What do large parties, grocery stores, and movie theaters have in common? Lots and lots of sensory stimuli delivering a potentially overwhelming combination of sounds, smells, lights, colors, and motion in a crowded space.
Sometimes sensory input, such as sounds, can cause significant pain, physical response, confusion, and fatigue in persons living with multiple sclerosis. Symptoms such as hyperacusis and stimulus-sensitive myoclonus (add link to new post) can become quite debilitating. Too much sensory input may also interfere with a person’s ability to interact with others and to function socially or professionally.
Sensory overload is not something that just affects children with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It can affect those of us living with MS.
There have been times that I’ve felt so overwhelmed by events that I mentally pictured myself curling up into a little ball wrapped under a blanket in complete darkness and silence seeking relief. Or times that too much information is coming in all at once, and making a simple decision becomes almost impossible.
What can you do about sensory overload?
1. Find out what your triggers are. Knowing what bothers you the most is the first step in doing something proactive to avoid the effects of sensory overload.
2. Keep the sound down. If you have control of your environment, try reducing the amount of noise. Avoid trying to multitask, for example watching TV and carrying on a conversation at the same time.
3. Block it out. Use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones to block out sound or to listen to something you find soothing instead. However, if you have tinnitus, this might make it more noticeable.
4. Try wireless headphones. If you have a family member who likes to listen to loud things, such as the TV or radio, ask them to use wireless headphones. They can enjoy their programs and you can enjoy silence or listen at a lower volume.
5. Change the lights. Use natural light as much as possible. Add dimmer switches to overhead lights in your home to adjust the lighting as needed. Swap out fluorescent bulbs for incandescent bulbs or LED lights.
6. Reduce the glare. Try wearing polarized sunglasses in unexpectedly bright environments, such as a grocery store, to reduce glare. Polarized lenses come in a variety of colors. Have fun with them.
7. Cap it off. Wear a baseball cap to block light overhead and reduce your field of vision. Less visual input coming in will help you focus on completing your task.
8. Grind it up. Use freshly ground coffee beans to reduce odors in your home or car. You might even want to carry around a very small container of coffee beans to sniff if you are out in public and become overwhelmed with smells. It helps to “clear the nose.”
9. Clear the clutter. Visual chaos can overwhelm the mind as much as lights or sound and clutter can be dangerous, increasing risks of falls or injuries.
10. Take a break. If you are in an overwhelming environment, such as a party, find a quiet, dark place to relax for a period of time. Removing yourself from the source of the sensory overload can help you cope and get back to the fun.
11. Avoid known trigger situations. If you know the environment in certain places, such as a particular restaurant, make it difficult to interact or enjoy yourself, consider making other suggestions. No one wants to subject themselves to a place that causes pain or discomfort, or makes them mentally check out to protect themselves from a meltdown.
12. Let others know. Sometimes reducing the risk of sensory overload is as easy as letting others know how certain stimuli affect you. Most people want to know that others around them are comfortable and able to fully participate.
Living with MS can be challenging and often those challenges are invisible. Take some time to notice how things in your environment affect you and reduce those factors that increase your MS symptoms. And know that if you feel overwhelmed occasionally, it just might be your MS and you are not alone!
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