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Can Anxiety Cause Sensory Overload?


We all feel overwhelmed sometimes. Whether that’s through workload or just things piling up, it happens to all of us. A similar thing can happen with our senses. Have you ever walked into a place with really loud music and loads of lights and things going on around you and thought, wow that’s a bit much? That’s what we mean when we say sensory overload, and it’s something that’s been linked with people who suffer with anxiety.


As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. The stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline are released and this puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze. 


Why Can Anxiety Cause Sensory Overload?

There’s a load of reasons why anxiety might contribute to sensory overload, including that when we activate our fight, flight or freeze response our body goes through something called hyperstimulation. When this happens all our senses are heightened and we feel hyper aware of what’s going on around us. This might be due to the increase in electrical activity in our brain, but it can feel overwhelming at first. We’re not used to this amount of sensory information all at once, but our brain does this to give us all the information that we might need in order to tackle the perceived threat.


Another reason for sensory overload might be due to the fatigue that comes with this heightened state of stress. When we’re in this hypersensitive, survival state, our essential processes are working at close to 100% and depleting our blood sugar levels in the process. As a result, when the perceived threat passes, we can feel exhausted. This fatigue makes everything seem that more extreme and irritating. Think about it, if you’re tired and someone is talking loudly, it’s annoying, but if you were more awake and alert and that same person spoke at the same volume, it wouldn’t feel half as overwhelming. 


How Can I Stop This Symptom?

As this symptom stems from our fight, flight or freeze response, the main thing that we can do to combat it is to focus on our breathing and allow it to become deeper and longer. This should calm our central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and deactivate our fight, flight or freeze response allowing our senses, including our senses to return to their normal state.


Of course, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety occurring in the first place, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.