Sensory Overload


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Sensory overload, noun: sensory overload; plural noun: sensory overloads

Definition: None found.

I had first heard the term “sensory overload” in a conversation regarding triggers and panic attacks and went home to look for an official definition. Unfortunately, the majority of websites and panels discussing sensory overloads often define the causes of a sensory overload rather than the event itself.

Sources provide over-generalized information like “a sensory overload occurs when the brain is overwhelmed” or “sensory overload happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process.” Not just that, but there also isn’t a dictionary definition for the sensory overload itself.

So, with that in mind, in this article I would like to provide information surrounding the triggers, symptoms, conditions, and proposed coping mechanisms of sensory overloads. With a basic overview provided, I want to create a hypothetical dictionary definition based on said information. Firstly, to create a vague outline of what constitutes a sensory overload and why the commonly used synopsis for it is so unclear.


A sensory overload is often described as an event that occurs in the brain triggered by an influx of sensory information. Triggers include bright or white lights, loud noise or chatter, unwanted touching or contact with objects and people, unusual temperatures, extreme changes in environment, and unpleasant textures.


Once triggered, a person undergoing a sensory overload can/will experience multiple symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety, stress, fear, and panic
  • Discomfort
  • Irritability or unusual sensitivity to touch
  • Covering the eyes, ears, nose, etc, as a way of distancing oneself from the trigger in question
  • Feeling wound up, too energetic, or overexcited.

More extreme reactions may inadvertently lead to personal injury.

It’s important to note then, with all these symptoms listed, that a sensory overload is very much different from a tantrum. A tantrum is inspired by frustration or other strong, negative emotions, whereas a sensory overload is inspired by an overload of information and causes negative emotions.

With that being said, not all symptoms of a sensory overload must occur in order for it to be considered a sensory overload. While many do experience feelings of discomfort and anxiety, some react more visibly than others and it is still important to consider those who react in silence or in unconventional ways.


There are many different types of ways to deal with or calm down a sensory overload. The most effective method is to remove either the person from the offending environment/situation or to remove the offending object from the subject’s vicinity. However, there are many environments where this is not possible–think school or work, where we spend most of our time.


Sensory overloads are so vaguely defined because of their broad applicability. Sensory overload is just meant to characterize the reaction to a distresser, but the parts of it that most people focus on (and rightfully so) are the symptoms rather than the reaction itself. This is because the symptoms are all that people see from someone undergoing a sensory overload. However, what’s important to focus on are the distressers and causes of the sensory overload.

Sensory overload, noun: sensory overload; plural noun: sensory overloads

Definition: An adverse or notable reaction typically characterized by anxiety, irritability, and/or discomfort that stems from the overwhelming of the senses.