12 Ways to Battle Sensory Overload With MS

Patient Expert
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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 it’s just enough to make you feel sick, dizzy, in pain, confused, or exhausted.


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What can you do about sensory overload?

Find out what your triggers are. Knowing what bothers you the most is the first step in avoiding the effects of sensory overload. Reduce sources of confusion. If you have control of your environment, try reducing the amount of noise around you. Avoid trying to multitask, for example watching TV and carrying on a conversation at the same time.


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Sounds that make you jump

The phone rings. A car door slams. A child shrieks with laughter. Sounds can cause significant pain, confusion, and fatigue in people living with multiple sclerosis. Even sounds that aren’t excessively loud can cause symptoms such as hyperacusis and myoclonus that become quite debilitating.


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Headphones to the rescue

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 the sound more noticeable. 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 separately at a lower volume.


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Sensory overload is not just for kids

Too much sensory input may also interfere with your 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. Sometimes when too much information is coming at you all at once, simple decision-making becomes almost impossible.


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Lighting can make a difference

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. 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!


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Reduce external interference

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. 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. Create a calm environment by clearing the space around you.


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Take a break

If you are in an overwhelming environment, such as a party or other social gathering, find a quiet, dark place to relax for a period of time and take a break. Removing yourself from the source of the sensory overload can help you cope and get back to the fun.


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Plan ahead

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 withdraw to protect themselves from a meltdown.


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Don’t keep it a secret

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 in the fun.


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You are not alone

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. You are not alone!