Here’s what I do when I’m experiencing sensory overload

by | Mar 11, 2022 | Last updated Jan 5, 2023

Dani Kam, Content Writer at Noom 

When I enter a restaurant that’s packed extremely tight, a bar with strobe lights, or a small apartment where people are laughing just a touch too loud, I feel like a computer when it has too many tabs open—I freeze. You may have experienced something similar, and if you have, you know that this system malfunction has a name: sensory overload. Sensory overload is when your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) are taking in more stimuli than your brain can process at once. When my senses go into overdrive, I feel irritable, anxious, restless, and physically uncomfortable. In other words: nothing fun (and I’m sure I’m not alone in this feeling). While it’d be great to avoid situations in which I know I’ll be triggered (and I often do), it’s not always something I can predict, and sometimes, I don’t want to miss out on the fun (ya know, FOMO). So, when I’m feeling anxious in the moment, these are the steps I take to cope.

Find the nearest bathroom, stat

When I feel like I’m about to spontaneously combust, I make my way to the closest facilities. Not only will no one ask you why you were away for so long, but you’ll also basically have a personal box for your own convenience and calming. You can breathe, call a friend, play a game on your phone, wear a seat cover as a necklace, sit (but, please, take the seat cover choker off and place it down first), or anything that makes you feel good. Taking a much-needed minute (or a solid 20, if I’m being honest) helps me to bring my system back to a balanced state instead of spiraling off into another dimension. 

Hold some ice

I was introduced to this concept when I was out to eat for a friend’s birthday. We were in a crowded corner of an already tiny restaurant, located directly under the speakers. The music was blasting louder than a stage mom at her daughter’s beauty pageant, the waiter was nowhere to be found, and I was starving. All of a sudden, I felt my panic rise and my system started to shut down. My best friend noticed my imminent meltdown and she reached into her glass, scooped out a piece of ice, and rubbed it on the palm of my hand. (Yes, she’s very smart and a good friend, and I highly recommend finding someone like her.) This was the perfect tool to bring me back into the moment. It made my brain focus on what was currently happening: feeling the cold ice in my hand. It truly felt like a defibrillator that brought me back to life. 

Figure out an exit strategy 

A lot of my sensory overload is triggered when I think that I have to be somewhere or am unable to leave. But, something I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that it’s always okay to bounce if you’re feeling uncomfortable. People will understand. And if they don’t, I’d consider finding new people—your mental and physical health should always take precedence. This technique has gotten me out of many uneasy situations, because even if I don’t decide to exit at that exact moment, I have a plan in place for when things go south. Usually, the plan consists of me saying something like “I’m so tired, I’m heading out but I’ll text you when I’m home safe!” to whoever needs to know, and then, I swiftly remove myself. I don’t give anyone a chance to convince me to stay, I’ve set my boundaries, and already promised I’d let them know when I’m snuggled in bed. Win-win-win. It can also help to set expectations beforehand, like telling the people you’re out with that you’ll only be able to stay for a few hours. When you do leave, they won’t be shocked and if you stay, it’s a nice little surprise. Underpromise and overdeliver, y’all. 

Sensory overload can be scary, but having a plan in place for how to deal in the moment, makes me feel (1) extremely responsible for being a proactive mental health queen and (2) much, much better. 10/10 would recommend coming up with your own sensory overload scheme (and of course, feel free to use mine—we don’t gatekeep here).