Sensory Overload: Definition & Symptoms

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  • 0:01 What Is Sensory Overload?
  • 2:00 Hearing & Vision
  • 2:56 Smell & Touch
  • 3:54 Taste
  • 4:26 Symptoms of Sensory Overload
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica McCallister

Jessica has a Doctorate degree in Social Work

Some people are sensitive to the effects of experiencing more sensory information than they are able to process at any given time. A definition and symptoms of sensory overload are provided in this lesson, as is a quiz to assess your understanding of the topic.

What Is Sensory Overload?

Imagine going to a rock concert that you have been anxiously waiting to attend for months. When you finally get to the stadium, you begin to feel energized, a bit nervous, and even a little dizzy or lightheaded. Inside the stadium, there are masses of people all around and you hear a loud buzzing sound from everyone talking, laughing, and having a good time. When the band comes on stage, the entire crowd stands, cheers, and screams so loud that it is almost deafening. Lights flash, the bass drum from the band gets very loud and makes your chest thump, your palms begin to sweat from the excitement and energy! You are experiencing sensory overload.

People can experience sensory overload in a variety of situations, events, or places. Have you ever been to Disney World in Orlando, Florida? Amusement parks are full of all sorts of activities and bustle. Crowds of families, amusement rides, and aromas from the food vendors all contribute to sensory overload. Have you ever been to London, England? What about Las Vegas, Nevada? Places like these are very heavy in sensory stimuli, such as sights, colors, sounds, smells, and so on.

When someone experiences more sensory information than he or she can process, the effect is sensory overload. Sensory overload can happen:

  • At a rock concert
  • At an amusement park
  • In a large city, such as New York, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, London, or Paris
  • At a Broadway musical or other theatrical event
  • At a zoo
  • While walking through an airport
  • Children may experience sensory overload while attending daycare

Can you think of a place you have been or a situation you have been in that produced sensory overload?

To more fully understand sensory overload, a brief overview of the five senses will be helpful. The senses that the body uses to function and cope on a daily basis include: hearing, vision, smell, touch, and taste. Let's take a brief look at each of the senses.

Hearing & Vision

Ears process sound. From the day someone is born, he or she hears everything surrounding her or him. There are loud sounds, quiet sounds, harsh or sharp sounds, and sounds that are pleasant and soothing. The ears process sounds constantly, even when you sleep. Therefore, the ears are one of the major sense organs the body uses to function. Sources of hearing sensory overload may include a loud concert or music, vehicle traffic, and large crowds of people.

The eyes process images. The pupils of the eyes dilate in darkness in order to take in as much light as possible to see. In bright light, the pupils of the eyes constrict so as to not take in as much light, preventing possible damage to the eye.

Sources that may cause visual sensory overload are a museum with many exhibits; an amusement park with many attractions, rides, and shops; and downtown Las Vegas (the visual stimuli from all of the resorts is breathtaking).

Smell & Touch

The nose takes in and processes smells and odors. There are many different types of smells and odors associated with foods, perfumes, plants, etc. For some, smelling certain fragrances can induce calming effects. Sometimes people can associate a smell with a memory of an event, a certain person, or a certain place they have traveled.

Smell sensory overload can come from aromas in the kitchen, cleaning products, and aromatherapy or essential oils from a health or beauty spa.

Touch is a sensation that is experienced quite differently by people. For some, being touched is very uncomfortable, while for others, touch is a very comfortable and soothing feeling. From a hug or a pat on the back or shoulder to holding someone's hand, touch is a sense that is often associated with human connection.

Overload from touch can come from several sources, including the feel of scratchy clothes; walking through sand on the beach; feeling and using arts and crafts mediums, like clay, sand, pebbles, or paint; and petting an animal or aquatic creature.

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