Chronic Illness And Sensory Overstimulation

Inspired by a post by The Unchargeables, an Instagram account dedicated to those of us with chronic illness, I was thinking about the feeling of overstimulation (or sensory overload) — where lights, sounds, and any sort of stimulus makes you feel like you are, well, going to explode.

Last year I was standing in line at a very cute, calm bakery picking up a coffee and a croissant. I suddenly felt like every noise — the steamer, the cash register, people talking — and every light was directed at me, right into my brain. It wasn't the first time I'd felt this way, but it was the first time I felt like running away.

I've had to listen to rain sounds to calm down

I'd felt semblances of it before, especially as a commuter during my last job. Everything felt like it was reaching a peek inside of me — some weirdly provoked apex of exhaustion, overstimulation, annoyance, and inescapable trapped-ness. I'd have to do deep breathing or put my headphones in and listen to ASMR or white noise or rain sounds to calm down.

It wasn't exactly anxiety (which I do live with, and which it can cause). It wasn't exactly frustration, either. It was just...overstimulation, like my mind and my nerves were being plucked and provoked and stimulated. Sometimes it was not correlated to the environment or situation (like the super cute bakery) and sometimes it seemed reasonable (sitting on a crowded bus in traffic, tired after a long day).

I started thinking its correlation was to my ankylosing spondylitis — and wherever I was with it in a given day. Flare-ups, feeling too much pain, and exhaustion are triggers for this overstimulation for sure, and it seems I'm not the only AS patient who deals with it.

So I did some digging

According to this study, this "overstimulation" feeling is super common in fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome — and as well as other chronic illnesses (like multiple sclerosis), especially those characterized by chronic pain.1

This study also explains that some people's brains and bodies can have a hard time processing multiple sources of input at once. This could be sensory experiences like loud noises, crowds, different smells, lights, and more. It's theorized that this might be due to a lack of serotonin in chronically ill people's brains.2

The symptoms of sensory overload can include:3

  • difficulty focusing
  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • an urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes
  • sensitivity to textures
  • and more

Find ways to manage it

This could be avoiding certain situations (like shopping when it's busy) or knowing when to leave a party or social situation. It might mean escaping to a bathroom to do some deep breathing, putting in some headphones with white noise, or using anxiety medication. It may also help to have a go-to daily stress management technique, which helps me the most. I usually listen to ASMR and dance or do yoga for an hour a day and it helps to clear my mind and keep me steady.

Do you experience this? What do you do about it? I'd love to hear more!

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