Anxious Sensory Overload and Overwhelm

People struggling with chronic or disordered states of anxiety often find themselves in a situation where they are hyper aware and therefore overwhelmed by anxious sensory overload.

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Anxiety Disorder Drew Reacts To Anxious Sensory Overload

When it comes to anxious sensory overload, “anxiety disorder Drew” would have been hyper aware of the fact that he was drifting a bit to the left while he walked. He would have immediately noticed that tiny change and would have probably interpreted it as being dizzy or off balance. For anxiety disorder Drew, that sensation or experience was not acceptable so his anxiety level would have risen.

At that point, hyper awareness of every sensory input would have kicked in. The light might have seemed “weird” or maybe there would have been a scent in the air that did seem right. Allergy season is starting early this year, so anxiety disorder Drew would have paid very close attention to the sound as captured by his moderately congested right ear.

Anxiety disorder Drew would have started asking questions about what he was perceiving:

  • Is this right?
  • Is it supposed to sound like this?
  • Is something wrong with me?
  • Why can’t I walk straight?
  • Is that a floater I see in my vision?
  • Am I about to have an ophthalmic migraine?
  • Why does it feel like I can’t breathe now?
  • My heart is starting to pound. Why is this happening again?

If you’re here reading this, then the odds are high that you fully understand and appreciate the picture I’m painting for you here.

About Hyper-Awareness

Let’s talk about being hyper aware, then becoming “overwhelmed” by anxious sensory overload.

Many anxious people will say that there are environments that they must avoid because they are overwhelming from a sensory standpoint.

  • The light is too bright! It’s too noisy! 
  • There’s too much to see!
  • My eyes can’t focus!
  • My eyes and my brain can’t sync up!

That feeling of being overwhelmed and needing to escape is based on being hyper aware of the input your sense organs are capturing and delivering to your brain.

Some Humans Pay To Learn How To Be Aware Of Their Senses!

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. Most people sense things around them all day long, but just don’t pay attention to what they are sensing. This is such an issue that we have an entire cottage industry that has popped up around teaching people to pay attention and be mindful. 

  • Look around.
  • What can you see?
  • What do you smell? 
  • What do you hear?

Non-anxious humans are so oblivious to what we sense that we sometimes pay to have people tell us to notice what our eyes, ears, noses, and skin are sending and perceiving! But for anxious people dealing with chronic or disordered forms of anxiety, this is not a problem at all. We have the opposite issue. We are constantly paying very close attention to sensory input. We are hyper aware.

Trying To Stay (FEEL) Safe …

Why are we hyper aware?  Because we MUST evaluate ourselves constantly to stay ahead of our triggers. Anxious people are continually checking themselves for physical sensations that don’t seem right, thoughts that might be going south, or emotions that they won’t be able to handle.  I would wager a large sum that a good portion of your time is spent checking on yourself, then evaluating the results of that internal scan to to see if you’re OK, or you have to start taking evasive action to stay safe … from yourself.

If we must stay ahead of the curve and in front of our anxiety, our discomfort, and our fear, it stands to reason that we are going to pay very close attention to sensory input so we can effectively evaluate how we’re working inside to make sure everything is OK.

The Black Box … Broken Open

If we look at “anxious sensory overload” through this lens, we can take the mystery out of why the canned vegetable aisle in a busy supermarket is “too much”.  It’s too much because there are lots of sensory inputs there that we normally do not actively process. But when anxious, we do process them!  What would be in the background is now front and center.

Not only that, this sensory input now has to be measured, judged, and evaluated against our current definitions of danger, safety, or threat.  This is not how most humans walk through a supermarket, or a park, or through their neighborhoods. They don’t insist that those environments are “overwhelming” because they are taking in the sights and smells and sounds and textures and temperatures without actively considering them.

You call them overwhelming, not because there is something structurally broken in your brain or nervous system, but because your threat detection and response system has demanded that you pay close attention to EVERYTHING to remain safe. That’s not how the human threat detection system is supposed to operate. We’re not supposed to do that many safety related calculations per second.

The end result?  Feeling overwhelmed and like you can’t handle what you’re taking in. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Using This Reframe To Inform New Action

What can we do with this giant reframe on sensory overload?

A reframe is always best use to inform new ACTIONS.  Remember that recovery is a thing we DO, not a thing we say or read or discuss.  What new action can we take based on this conceptualization and look at anxious sensory overload and overwhelm.

If we open ourselves up the the belief that data from our senses can trigger fear and discomfort but also that it can still be the same data, just subjected to needless rigorous examination, does this help us refrain from our safety, soothing, and escape rituals? It’s not the symptom or the thought – it’s how we react to that symptom or thought. How often have you heard me say this?

If we follow this train of thought, is it the bright sun and the many cars on the street, or is it how we interpret and react to those things?  Does this reframe tell us that sense data is indicating actual danger, or being twisted by an overzealous lizard brain? If we are willing to allow the possibility that our brains are twisting data from our senses into danger that does not actually exist, can we choose to go with the experiences we have for a few more minutes than we did yesterday? 

Can we take one more step down the canned veggies aisle, then another, then another?  And if we let this reframe inform this small but courageous step away from fear and toward recovery, what can we learn from that new experience?

Recognizing that your brain is twisting sensory input into a nightmare for no real reason isn’t going to instantly make you feel better.  But we can lean ON the concept to help us lean IN to the fear when it arrives.

Anxiety disorder Drew had to decide to challenge his overprotective brain and take step after step through the mall to learn that it was OK to feel overwhelmed but to keep going anyway. I can’t say that he conquered the mall or the supermarket or the cacophony of an elementary school orchestra concept in three days, but relying on the fact that brains can and often do draw incorrect overprotective conclusions helped him take a few more steps and stay a little longer each time. Over time that did result in BIG change for anxiety disorder Drew!

Some Encouragement and Assurance

If can leave you with anything today, it would be some assurance and encouragement. It is entirely possible for two people to be in the same environment but to judge and evaluate that environment very differently. The non-anxious person is fine at the concern while the anxious person declares it all to be “too much” and must leave. Lean on that.

Then see what happens if you hit the “overwhelmed” moment and stick with it for just a little longer than you used to?  Take a few more steps. Wait another couple of minutes. Show your brain that it doesn’t need to do risk math for every sight, sound, smell, and cool breeze any more. Feed your brain some behavioral signals that tell it that it’s OK to loosen up and let most sense data fade into the background. That will be difficult and might feel really scary, but being brave in those moments and relying on the misguided mechanics of disordered and chronic anxiety can start to change things, even if that change only happens a little at a time.

That’s OK.  That’s allowed. Every full recovery starts with tiny first steps.

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Disclaimer: The Anxious Truth is not therapy or a replacement for therapy. Listening to The Anxious Truth does not create a therapeutic relationship between you and the host or guests of the podcast. Information here is provided for psychoeducational purposes. As always, when you have questions about your own well-being, please consult your mental health and/or medical care providers. If you are having a mental health crisis, always reach out immediately for in-person help.

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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)





Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.