Managing Sensory Overload

Sensory Overload is a fairly common symptom of Multiple Sclerosis, and occurs when a person experiences overstimulation from the environment. For people with MS, Sensory Overload can sometimes make it difficult to socialize, travel, shop, and drive. This month, we asked our community members at MultipleSclerosis.net about their experiences with Sensory Overload, and how they manage this strange symptom. Have any of these strategies worked for you?

What is the relationship between Sensory Overload and MS?

Cognitive dysfunction is a common symptom of MS. Along with changes to memory, attention, problem solving, and judgement, Sensory Overload is a type of cognitive dysfunction.1

What causes Sensory Overload?

According to our MS community members, noise, crowds, strong smells, bright lights, and other types of sensations can trigger Sensory Overload. For some patients, Sensory Overload is related to myloconous, an involuntary muscle reaction that makes many patients highly sensitive to noise.2  People affected by anxiety, Sensory Processing Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may also experience Sensory Overload.3

What happens when a person has Sensory Overload?

Sensory Overload can cause intense stress and confusion, and can make it difficult to think clearly, make decisions, or focus. Many MS community members experience Sensory Overload in crowded environments, such as shopping malls, grocery stores, or airports.

Community Feedback: Sensory Overload Triggers

“My friends and family love to go to Vegas. I HATE CASINOS! The noise is TOO much!!!”

“It even happens at home with the TV on.”

“Sunlight doesn’t bother me, but bright indoor light does.”

“I get so irritable with the daylight/brightness.”

“Sounds and activity and people just overwhelm me and fatigue me faster than anything!”

According to our MultipleSclerosis.net community, Sensory Overload can occur in many environments. Some patients experience Sensory Overload while traveling (such as a noisy airport), while others have trouble with bright lights, TV sounds, and radio noise. For many of you, Sensory Overload is triggered by talking: Noisy kids, people talking too loudly, multiple conversations in the same room, or people talking over one another can all lead to Sensory Overload. Keep reading for some ideas for managing these triggers!

Community Feedback: Avoid Overstimulation

“I avoid crowds or big social gatherings.”

“Noisy places, crowded places – I just have to leave.”

“I have pretty much become a homebody…I just can’t deal with all the auditory and visual noise.”

To prevent Sensory Overload brought on by crowds and loud conversations, some of our community members choose to avoid these situations all together. Especially during a relapse, you may feel like you need to stay home or spend some time alone- and that’s okay! If you feel better at home and want to avoid Sensory Overload triggers, you can always connect with friends and family through social media or the internet, or talk to your MS peers through our community pages.

Community Feedback: Limit Stress

“If I want to go to a party, I have to take a nap, wake up, drink coffee and take an Advil on the way out the door”

“Multiple conversations going on in the same room does the same thing to me.”

“Disneyland was bad…My brain gets so confused and it’s a battle to stay calm…It’s hard for me to travel to very loud busy places. Even airports can be undoing.”

To limit Sensory Overload, some community members still participate in social events, but leave when they start to feel over-stimulated. Some patients also try to avoid situations that they know will be too noisy, like by choosing a more quiet restaurant over a crowded one. If you have trouble with Sensory Overload when traveling, you may choose to visit less busy, more relaxing destinations, and if the airport is too stimulating, you could travel by car or train instead.

Community Feedback: Limit Noise

“I get overwhelmed even from the radio, grandkids when they’re being noisy, if someone talks too fast, too loud or too long….”

“I feel bad telling others they are too loud, but sometimes it hurts listens to them”

Many of our community members experience Sensory Overload when they are surrounded by excess talking or noise. If loud conversations make you feel overstimulated, consider meeting up with friends and family in quieter settings (such as at home, rather than in a cafe), or spending time with people 1-on-1. If you have friends or family members who are just too noisy, consider talking to them about Sensory Overload. While saying “You’re talking too loudly” might feel awkward, saying “Every noise feels 10 times louder to a person with MS, so I need us to be really quiet” might help people understand!

Works Cited:

  1. Simmons, Jonathan. “MS Symptoms.” MultipleSclerosis.net, Health Union, multiplesclerosis.net/symptoms/. Accessed 16 Dec. 2017
  2. G, Matt Allen. “Myoclonus – Why am I So Easily Startled by Sound?” MultipleSclerosis.net, Health Union, 19 Nov. 2015, multiplesclerosis.net/living-with-ms/myoclonus-why-am-i-so-easily-startled-by-sound/. Accessed 16 Dec. 2017.
  3. McGlensey, Melissa. “21 People Describe What Sensory Overload Feels Like.” The Mighty, 11 Feb. 2016, themighty.com/2016/02/people-explain-what-sensory-overload-feels-like/. Accessed 16 Dec. 2017.
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