Sensory Overload in Social Situations

Posted March 26, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

Cristina Vrech - Individual and couples therapist

Cristina Vrech

Founder and Director - Individual & Couple Therapist, Corporate Services

Co-founder and director of Leone Centre, Cristina Vrech, has 20+ years of experience in working and supporting people, 14+ years of extensive experience as a therapist and offers valuable knowledge to individuals and couples. Prior to being a therapist, she worked in the financial sector.

Cristina takes a down-to-earth and direct approach across the landscapes of relationships, communication, stress, infidelity, confidence, loneliness, addiction, separation and divorce, IVF, and anxiety.

Offering Online Counselling and in person counselling.

Cristina Vrech can help with...

At times, we all experience sensory overload. This is more common in neurodivergent individuals, but most people can relate to the feeling of sometimes being overwhelmed by external stimuli. It may be that we are feeling tired or having a bad day, and one loud noise or unexpected experience sets off a chain of discomfort. Suddenly, we become aware that there are lots of people around, the label on our jumper is itchy and the watch band on our wrist is wet and too tight. This can then impact our emotional state, and suddenly we feel drained, panicky or like we want to escape the situation.

This is usually a message from our bodies and minds, signalling that we need to direct our attention to our stress levels. By learning to acknowledge and even accept our stressors, we can work to understand the role they play in our lives, what they are trying to keep us safe from and how we can use this to our strengths.

For many people, social gatherings can amplify this feeling, especially around holidays or special occasions where we are more likely to find ourselves engaging with groups of people whom we don’t often see or spend much time with. These moments, while challenging, are opportunities for growth and connection, inviting us to explore and strengthen our relationship with ourselves and others.

Young sad woman isolate herself on house party while her friends standing in the kitchen reading text message on her smartphone.

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload is when our senses (smell, sight, taste, sound and touch) are overstimulated by our environment, taking in more information than our brains can process. Again, this is something frequently encountered by neurodivergent people, but isn’t restricted to the neurodiverse experience. Some examples of situations which can cause this include:

  • • Unexpected or unwanted loud noises or music.
  • • Uncomfortably crowded spaces.
  • • Uncomfortable environments or changes (to temperature, light, smell etc.).
  • • Unexpected or unwanted physical contact (hugs, etc.).
  • • Tactile triggers (scratchy or uncomfortable clothing, etc.).
  • • High levels of stress in other areas of life, such as family or work.
  • • High levels of emotion, such as grief.
  • • Stressful situations, such as being late, heavy traffic or transport delays.

Struggling to balance between the senses is very common. This is why we may turn down the volume on the radio when trying to find somewhere to park, or close our eyes when we are stressed.

What can cause overwhelm and anxiety?

Stress does not compartmentalise itself – when we spend time and energy feeling concerned, worried or overwhelmed in certain aspects of life, it has a way of seeping out to other areas. This can cause our capacity for sensory stimulation to shrink, leading to manifestations of anxiety, even for neurotypical individuals, or those who do not usually struggle with feeling anxious. We can then begin to feel emotionally and mentally overwhelmed, particularly in social situations.

This can be exacerbated by the dynamics of the interactions between individuals and as a group. For example, it may be that we do not experience overwhelm when with friends, but in family and work situations, our window of tolerance is much smaller. This may relate to expected roles or a reversion to established dynamics which no longer resonate with our personalities. For example, we may find that in family gatherings, we are expected to behave as we did in childhood, and that our relatives cannot reconcile their established notions of us as people with the reality sat across the table from them.

What makes us feel overwhelmed in social situations?

Various factors can impact the degree of overwhelm or stress we experience in social situations, including expectations, sensory stimulation levels and how our minds are mentally and neurologically structured.

Many neurodivergent people also often experience feelings of overwhelm in social situations. Neurodivergence is the term commonly used to describe those whose brains function in a way which is seen as different from what is typically expected, for example, those with ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, etc.

Our perceived roles can play a part in feeling overwhelmed when socialising. If you are usually expected to be engaging, entertaining or accommodating, you may begin to feel pressure in social situations. Try to remember that socialisation is not your obligation – if you are too tired to be a social butterfly, or you’re not in the mood to be the life of the party, you don’t have to perform to enjoy spending time with others.

