Sensory Overload is a Growing Problem for Parents. Luckily, it is Manageable.

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You are sitting cross-legged on the couch. Hair in a sloppy bun, or matted down from a restless night’s sleep.

Your outfit has slowly moved from jeans and a nice top, to cute athletic-wear, to it’s final stop – a dirty t-shirt that you’ve had since high school and some unattractive sweatpants.

You have become the poster child for crisis-induced, autopilot parents everywhere.

You can see that your kid’s mouths are moving as they shout at you for another waffle, spill milk, and throw a football at you; yet, you can’t hear them.

Just when you think you are numb to the chaos, the sharp sound of the doorbell jars you into action. Was the doorbell always that loud?

Those daily activities you need to do and schedules you need to remember that usually run laps inside your head have suddenly gone silent, too.

You, my friend, are experiencing something called sensory overload.

It’s real. It’s common. And this vicious cycle is a classless, vulgar jerk.

Sensory Overload at It’s Finest

Sensory overload happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can manage and process. For some people, this feels like your brain is “stuck”, and you can’t focus or prioritize things.

When we hear about sensory overload, we often think of children being impacted. In reality, many adults are sensitive to overstimlation, too.

According to research done by social psycologist Elaine Aaron, 15-20% of people are “highly sensitive” to overstimulation from their environment.

She explains in her article, “Highly Sensitive People and Depression,” that chronic environmental experiences and internal overstimulation cause higher levels of anxiety and depression.

There are five different types of overstimulation that can negatively impact mental health.

It is obvious to me that most parents are experiencing some, if not all 5, of these on a daily basis:

  1. Stimulation that is chronic- Who doesn’t feel like the stress or unpleasant circumstances are constant during this long pandemic?
  2. Body Stimulation– Are you feeling physically tired, hungry, or anxious for long periods at a time?
  3. Stimulation from inner thoughts– Do you constantly think about “what if’s” or the unknown future?
  4. Friend and family stimulation– Are you helping others, like your children or spouse, manage their own emotional stressors and conflicts?
  5. Chemically-related stimulation- The cashier at the liquor store knows me by name. Enough said.

Think you’re the only one?

It’s no surprise that I am not the only one who feels this way. According to a Gallup poll, even back in May almost a quarter of all adults polled agreed that they were experiencing harm to their emotional and mental wellness due to social distancing and closures. We can only estimate that number has risen further.

The current state of our world is the perfect storm for sensory overload.

Even in normal circumstances, quarantine aside, it was no surprise we felt this way with our chaotic schedules and constant activities.

Related: The Quarantine Stole my Love for Motherhood. This is how I will get it back.

But, is There a Cure?

When left untreated, sensory overload can lead to anxiety and depression.

Luckily, this three-step method can help you effectively manage the stimulation and control the sensory input.

Step One: Learn Your Trigger Level

What are your biggest sensory triggers? Is there a certain activity or certain time in the day when you can’t handle the stimulation?

For me, it is in the morning when I am trying to make breakfast, brush kid’s teeth, log onto my computer, and let the dogs out. When arms are flailing, kids are yelling, and I cannot even muster the mental energy to form a legit sentence.

If you aren’t sure what your trigger level is, look for these signs of overstimulation:

  • Experiencing “fight or flight” signs, such as heart racing, rapid breathing, or irritability
  • Having difficulty making decisions or communicating effectively
  • Feeling mentally exhausted after doing a certain task

Once you determine these triggers that lead you to tip over to that numbing feeling of overload, you can work to settle the static in your mind in step two.

Step Two: Declutter Your Mind

There are simple ways to slow the sensory wave flooding your brain.

First, be aware of the signs that you are about to reach your sensory level. It is important to identify these feelings so that you can take a step back and settle the storm.

If you find yourself in one of these moments, don’t fight through it. Step out of the room and try to clear your thoughts.

Try one of these deep breathing exercises:

  1. Belly Breathing: Get comfortable. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, and breathe in deeply. As you breathe in, feel your belly rise. As you breathe out, feel your belly lower. The hand on your belly should move more than the one that’s on your chest.
  2. Focus Breathing: Close your eyes. Breathe in. As you do that, imagine that the air is filled with a sense of peace and calm. Try to feel it throughout your body. Breathe out. While you’re doing it, imagine that the air leaves with your stress and tension.

Another great way to declutter your brain is with a brain dump. A brain dump is essentially a method of writing down all of the unhelpful thoughts that race in your mind. The purpose is to organize your thoughts on paper.

There are several ways to prevent overstimulation.

  • Meditate or do yoga once a day
  • Reduce time on technology, which is often just a distraction in life
  • Unload your thoughts on paper. When you write out your lists and stressors, you can start to visualize solutions and stop your brain from running in circles.
Related: Sleep Tips Designed for Moms who Need a Good Night’s Sleep

Step Three: Declutter your environment

Studies have found a link between stress levels in women and a cluttered household. 

When you remove clutter, you can improve the quality of life.

To declutter your home, tackle one room at a time.

In that room, move every item to the center of the room. If it is not an item used regularly or one that hold value, throw it out.

Eliminating physical and material clutter in your surroundings is an important step in reducing negative stimulation.

Related: How I Eliminated Toy Clutter, and the Impact it had on my Kids

Final Thoughts

That zombie-like state you slip into from time to time is fully normal.

And that guilt-causing urge you feel to run out of the room, out the front door, and keep running – that is normal, too.

Let this simple three-step method be your life-vest as you are drowning in the flood of intense stimulation. You got this!

If you found this helpful, share it and follow us on Facebook for more honest parenting posts.

References

1) “Highly Sensitive People And Depression,” by Susan Meindl, www.highlysensitive.org, 2019

2) What is Sensory Overload? https://www.healthline.com/health/sensory-overload, Accessed 8-25-2020.

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