5 Ways I Deal With Sensory Overload From Multiple Sclerosis


Multiple sclerosis (MS) has a huge arsenal of tricks up its sleeve so that things that seem oddly random or bizarre may go “undetected.” It means that my symptoms may not be the same as yours, or we may have some of the same symptoms and others not. I am guilty of not reporting a whole host of weird and wonderful symptoms, thinking that it’s just a glitch and that it cannot possibly be related to MS. Some of the things that have been going on inside my body and my head have been so “odd,” like sensory overload, that I had been very reluctant to tell my neurologist about them. That is until, one day, a friend of mine told me that it’s my role to “report the symptoms, not to diagnose them.”

So, what is sensory overload? Sensory overload occurs when the brain and nervous system is bombarded with too much sensory input from one or more sensory sources and the incoming sensory messages cannot be adequately filtered or processed.

Three of my five senses are often bombarded when I am out and about, which can be overwhelming. So, like with anything else, I have devised coping strategies to either alleviate or reduce the overload. Smell, sight and hearing are the senses most affected by outside stimuli and if any one of these senses is overloaded for a period of time, I can feel the headaches coming on, and, in extreme cases, a migraine.

Strong scented flowers and perfumes are instant triggers, as are bright and/or flashing lights, cluttered, messy spaces and loud, sudden noises, repetitive sounds or too many different sounds that I find hard to filter. Any of these stimuli are almost guaranteed to put my senses (and me!) on edge.

My idea of hell, therefore, would be a rave party held in a field of hyacinths in the middle of the night.

Obviously, one cannot stop living. There is a lot of living still to be done: people to see, places to go and things to do – you know the drill.

So, the following five techniques are some of the coping strategies I use to help me tackle sensory overload in everyday situations:

1. Earplugs. These can be a real lifesaver when out and about in noisy, crowded places. They don’t drown out all of the noise but they do help reduce the amount of noise and make the noise levels much more bearable.

2. Sunglasses. I carry them with me everywhere. I’ve been known to wear them at concerts too. Indoors, outdoors,  and anywhere where the lighting is just too harsh. A super cool pair of sunglasses are sure to do the trick to reduce the glare and minimize the visual overload.

3. Soft-glow light bulbs. These things are just amazing! Like I seriously freakin’ love them!! All of the high-voltage bulbs in our house have been replaced with the “soft-glow” energy savers. These bulbs give the room a warm, soft hue that is both soothing and relaxing… and, at the same time, you are reducing your carbon footprint. Win-Win!

4. Online shopping. Sometimes avoidance is inevitable. So, for those days when the senses feel particularly heightened and staying in the comfort of your own home is inevitable, online shopping can be a real lifesaver. Swapping a brightly lit, crowded coffee shop for PJs and the sofa doesn’t sound like too bad a trade-off. And it means you get to maintain a certain amount of control over your life. Thank goodness for online shopping – I can still do the grocery shopping, buy the kids’ school clothes and arrange the dog’s groom all without moving my tooshie one inch out of the house!

5. Vicks VapoRub and ground coffee. Intrigued? This is a nifty little trick I read about. There are certain smells that I really struggle with that make me feel nauseous and my head hurt. (Hyacinths would be one such culprit.) So, to save me from publicly displaying my gagging reflex, I carry a tiny container of coffee grounds with me. For the stronger smells, I have a jar of Vicks VapoRub that I can dab under my nostrils to block out the offending smell.

I’d love to hear what coping strategies other MS warriors use to cope with the symptoms of MS.

Follow this journey on Kerry Ann F.

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