“Write about that which you know”. Isn’t that the advice given to our beloved Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? Well, today I know sensory overload. So this is what I’m writing about.
I have chronic pain. It’s due to Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome (Hypermobility) and is mostly low level thanks to the painkillers I have been prescribed to take daily. But I do have flare ups and these can be due to stress, weather, overdoing it, illness, or extra physical activity. It can take a bit of digging to figure it out.
Today’s flare up of sensory overload is the result of an adrenaline rush, extra walking and a few busy days. I knew I was more fragile than usual as soon as I opened my eyes this morning… and felt hit between the eyes by the day.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload is experienced by many people with autism, or chronic pain and most people will have experienced it is some form or other; the background noise that means you can’t hear yourself think or the bright lights that give you a headache.
The sensory overload that I’m talking about however, is when a person has a built in sensory sensitivity due to an ongoing experience or condition, and sensory processing that is already challenging is rendered overwhelming on a fairly frequent basis.
I woke up in pain, so my nervous system was already overloaded before my feet hit the ground. Cue noisy 7 year old daughter racing around the house, and I hit unmanageable levels of sensory input. It sucks to feel stressed out by the happy sounds of your own child. For me, the experience makes me panicky, shaky, emotional and the desire to hide is overpowering.
While for me, sensory overload is most often triggered by the noisiness and physical demands of parenting, others struggling with sensory overload will have experienced the pain of needing to avoid meeting with friends too frequently. Because the overload adds to their pain and fatigue they face the choice between sensory overload and a sense of social isolation.
So what to do?
How can we better manage sensory overload? We can review or adjust our medication. Now that I think about it, I could have taken pain killers earlier but I forgot because my processing was inhibited. Sigh. Brain fog just when you don’t need it. We can retreat to quiet and rest until our sensory processing stabilizes. And this one is my least favourite – We can accept that we aren’t at full functioning capacity, and treat ourselves kindly as we recover.
I truly hate this last option. It’s so hard to write off a day to recovery. But as I write I know I’m not the only one battling this, I’m not the only one who finds it hard. This is my story but it’s also our story. And I take courage and comfort from the knowledge that my need to find space for recovery is more than the result of personal failure; but simply the way my mind and body demand humane treatment.
What humane treatment does your mind or body need today?
Where will you find rest?
What sensory overload are you needing respite from, and what preventative measures can you put in place to protect you in the future?
I hear you on the horrid experience of the joy of your child adding to your sensory overload! It is one of the things I find the absolute hardest in my own life, having to ask my son (who also has sensory processing issues) to give me space, because I simply cannot process sound or movement when I have a migraine.
It’s also really hard to explain how the effort required to process sensory input can lead to a flare in symptoms. Because it’s not often talked about, is it? Throughout my PIP application I have mentioned my anxiety is linked to the uncertainty of if and when I’ll hit that sensory limit, and how I will cope when I do. They do not accept that this is how anxiety works.
But knowing that you often feel overwhelmed can cause so much social isolation, because you begin to fear making any kind of plans. Simply meeting a friend whose company you enjoy can be overwhelming, for so many reasons. For me it can be bright (or artificial) light, background sounds I have to filter out, or symptoms of pain or nausea that were low enough to ignore in the quiet of my own room, but suddenly become overwhelming when in a different environment.
When you’re well, you never think about the sheer amount of sensory processing (and filtering) that you do every moment of the day, do you? But we all know how much harder it becomes to focus, how sensitive our ears can become to sounds, and how exhausting everything becomes when we have the common cold. So why we struggle so much to transfer that same experience to chronic illness/pain is quite baffling. But we do. I guess, because it’s so hard to accept that this is our “normal”.
Much love to you xx
Yes, acknowledging that this is what life looks like to us, is a hard thing to do. But as we all of our stories, the more we can acknowledge the story that is in front of us (and behind us!) rather than telling the story of what should/could have been, the more power we gain within that story. When I finally accepted today I was under the weather and NEEDED things (that I wish I didn’t need), the effort I was putting into frustration and resentment of this fact could be redirected towards getting those needs met. And relief all round! Our stories are so powerful… and especially when we are willing to tell our own!