Sensory Sensitivity and Overstimulation

If you are experiencing sensory overload after a traumatic brain injury - you are not alone. Being extra sensitive to stimulation often occurs after a TBI because your brain is trying to reorganize and stabilize itself - so even a little stimulation may be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s because the brain was injured in the part of the brain that’s responsible for sensory processing. The stress, pain and fatigue that can occur with a TBI can intensify senses - so you may find that things you were able to tune out before your injury can now bother you and cause sensory overload. 

Common triggers of sensory overload include: 

  • Background noise 
  • Excess noise 
  • Bright lights 
  • Itchy or uncomfortable clothing 
  • Unexpected touch 
  • Large crowds 
  • Strong or specific smells 

The key to managing sensory overload is to recognize when you are becoming frustrated, irritated or overwhelmed. Warning signs for sensory overload are often the same as anger

  • Speech changes - speaking loudly, cursing, name-calling, threats, and accusations 
  • Behavior changes - making fists, increased movement or fidgeting, angry facial expressions, moving closer to the object or person that frustrates you, breaking things, throwing things, threatening people, hitting, kicking, pacing, etc. 
  • Physiological signs - Fast breathing and rapid heart rate, sweating, tense muscles, flushed face or face feeling hot, bulging eyes, flared nostrils, churning/knots in your stomach, headaches 
  • Mental signs - Negative thoughts about others, confusion, feelings of frustration, feelings of fear or anxiety, feelings of embarrassment, shame or guilt, feelings of hurt, feeling sad, feeling overwhelmed, feeling impatient 

Strategies for coping with, or preventing, sensory overload include:  

  • Take a walk 
  • Take a time out (away from people) - retreat, relax, return
  • Talk to someone you trust 
  • Try to anticipate changes (if you can)  
  • Meditate and/or practice mindfulness 
  • Plan ahead - for example, grocery shop in the early morning when there are fewer people in the store 
  • Put something in your mouth to chew or suck on - strong flavors like peppermint or cinnamon are especially effective 
  • Put on soothing music 
  • Try to stick to a structured routine 
  • Know your limits - and let family and friends know when you need a break 
  • Give full attention to one task instead of multi-tasking 
  • Wear sunglasses if lights are overwhelming 
  • Use earplugs if needed and if safe to do so  
  • Take time to process before making decisions 
  • Avoid nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol as they can make your symptoms worse 
  • Make lists to organize goals, tasks, ideas - cross items off as you complete them 

You may also find that these strategies are helpful - weighted blanket, deep breathing, massage, letting warm water flow over your hands, chewing gum, eating crunchy foods, chores that involve the whole body (such as laundry). 

If experiencing any, or all, of these symptoms and would like additional resources and Get Support