Sensory overload

Noise, smells, flashing screens: overload is a health threat

I was in the supermarket the other day trying to decide on a bunch of bananas — too, big, too small, too brown, too green — as others next to me were doing the same.

But I couldn’t concentrate, not even on this simplest of tasks. Noise was blaring from the speakers: advertisements for the supermarket and product jingles (thank god not the dreaded Jingle Bells — yet). There were roasted chickens right next to the fruit section, and it was stinky beyond belief. It ain’t pleasant having strong smells forced on you. My eyes hurt from looking at so many needless choices of everything, colours leaping out, products moved by staff to force buyers to search so they might spot something new. The lights were too bright.

I became fatigued. Looking into the faces of other shoppers, I could see we all felt the same, particularly those with kids shuffling and nagging on top of it all. Not to mention what happened to my poor brain trying to get out of the carpark.It’s the same for all of us. We live with an overdose of sensory stimulation. And according to therapists and psychiatrists I have interviewed — including neuroscientists at the annual Mind & Its Potential conferences in Sydney — sensory overload is on the increase.

This is a serious and invariably undiagnosed condition. Think of your brain as an engine. If you run an engine without the right lube, it grates — and this is what’s happening in our heads. Our nerves and neurons are getting frayed and tender from a paucity of peace and quiet. As a result we are developing hypersensitivities, intolerances and allergies.

It’s a vicious cycle for many. Sensory bombardment leads to hypersensitivity, which aggravates the bombardment to the point where we are on constant alert, so a person chewing nearby can make us freak out, or a gentle time-to-move toot from the car behind can lead to a hissy-fit meltdown.

Our nervous system is always switched on. An average person spends their whole day in sympathetic nervous system mode, with cortisol, adrenalin and norephedrine (the hormones of “fight or flight”) pumping through our bodies from the time we wake up.

I recently wrote a simple column attesting to my hatred of perfumes in confined spaces, and the response was overwhelming. It hit a raw nerve, you might say. One woman wrote: “I feel the same way you do. On the plane you can be trapped for hours … people are smell fascists, imposing their scent on to others.” Another said: “My nose starts running the moment I get into a public toilet, most of them are so over-sprayed with chemicals and I can’t escape.”

We now know allergies can develop over time as the body is overexposed to scents in cosmetics, air-fresheners, aerosol deodorants and environmental toxins.

Then there is noise. On public transport recently, the guy sitting next to me had his earphones up so high, the music was blasting me as well as him.

The website Psych Central says noise hypersensitivity is real: “If you feel disgusted to the point of rage when you hear the sound of chewing, swallowing, breathing, throat-clearing and other common ‘people’ noises, you’re not alone. You’re also not crazy. Misophonia is a sound sensitivity disorder, which makes certain noises intolerable to the sufferer.

“The experience of these sounds can cause psychological distress … (as the sufferer) may hear or feel things much more or much less intensely.”

While this condition is primarily neurological, general sound sensitivity can temporarily afflict people, too.

A friend told me he had developed an intolerance quite recently, causing anxiety and constant irritation. “I never used to be aware of noise. Now I can hear every voice in the street, the garbage trucks make me crazy, a dog barking miles away can make me agitated. Sound puts me on edge. Maybe I am under too much stress?”

Visual and light sensitivity is also now common because of the amount of screen bouncing and eye strain. Blue light from screens including your smartphone has a powerful negative impact on our circadian rhythms, interfering with levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Sleep deprivation then further exacerbates sensory hypersensitivities.

Meanwhile I have a condition called hyperosmia — a heightened sense of smell, arising from increased signals between olfactory receptors and the olfactory cortex. In times past this was considered a gift, bestowing the rare ability to taste a million flavours in food, for example. But now, with the bombardment of smells and chemicals in the air, it only causes my nasal passages to ache.

Sensory overload is increasing the incidence of mental illnesses and anxiety disorders because we can never turn the world off. It must be especially painful for children and adults with attention deficit disorder or autism: all that brain noise. Now we’re increasingly seeing 3-D adverts in train stations and confined public spaces, and soon delivery drones will be whirring overhead.

Therapist Jo-Anne Baker, a senior counsellor at AccessEAP — a not-for-profit organisation that helps companies improve productivity and enhance employee wellbeing — says sensory overload is causing staff to become unhappy and ill.

“The world is full of external distraction and it’s just too much for many people. I hear complaints not just about workplace spaces but people telling me they are scared to go to the gym because they can’t bear the volume of the music. In some classes the decibel levels can be deafening, and with trainers screaming instructions it can cause such stress as to defeat the purpose of the workout.”

Then there is the work environment, which can make people anxious with no sense of control over air-conditioning or heating; fluoro lights; the constant noise of open offices; ringing and emails binging. “It’s so intense and with technology people don’t switch off when they get home. There are emails and texts coming in 24/7 and the sense of burnout from sensory overload is increasing,” Baker says.

“The brain is not designed for constant stimulation. Excitory neurochemicals are firing inappropriately. At night people can’t sleep. We are going against our biological nature, with serious health implications,” she says.

According to international corporate trainer Rasmus Hougaard, who works with leading corporations, the way to ensure the brain rests is to limit the amount of emails, texts and social media messages you answer. He advises using a coding system: urgent, work, personal. Limit responses to certain hours of the day, and never use computer/mobile devices as soon as you rise (to let the nervous system awaken gradually) or just before you sleep (for obvious reasons). And limit use on holidays.

Baker says: “Just get yourself into nature as much as possible, into the silence!”

A little sensory time-out goes a long way towards ensuring wellbeing and happiness.




Rene MAY 21, 2016
The Aldi approach where we have ten percent as many types of items as the major supermarkets may be the way to go.

Denis MAY 20, 2016
If you patronise the same supermarket you should know where things are by now (until they cunningly change where everything is.) If you are not buying too many things grab a basket (not a trolley) and move quickly around the shop prepared list in hand. Keep moving and dodge around trolleys and customers who have stopped to have a chat with their friends. In other words get in, get your stuff and get out – no hanging around. You won’t have time to reflect on how your nose and ears are being assaulted.

Now I admit they this won’t work quite so well if you have a tonne of groceries to pick up and a clinging toddler at your elbow. Well who said life was fair?
David MAY 20, 2016
Interesting article but a bit too much on the whole sensory overload hyper stimulation nonsense.

Don’t like going into the supermarket? Buy online – simple as that.

Has been available for over a decade.
James MAY 20, 2016
I hate when people talk around others. You know. The guy on the train on his phone who just won’t SHUT UP while everyone around him is trying to read and relax. The twits who sit next to you at your kids activity and then blather on to each other so you can’t just relax back and watch their ballet lesson (or whatever it is). Even people in lifts “oh, how are you? Good, how are you? Nice weather we’re having”. FFS! The vast majority of people have nothing worth saying anyway so why do they feel the need for their mouths to flap on and on?

Mick MAY 20, 2016
Shop at Aldi – no music and no choice.
Les MAY 20, 2016
@Mick And nowhere near as expensive. Better quality, just a better place to shop.


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