The Mighty Logo

5 Ways to Deal With Sensory Overload During the COVID-19 Crisis

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

A few weeks ago, I was unnaturally calm in the midst of panic and uncertainty. I laughed at coronavirus-related memes with my friends, questioned the behavior of those who were hoarding food and refused to believe our lives would soon be turned upside down. I used humor and denial as coping mechanisms for my underlying anxiety about the pandemic and its growing impact on our communities. It was only when the number of infections, warnings and closures increased that reality started to settle in.

I began receiving memes at a more rapid pace, along with news alerts, emails of reassurance and a flurry (more like blizzard) of texts from friends and family. As a highly sensitive person, I could feel the rush of tension rising up and engulfing me in information overload. I absorbed everything from social distancing tips and donation opportunities to rising unemployment numbers and epidemiological predictions. I empathized with the most vulnerable and imagined all the ways lives were being disrupted and shattered by the outbreak. I had difficulty sleeping and concentrating on menial tasks as I worried about the world around me.

With the nationwide move towards staying home and relying on devices for communication, I knew I had to come up with a way to maintain connectedness while minimizing overstimulation from all the noise. In the past two weeks, I’ve tested out five strategies to help reduce sensory overload and create a better space for me mentally.

1. Social Media Distancing

I’ve done social media detoxes in the past, and I’ve always come out of them feeling like I hit a mental reset button. But once I log back in, I get sucked into the same old habits of mindlessly scrolling for hours on end, feeling restless with each post I take in. With the rise of coronavirus updates and the need for social distancing, we’re glued to social media now more than ever before. To avoid excessive screen time and information overload, I’ve decided to delete several apps from my phone and practice social media distancing. While I still need to use social media for work (which specifically deals with COVID-19 crisis engagement), I’ve been logging in through my laptop and limiting the amount of time I spend on personal channels via phone. (Tip: On Instagram, there’s a setting that tells you if you’ve reached your maximum time spent on the app for the day. If you have an iPhone, you can monitor your app activity on there as well.)

2. Managing Notifications

I normally set my phone to silent or the “do not disturb” setting because ringtones and text tones make me cringe, especially if the sound frequency is too high. This often leads to missed calls — and slightly annoyed friends. To help alleviate this problem, I’ve been trying out ringtones that are more soothing and familiar, like movie theme songs (my ringtone is currently Hedwig’s theme from “Harry Potter”). Banners, badges and other notifications for new and unread items can also be overwhelming, especially when I see too many at once. I’ve turned most of these off for nonessential email inboxes and apps, and have set aside time to view updates as needed.

3. Exploring Alternative Ways to Get the News

Scrolling through news can take me down rabbit holes. I could be reading one article about the number of COVID-19 cases in my county, and then spend the next hour reading 15 articles about the lifespan of the virus on different surfaces. With the rise of coronavirus-related articles and clickbait headlines, I’ve decided to turn off news alerts and stop reading news feeds. To stay updated, I’ve been listening to podcasts every morning and evening, and sticking to only two to three news sites for actual reading.

4. Engaging in Device-Free Activities

Exercise, meditation, cleaning and cooking have been the main activities that have helped me stay mindful, present and calmer in the face of the pandemic. Before catching up on news and emails, I start every morning with a guided meditation. When it’s nice out, I’ve been going on walks (at a safe distance away from others) to get a change of scenery, fresh air and natural sounds. And while virtual workout classes require a device for casting, they’ve been taking me away from the small screens and helping me stay healthy. I struggle with cleaning and cooking the most, but I still try to do both when I have the energy and motivation. When I can’t get myself to be more productive, I spend my time napping, reading, snacking and binge-watching TV shows, which I still consider necessary activities given everything that’s going on right now.

5. Establishing Boundaries With Friends and Family

I left my phone for only 15 minutes recently and came back to more than 30 text messages from a group chat. It’s important to check in with loved ones, especially now, but the increase in messages can be too much to handle at times. For me, there’s a constant struggle to either maintain a running conversation or respond to several unread messages at once. To confront this issue, I started muting group chats and setting aside a few times throughout the day when I can check these messages. I’ve also set expectations with my friends and family to let them know when I’m busy, and when would be the best hours to reach me. To take a break from messages, I’ve scheduled more video chats, which a lot of us have found to be the best way to stay connected with others as we stay home.

So far, all of these strategies have helped me clear my mind and ease some of the anxiety I’ve been feeling from the uptick in sensory engagement during this crisis.

I’d love to add more to this list, so if there’s something that’s been helpful for you, leave a comment or tweet me @doryvu.

Concerned about coronavirus? Stay safe using the tips from these articles:

Getty image via holaillustrations

Originally published: March 27, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home