How to combat sensory overload and regain control of your emotions

How to combat sensory overload and regain control of your emotions
Taking a break from it all and going for a walk is a great way to combat sensory overload.Credit: Kilito Chan/Getty Images
  • Too much sensory input can overstimulate your brain and cause emotional distress or shutdown.
  • Sensory overload can happen with anxiety disorders, autism, and ADHD, but anyone can experience it.
  • Taking a break from the overwhelming situation as soon as you notice the first signs can help.

When a person becomes overwhelmed by their environment — including sights, sounds, smells, or touch — they may experience what's known as sensory overload.

This happens when information comes in at either too high volume or too fast a pace for your brain to process, says Joshua Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice and behavioral scientist.

While sensory overload is associated with certain health conditions — including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism — anyone can experience it.

Here's what to know about what causes sensory overload, what signs and symptoms it can trigger, and how to cope when it happens.

Key signs of sensory overload

While the symptoms of sensory overload can vary from person to person, it involves some common signs, according to Klapow and Jessica Myszak, PhD, licensed psychologist and the director of The Help and Healing Center.


These include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Feeling distressed or irritable
  • Racing heart
  • "Shutting down" or withdrawing from an activity or interaction
  • A sudden desire to escape a situation
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling exhausted or weak
  • Getting overly excited

"We all have different thresholds based on age, genetic make-up, and familiarity with the sensory input," says Klapow.

Conditions linked to sensory overload

While anyone can experience sensory overload, it is more common in adults with a sensory processing disorder and in children — especially those with autism.

Note: According to a 2017 study, sensory overload can trigger meltdowns in children that may be mistaken for tantrums. If they're covering their ears or eyes, that could be a sign that they're feeling flooded by sensory information.

The following are conditions that can make a person more prone to sensory overload:



Hyperreactivity to sensory input is a core feature of autism, says Myszak. A small 2019 study found this may be because many autistic children never get used to repeated touch or sound, even after several minutes. For some autistic people, sensory overload can feel so distressing that it leads to aggressive behavior.


People living with ADHD may be easily distractible and have difficulty regulating their emotions, says Myszak. Since different sources of sensory information are constantly competing for their attention, they can quickly become overwhelmed.

Anxiety disorders, like PTSD

Anxiety disorders, particularly PTSD, can alter brain activity and trigger a physiological state known as hypervigilance where sensory input processing is heightened, says Klapow. This can lead to distraction, feeling overwhelmed, or emotional numbness. It could even trigger a traumatic flashback or panic attack.

Neurological diseases, like fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis

With fibromyalgia, your brain processes stimuli — especially tactical stimuli — differently, says Klapow. Your brain might even perceive pain from harmless physical stimuli, like putting on a shirt or having rain fall on your head.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) disrupts the flow of nerve impulses, making it more difficult for your brain to handle sensory stimuli.



Disorders affecting cognitive functioning, like Alzheimer's, can reduce a person's ability to properly process sensory information in their environment. For example, they might struggle to accurately interpret what they're hearing, which can lead to confusion, agitation, and overstimulation.

What's the impact?

Sensory overload can take a significant physical toll on your body because it activates the "fight or flight" response, says Myszak.

When your body perceives danger, it begins to pump out adrenaline — and over time, this hormonal surge can cause damage to the arteries and blood vessels, elevating your blood pressure and increasing your risk of stroke or heart attack.

As a result, sensory overload might lead to some of the other following negative consequences, according to Myszak and Klapow:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty regulating emotions

Coping with sensory overload

Myszak and Klapow suggest trying the following strategies for managing sensory overload:

  • Identify your triggers: Knowing your sensory triggers can help you actively avoid risky situations, says Myszak. For instance, if you know you can't handle a lot of noise at once, you might choose a quieter, more intimate restaurant for dinner with friends rather than a loud, crowded bar.
  • Take care of your physical needs: Your body is less equipped to handle sensory information when you're hungry or exhausted, says Myszak. That's why it's important to eat a well-balanced diet, stay hydrated, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Notice the signs: If you're aware of the early symptoms, you can remove yourself from overwhelming situations more quickly, says Klapow.
  • Take a break: If you start to feel flooded with sensory information, Klapow suggests stepping away from the current environment and allowing your brain to reset before you re-engage.
  • Know when to reach out: If sensory overload is affecting your ability to engage in work or school, have healthy relationships, or complete other daily activities, a therapist or doctor can help you identify your triggers and explore new ways to cope.

The role of sensory adaptation

Sensory adaptation is when your sensitivity to certain stimuli is reduced through more frequent and regular exposure, according to Klapow.

Consider, for example, the way a hot tub doesn't feel as hot after you've been soaking for a few minutes.

This helps your brain adapt so you can focus on new information in your environment — but it's also how your brain protects itself against sensory overload.

"The more experience your brain has with the sensory input, the less novel it is, and the better your brain becomes at processing the information," says Klapow.

Where does sensory deprivation come in?

Sensory deprivation means reducing or completely eliminating certain sounds, sights, smells, tastes, or physical textures. Examples include wearing noise-canceling headphones or a blindfold.


Note. While short-term sensory deprivation sessions may have a relaxing effect, extended periods of sensory deprivation have been linked to hallucinations. So, consider asking your doctor or therapist about whether sensory deprivation could work for you — or ultimately make things worse.

The longer you deprive yourself of certain sensory information, the more heightened your response is likely to be when you face that info again, says Klapow. For example, spending time in a downtown urban area after being isolated from city sounds may quickly lead to sensory overload.

Insider's takeaway

Sensory overload has been linked to autism, PTSD, ADHD, dementia, and some neurological disorders — but anyone can experience it.

Keep in mind that sensory overload affects people differently: Some may feel overly excited or unable to focus, while others may have an urge to withdraw.

Regularly experiencing sensory overload can negatively affect physical and mental health, which is why experts recommend learning your triggers, taking time out away from overwhelming situations, and reaching out for professional support when you need it.