new or unusual things – craft, petting animals.
Having items such as clothing next to skin that irritate e.g. rough clothing, sharp objects.
Sometimes the lack of filtering can mean even normal touch sensations – sitting on a chair, wearing shoes – can be distressing.
Scent or perfume
Household and Hardware Chemical substances – cleaning materials, paint, glues.
Multiple and new smells such as food markets, visiting new cultures and places
Strong food smells – good and bad
Being bumped and moved in a crowd of people
Unusual movement; rolling, rocking, tipping – such as on a boat, ride at a fair.
More about overload in each of the senses can be found here: Sensory Processing Disorder Australia
Enjoyable Sensory Activity:
We often think sensory overload comes from too much of what we don’t like. Being in a loud train station, or a busy shopping centre.
Unfortunately even enjoyable sensory input – events, places, and people providing sensory input we enjoy – can cause overland and distress:
- A group of friends together
- Going to cafes, restaurants, pubs. Gathering places you once enjoyed
- Your own or other children playing
- Venues you were OK with before brain injury: classroom, music concert, race track.
- Venues you might have to pass through: airports, supermarkets,
- Holiday and Sightseeing
Possible Outcomes of Sensory Overload
Being easily distracted by sensory input: taking notice of every sensory input.
Seemingly “over-reacting’ to sensory stimulation
Paying attention to sensory input others do not seem to notice – a smell or touch others accept creates irritation
Fight and Flight symptoms – sweating, clammy skin, racing heart.
Becoming irritable, angry, behaviour changes
Withdrawing from activity – in the extreme there may be unwillingness to leave home
Difficulty concentration and paying attention
Less able to make decisions
Distress / Stress – signs of anxiety and / or depression.
An extensive list of signs and symptoms in children can be found here. Some of these also relate to adults.
Please share other outcomes you have noticed in the Comments below.
Tips And Strategies for Sensory Overload
This is a beginners list only. It is not something I have a lot of experience with. Please share strategies you have used or heard about in Comments below or Email me HERE.
Before Starting Out and Throughout:
Recognise this is an issue resulting from damage to the brain. It is not deliberate. It will not just go away.
The tips and strategies below are not suitable for everyone. Take the ones that seem most useful and modify them to suit.
Not every strategy should be implemented. Begin with one, or a small manageable number.
Most often simple and quick fixes won’t work – “Don’t go to supermarkets” “Just leave the room”. This fails to see the impact of sensory overload and how it can affect a person’s life.
People who have not had experience with brain injury, or the invisible nature of the outcomes, may not understand.
You may need you to explain what sensory overload means for you and how to help.
Oh and you may need to do this more than once!
1) Do a Bit of Sensory Lifestyle Planning
Find out what sensory overload means to you:
- The signs of becoming ‘overloaded’. This will help in a plan to use strategies early.
- What are the levels of sensory input that are OK before overload happens? Plan to work well within these levels.
- Get to know what causes distress; and to know what is calming. Have a list of both as a reminder for you and to share with family, friends and supporters.
Develop a Calmer (and maybe Karma) Daily Life: think about routines that are calm AND reduce sensory overload – for you. This will be different for each person. Meditation, Shopping online, Studying in a quiet room instead of classroom.
You might need to make some changes to lifestyle. Look critically at the strategies you come up with: Are they
+ of benefit.
Sorry that sounds a tad obvious – but sometimes we all make changes because it seemed like a good idea when someone else did it whether it works for us or not.
2) Live the Sensory Lifestyle
Live a ‘good life’ – a bit obvious but… maintaining optimum health and fitness,
a healthy diet,
avoiding things that are stimulating such as coffee, alcohol,
reducing stress as much as possible.
a good and healthy life can be helpful.
We have Slow Food, Slow Music, you might find Slow Life is of benefit – find what works for you, take breaks, enjoy moments.
I was going to say slow down and smell the roses but that seems a bit inappropriate here. You know what I mean.
Manage and minimise fatigue. Cognitive fatigue can significantly affect the ability to manage difficulties such as cognitive outcomes and sensory overload.
If you have to be somewhere, or do something that you know will cause you to become overloaded – schedule in breaks around this event or activity. If going to a family function you might find a quiet place to go to for breaks before you become overloaded.
3) Take a sensory holiday or retreat
I mean create one where you are.
Think about times, places, people, activities that take you away from it all and give your senses a little holiday. Add these to your routine.
Take little mini breaks throughout your day, and life.
Think in an ‘off peak’ kind of way. ‘Off Peak’ usually means quieter times – look for these in daily life. Going to cafes between major meal times. Holidays when there are less crowds. Studying when less people attend the library.
It can be a balancing act between managing overload and building tolerance to the sensory input. Professional assistance might be helpful here.
4) Gain a Sense of the Senses
Do a Sense Audit – Oh this is just a fancy term for – have a think about each of the senses. Write down which senses are affected? In what way?
Don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t make sense. Remember outcomes of damage to the brain can seem hard to understand at times.
What support and strategies might be needed for each sense? Easy for me to say – think of it as a work in progress. Make a start and keep adding.
Look at what works for each sense – below are examples for Sight and Sound:
Carrying a dark eye/sleep mask to further block out visual overload might also help.
Watch the times and places visual overload happens. Record this and work out a strategy for each. e.g. Large supermarkets cause distress – see if you can find small, quieter, local stores.
If severe – light sensitivity can cause distress including severe headaches. You might need to consider strategies such as wearing dark sunglasses – even indoors – when this is an issue.
It may be helpful to have ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones to use for times when noise becomes an issue.
Consultation with people experienced in this issue may give more advanced strategies which may involve desensitizing hearing and the brain over time.
Strategies designed to block out unwanted noise such as relaxation music, the use of white noise.
Professional help may support the use of specific music to help the brain and ears adjust and increase tolerance to sound.
It came as a shock to me that despite 27 plus years getting to understand brain injury and meeting many, many people with brain injury along the way – I had very little understanding of sensory changes.
Today’s article is a beginning for me, and I would appreciate any further comment, resources, experiences and information.
Finally here are a small number resources I found that relate to sensory overload and brain injury. They appear to have some useful, easily understandable, information:
Lost and Found: Caps, Sunglasses and Ear Plugs – this article focusses on strategies for managing sensory overload – termed sensory hypersensitivity here.
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