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How Sensory Overload Affects Me as Someone With Anxiety, ADHD, and Bipolar Disorder

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Many people don’t know that “sensory overload” doesn’t only happen to those who have autism. I am diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, all of which also have sensory processing issues. Granted, they are often not as severe as those found in autism, but certain things can cause me to have a “meltdown” just the same.

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As a disclaimer, everyone who has sensory issues experiences them differently. I, specifically, struggle the most with auditory input. This is not the case for everyone.

To get into examples of how this affects me, due to my ADHD, I can sometimes get angry because too many sources of auditory input cause my mind to go haywire. When there’s a conversation and music or a TV playing in the background, my mind usually becomes a mess because I don’t know what to focus on. I can’t concentrate on either noise completely, so I end up taking in both of them and not understanding what’s happening from either source, which is really overwhelming. It’s also embarrassing when I can’t follow a conversation that everyone else can.

Then, when I’m anxious and on the verge of a panic attack, my mind is working so fast I genuinely can’t handle external stimuli. When I’m in that state, my mind is so full of the noises that are my racing thoughts, and those thoughts get so loud I can’t handle hearing anything else. If I do, I will break down crying until the cries turn into sobs and I am unable to help myself. If I still don’t find quiet, it’s not uncommon those sobs turn into suicidal thoughts, because I just need the world to stop.

Having bipolar disorder is a whole other story in itself. My sensory processing issues are the worst due to that — especially when I’m manic. Nothing is worse for me than having my sensory issues combined with mania, because when I’m manic, I’m enraged over everything already. When one little thing is added to that, I can’t take it. If something is too loud, I need to turn the volume down or I’ll scream. And when I’m not medicated, I do mean I’ll scream.

For instance, in high school, before I was diagnosed with anything, too many conversations happening around me would send me into a fit of rage. It would all be just too much to handle, hearing John and Kelly talk on my left while Tim and Brad had a conversation behind me while Emily and Sarah chatted on my right, leaving me feeling overwhelmed. I remember sitting there, wanting to crawl out of my skin just so I could escape everything that was going on around me. And when a teacher would try to talk over my peers and regather the class to learn (only adding on to the chaos), I’d actually lose it. The entire class would fall dead silent as I’d yell with wide eyes and a booming voice, “Everyone, just shut up!

Because when you have a disorder that involves sensory overload, it takes a long time to learn how to control it. And even when it is well-controlled, you’ll still struggle to hide it sometimes. The other day, I felt a panic attack coming on at a festival and was stuck because I couldn’t just shut off the music that was blaring through the speakers for the whole crowd. I found myself plugging my ears, getting weird looks from the people around me, yet not caring because it’d be worse if I started sobbing. Finally, the person I went to the event with was ready to go and the second I got in the car, I broke down, crying hysterically because it had all been too much.

And that’s genuinely the only way to explain it. Everything going on around you becomes too much, to the point where things you normally don’t even notice have your full attention. There are times where my own breathing feels too loud for my ears, that’s how overwhelming noise can get. And when it’s that overwhelming, you’d do anything to feel a little better. Even if it means screaming, even if it means crying, even if it means freezing in place, you’d do anything. Absolutely anything.

Can you relate? Let Mel know in the comments below.

Getty image Oksana Stepova

Originally published: July 22, 2019
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