by West Anderson, Content Writer
[Image description: A close up drawing of a young boy’s face, colored orange with swirls or yellow, pink, green and blue over it. His eyes are screwed shut in pain and his hands are pressed over his ears.]
I’ve always been an introvert – someone who recharges by being alone rather than drawing energy from spending time with others. But in the past year, I’ve noticed a worrisome pattern in my life that, for a while, I couldn’t find the cause of. If I pushed myself past my limits, even a little bit – by agreeing to a babysitting job, or an outing with friends, or just going outside and dealing with the busy world when I didn’t really feel able – it would lead to an emotional and physical meltdown. And my limits were really low. It was incredibly frustrating to feel that I couldn’t do the average amount of things I saw other people accomplishing in their day-to-day lives. When I pushed myself to try to do the “normal” amount of things other people accomplish without issue – working a part-time job, seeing friends more than twice a month, going out for drinks or to complete much-needed errands – I would exhaust my body to the point where I could, without fail, predict getting a cold.
I felt lost and scared about my own body. My low threshold for activity didn’t seem normal, but I couldn’t find any words to describe it that made it seem valid. I told myself I must just be lazy and avoiding expanding my comfort zones. Maybe I just needed to try harder to be around people and wash my hands constantly to avoid catching colds? Finally, I brought up what I was feeling with my mom, and she suggested I could be dealing with sensory sensitivity issues, something she was diagnosed with herself. I took the sensory processing test that she got from an occupational therapist, and found that I scored as “more sensitive than most people” and “much more sensitive than most people” in every category.
Once I realized that I am indeed more sensitive to sensory input than average, I started writing down everything I could think of that I have trouble with. Putting together a picture of my various sensory issues was helpful in letting me see what specific things were driving me to such painful meltdowns.
I found that visual and auditory input were the most tiring, with touch being a challenge too.
When it comes to touch, I pull myself inward when I am in public to keep a large bubble of personal space around myself at all times. I have, since a young age, become anxious when walking around in public, avoiding entering people’s personal space by walking on the edge of the curb or in the road, pulling myself inward, tensing, and speedwalking or weaving through groups of people on a sidewalk in order to get away from them and the anxiety being near them causes me.
Visually, I get overwhelmed when there is too much input for me to handle. Being in a crowd of people is tiring because of the constantly changing visual stream, in addition to the auditory input from many conversations and trying to maintain the “proper” personal distance from others. Large stores are exhausting because I feel the need to look at everything in a given aisle or section, which often means I spend a long time cataloging everything I see in three of four large sections in a store. I don’t avoid large stores because I like shopping and I like looking at all the things, but I am exhausted after I leave them. Grocery stores take me a long time, even when I have a list of what I’m getting. If I don’t have a list, it takes me much longer to find what I want.
With auditory input, if there is more than one conversation going on at once, I can’t focus on one well enough to hear and understand everything that is said. It takes a lot of mental energy to listen and understand people fully. Often if I’m in an environment with multiple sources of noise or overlapping conversations, I have to either leave for somewhere quieter, ask the sources to be quieter, or close myself off and not respond to any of them. If I’ve been doing a lot of work hearing, I have to leave and seek out a quieter space or be alone to recover.
The worst situation I was in recently was going to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk on the Fourth of July. Five minutes after I got there, I had to leave. The crush of people, fireworks going off not a hundred feet away with no warning, the traffic, and the noise – I ended up tensed and crying and covering my ears all the way home in the car.
[Image description: An outline of a blue face in profile with a cloud where the brain would be. Tendrils are coming out to connect to pictures that surround the face of a hand for touch, an eye for sight, a mouth for sound, a nose for smelling, and an ear for hearing.]
Auditory and visual input are almost always occurring together, and depending on the amount of things going on visually (a group of people, items in a store, cars) and the accompanying audio (people talking all at once, me having to find the right words to say and appear focused and interested in the discussion with my eyes, a sudden bang from outside, road construction), it can quickly become exhausting and my ability to handle it all gets depleted.
If I have done too much in a given day or week, the result is often a meltdown that can sometimes feel like a panic attack. I have to rest and let my body recover by taking it easy and doing very little for the next few days. For a while this winter, if I did even one thing over my limit, I would get sick for a week.
I’m struggling to feel that these issues really do apply to me, and that it’s okay for me to take these terms and apply them to myself. I feel like I need a doctor to prove that I do indeed deserve to use these labels. But the process of being referred to a doctor who can help me is proving to be a very slow one. So until then, I feel trapped in a limbo between feeling that I shouldn’t apply these terms to myself until I get a professional diagnosis and needing these terms and ideas to help me get through my day-to-day life. It is a relief to find there is a way to describe what I am experiencing, and that it is okay to take care of myself and respect my limits. Searching for information about sensory overload led me to helpful information about how to deal with sensory meltdowns and avoid them. It also helped me to stop beating myself up about my different needs and limits and to start asking for support and accommodations when I needed them.
Recently, I was babysitting for a family. I was playing Monopoly with two eleven-year-old kids while a five-year-old tried to join in, while the mom was talking to a neighbor right next to us, while Spanish music was playing. Once the game was over, the kids headed outside to play tag. Knowing that I was about to push myself past my limits, I explained to the mom that I needed a break from all the input because I have problems with sensory overload. She was very understanding and gave me food and a quiet place to relax before I headed out to play with the kids again. It was one of the first times I didn’t push myself past my limits because of my desire to keep up with everyone else. And it was really amazing to have my needs heard and respected!
In addition to advocating for myself and resting when I need to, I also learned about joint traction and compression as ways to combat sensory overload. Now when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can lift weights or have one of my partners pull on my arms and legs, which helps immensely. It’s a big relief to have concrete things I can do to lessen sensory overload.
I’m hoping that through therapy, I will be able to pinpoint what my limits are in my body so I can know when to stop doing something. It is difficult for me to know when I am past my limit for a given sense. I am getting better at it, but the pressure to push myself to go to a social event, to work, or to do an errand or chore is intense. Often, if I’m not already way past my limit, I think that it will be okay. But it never is, so I want to learn where my limits are better. I want to honor them and stop hurting my body.