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21 People Describe What Sensory Overload Feels Like

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Sensory overload happens when too much sensory stimulus is occurring at once — it can be triggered by a crowded room, a TV turned up too loud, strong aromas, fluorescent lighting — or a hundred other things. It’s often associated with certain diagnoses like autism, sensory processing disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder and more, although anyone can experience it.

Sensory overload can be overwhelming, scary and exhausting, and may require a person to separate him or herself from a situation, perform a calming ritual or in some cases, melt down. It’s a hard experience to understand unless you’ve felt it. So, we asked our readers who’ve experienced sensory overload to describe what it’s like.

This is what they had to say:

1. “Do you remember the movie ‘Bruce Almighty’? He was receiving prayer requests by hearing them in his head as they occurred, hundreds at a time. They became jumbled, and he became frustrated and couldn’t make sense of any of them. Sensory overload is like that. Everything is coming at me at once, but it seems I’m the only one noticing. I can hear my heartbeat, I can feel the heat of the lamps, I can’t function. I’m frozen, stuck. It usually takes a shock to get me back from this, like a touch if I’m not being touched, or a change of environment or cold water on my skin.” — Meredith Lime

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2. “Sometimes it just feels like you need everything around you to pause… It’s like a bunch of things occurring while a bunch of other things are approaching at the same time — like a spinning room.” — TwoMlln Thghts AndCntg

3. “During an auditory overload, just about every sound can feel like someone took a microphone to it and set it on full blast.” — Chelle Neufeld

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4. “I hear everything when in sensory overload. But it’s not as if I can hear what is being said; rather it is just many, many sounds, unfiltered and loud. It feels like sounds are coming at me from every direction. Lights from all directions also seem to glare in my eyes. Sensory overload is horrible.” — Laura Seil Ruszczyk

5. “It’s like when your computer freezes because there are too many tasks open or a task is stuck. And your brain hits ‘Ctrl-Alt-Del’ automatically. In my case, this means sudden fatigue, balance problems, speaking problems, disorientation.” — Zahra Khan

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6. “Too much, noise, lights, sensation, all bombarding my body. [I] cannot stop feeling all of it and can’t shut it off… Your normal filters cease to work, you can’t stop hearing the sounds, talking, cars, etc., can’t stop seeing the lights, colors, can’t stop feeling it all so intensely.” — Susan Coughlin Broad

7. “I would explain it as walking into an amusement park with eight young kids on a hot summer day. Imagine all the senses you would be feeling at that time — hot, sticky, screaming kids all wanting to do different things, noises coming from all different places, music from all the rides, voices, babies crying, noises from all the rides.” — Frankie Hathaway

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8. “I hear both everything and nothing at the same time. It feels like you are surrounded by a circular wall and all the walls are folding in on themselves at once.” — Jana Young

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9. “Imagine walking into a room filled with 25 72-inch flat-screen TVs that all have super-high definition and surround sound, but they’re all playing different movies. On full blast. At the same time. And the door is locked, so you can’t get out. Feeling anxious? Now imagine getting the same reaction just from being at the grocery store and having to drive home with your infant in the backseat. Yeah, that’s what it’s like.” — Jenalyn Cloward Barton

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10. “It feels like being trapped on a merry-go-round. All the lights and sounds come and go so quickly you can’t make sense of any of it. You’re up and then you’re down. No matter what you can’t get off. You have to wait for the ride to be over.” — Hailey Remigio

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11. “Sensory overload for me is hearing sounds from all directions and wanting to jump out of my skin because of it. My worst experience involved a television show, rain and wind outside, my husband’s laughter and my son telling me he loved me. I was feeling the sounds in every inch of my body, and it physically hurt me. I felt as if I had hot pokers up and down my spine with cactuses being pushed into my palms with a side of sandpaper down my throat. The only relief came when I left the room for a few minutes to escape and decompress.” — Rea Ball

12. “Imagine being tied to the front of a freight train during a hurricane with an iPod on the highest volume of the most annoying song you know.” — Melanie Johanson

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13. “It feels as though I’m trapped and restricted in a glass case that I can’t escape, and the overwhelming fear and anxiety climbs up my body and throat in an almost suffocating way. All I can think to do is escape.” — Laura Spoerl

14. “Sensory overload feels like, for me, everything is crawling. My skin is crawling, noises feel like they are crawling in and out of my ears, blood is skittering out of my heart, air is crawling out of my lungs and racing up and down my throat.” — Janette Luyk Postma

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15. “It feels like my head is like a cup of hot water. My whole body starts to overheat, and every question from a co-worker, student or even the phone ringing is like more water being added to the cup. Obviously the cup starts to overflow, and I can’t take any more. I have to step away, get air, lean against a wall. And I never notice there is a problem brewing until it is too late.” — Virginia Wilson

16. “I tell people that it’s like taking a bite of cake, but, instead of simply enjoying the cake, your brain decides that it needs to identify every single ingredient/texture/flavor of the cake all at exactly the same moment. That’s what sensory overload is like for me — my brain picking apart the general ‘din’ into individual bits of stimuli while trying to process each bit individually all at exactly the same moment.” — Kristy Steele Rose

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17. “Imagine standing in the middle of a large dance floor, music blasting and dozens of people dancing wildly around you. Now imagine that the lights are being turned on and off with no pattern or warning at all. You glance through the crowd to find someone across the room who is waving at you and saying something to you, but you can’t hear them. You can tell from their gestures and their facial expression that what they’re saying is important, but you can’t focus long enough to grasp their words. Every emotion a person can have floods your mind — anger, fear, resentment, sadness, hopelessness. But your feet are glued to the dance floor. There’s no escape, and no one around you sees what you see — chaos and doom.” — Jill Toler

18. “It’s like being underwater at the beach while the waves wash away your thoughts. You’re struggling to catch a breath, but every time you are able to reach the surface, you are struck by another wave and you can’t organize a coherent thought. You can’t get on top of it and you start to panic.” — Sam Gee

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19. “Imagine opening a door, and through it you think will be a peaceful valley with rolling hills, trees, birds and not a soul around, but when you take that first step you are then falling down from an airplane with no parachute.” — Genevieve Geehan

20. “[It’s] like being inside a pinball machine.” — Ali Canellas Carlton

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21. “Every sense you have is already naturally exaggerated, and an overload is having every sense explode beyond anything tolerable. Every sound is a deafening explosion, every light like a flash of a bomb, every sense at the extreme. As a result your brain starts to panic, and all it acknowledges is the senses and how strong they are… It’s an incredibly painful experience and its something I have come to fear.” — Hallie Ervin

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How would you describe sensory overload? Let us know in the comments below.

Getty image by Pornpak Khunatorn

Originally published: February 11, 2016
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