Diverse group of business people having a meetup

Social anxiety can also significantly influence how overwhelmed we feel in social situations. Social anxiety often manifests as anxiety and discomfort when interacting with others. It may stem from a fear of judgement or attempts to predict what others are thinking and feeling about us, with unfavourable results. We may find it challenging to speak in public, be in crowds or meet new people. Often, this is interlaced with feelings of low self-worth or self-esteem and negative self-talk.

Anxiety is a widespread and very common experience. In October 2023, it was reported that almost 4 in 10 adults feel anxious. Social anxiety is one of the most prevalent types of anxiety, and as many as 1 in 10 adults have some form of social anxiety. Therapy and counselling can be very helpful for understanding the causes of anxiety, including any contributing deep-rooted memories or core beliefs.

Whilst these may shed light on why you feel overwhelmed in social situations, it’s important to recognise that none of these may resonate with you but you still regularly experience stress and fatigue from social interactions.

Navigating sensory overload and overwhelm

When we become overstimulated by external factors and our internal responses to them, we can find it difficult to effectively process information. We all have a threshold for how much stimulation we can comfortably manage, and we can increase this threshold gradually, through self-work. However, there may also be times when we need to remove or distract ourselves from the stimuli which is dysregulating us. With patience, we can work to gain the wisdom and self-awareness to know the difference.

Fortunately, there are viable strategies to help us support ourselves when feeling overwhelmed in social settings:

• Increase self-acceptance. Through self-awareness, we can become more aware of our stressors, and view these through a judgment-free lens. Mindfulness meditation and therapy can be very effective in strengthening the ability to acknowledge and be aware of the sensations you are experiencing, without trying to change them. It may sound paradoxical, but acknowledging and accepting our feelings is the first step towards alleviating them.

• Plan social engagements. Without trying to dictate every detail, or predict every potential eventuality, can you create a plan for the event or social engagement? This might include what you will wear, how you will get there, what you will do to settle yourself and feel relaxed and confident in the hours before and how you will resettle yourself in the engagement should you need to. Bear in mind that not everything will go to plan, and allow for a degree of flexibility.

• Boost emotional and physiological awareness. By becoming more attuned to our body and brain’s responses to stress, we can strengthen our connection with them. This is sometimes referred to as the mind-body connection: the awareness of the connection between thoughts, hormonal and physical responses, and how these impact our mental state. Meditation, breathing exercises and physical exercises such as yoga and tai chi can all be very valuable.

• Seek support. An experienced, professional integrative psychotherapist or counsellor can support you in finding tools and techniques to alleviate or redirect feelings of overwhelm, as well as gaining a deeper understanding of where the anxiety stems from. This may include looking at past experiences and core beliefs which can contribute to a lower capacity for dealing with stress and stimuli.

• Relaxation rituals. For some, this will be an ongoing practice, like continuously refortifying a foundation to keep it strong, such as regular exercise, stretching, meditation, yoga or another activity or hobby. For some, these will be more like tools in a toolbox, employed as and when needed, with different tools being used to address different needs. Some examples of these are breathing exercises, grounding or meditation techniques, progressive muscle relaxation or visualisations.

• Be authentic. If you feel that your social interactions are boxing you into a role which no longer feels true to you, you have every right to reject this. You don’t have to be combative or antagonistic about this, simply bringing your real self to the interaction is enough. This may feel awkward at first, as people’s concepts of you change they are essentially meeting a new person, but in the long run, it can help to make the relationships and interactions feel more genuine and enjoyable.

• Moderate substance intake. Although it can be tempting to chemically lower our inhibitions as a means of easing social situations, this can lead to behaviour which doesn’t align with our authentic selves, potentially amplifying feelings of anxiety and making socialising more difficult in the future.

Candid family gathering together at home for celebrating and eating Easter breakfast

Although associating feelings of tiredness, anxiety, stress or worry with social situations can drive us to try and avoid them, this is not always the best solution. Often, striving for equilibrium and finding solutions to soothe and regulate ourselves can allow us to still enjoy spending time with friends, family, colleagues and perfect strangers.

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