If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that anxiety and its many facets are something I work with and write about often. An issue I’ve never touched on here in the blog is an important one – sensory sensitivity.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of sensory processing difficulties associated with numerous other conditions, and there are some diagnoses that refer directly to a person’s ability level to integrate and process sensory data. What we’re less familiar with is how anxiety may make someone a bit more sensitive to external sensory input.
I hear the word “overwhelmed” as a descriptor from my clientele about certain situations they encounter that create anxiety or just inflame it. What they’re usually trying to communicate to me is the feeling of being inundated with external stimuli like lights, sounds, physical sensations, and smells during a state of anxiety or panic.
What it is + Why it happens
During periods of anxiety, the body’s fight, flight, faint, or freeze response kicks in (or the flight/fight response). The fight/flight response is a brilliant system in the human body that integrates multiple body systems with the use of both hormones and neurotransmitters. The hormones travel throughout the bloodstream causing certain responses, and the neurotransmitters act within the brain to trigger other responses. These work together to create a group of battle or flight-ready responses in the body to prepare us to either kick some butt, run, faint for protection, or freeze in place as a means of survival.
This response isn’t just triggered by life or death danger. It can also be set off by the threat of danger or perceived danger; the perceived or real danger that starts the fight/flight response can be either emotional or physical in nature. For those of us with histories of trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and similar – we may be running in “crisis mode” to an extent with some level of the fight/flight response sort of kicked in at any point in time.
The fight/flight response causes the body to do some interesting things:
Heart rate and blood pressure increase so that more blood is moving through your system more rapidly, which makes it easier to run or fight.
The pupils dilate so that its easier to see whatever the danger is.
Veins constrict in order to get more blood into muscles to aid in fighting or fleeing.
Muscles tense, which helps get more blood into some muscles for fighting or running, and the smooth muscles relax, which increases oxygen flow.
Non-essential body systems shut down, which frees up energy for the potential need to fight or run.
It becomes hard to focus on small tasks because your attention is diverted to the bigger picture, which is staying alive.
This all happens very quickly and it can happen whether there is any “real” danger or not. Notice how part of the process is the dilation of the pupils in the eyes. Our pupils expand or contract depending on the level of light we’re exposed to in most situations. During times of intense anxiety or panic, they dilate as a means of keeping you safe. You’re on high alert for danger and this includes your pupils working to take in more light. The sensory result can be feelings of overwhelm and confusion in bright or very low lighting during times of anxiety.
Other senses may become heightened as a result of the fight/flight response in the body as well. Your brain thinks its about to have to defend you and make sure you survive, so it makes sense that sensitivity to noise in the environment as well as smell and physical touch may occur. In moments of anxiety you and your brain are on the look out for anything threatening, which means that all your senses become more “sensy” – they’re trying to detect any danger around.
This process is what creates the feeling of overwhelm that many people with anxiety experience when they’re in the wrong (or right) situation. This is why for some people a trip to the store is no big deal, and for some with anxiety, its an event requiring deep breathing exercises before and during.
This isn’t the case with all sensory sensitivity experienced by people or even by people with anxiety. It’s always important to talk with your doctor or mental health professional about any sensitivity that interferes with your daily life to be sure there isn’t something more going on.
To cope with sensory sensitivity related to anxiety, try some of these tips:
- If being in the store or other brightly lit places slows you down, spaces you out, or makes you want to hide, try wearing your sunglasses. This cuts the brightness back, and sometimes there’s a cozy feeling to having the eyes protected.
- If noise is an issue, try wearing earbuds with your favorite tunes or some relaxing music playing. You could even kill off a few chapters of an audiobook or podcast. This helps drown out the miscellaneous noise and lets you focus on just one bit of noise. Of course, this isn’t an option if you’re driving, or in an otherwise unsafe-for-earbuds-situation. Use good judgment!
- Before entering into a sensory-rich environment take a few minutes to practice regulating your breath and calming your nervous system by breathing in a pattern that has been shown to do so. Inhale for 4 seconds through the nose, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. Keep your lips parted, your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and count evenly. Do this several times. You can also try 4-square breathing: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and then back to inhaling for 4 seconds.
- Try some gentle progressive muscle relaxation so you enter the environment “loosey-goosey”. Slowly tense and then release each group of muscles in your body. Don’t over-tense! It shouldn’t be painful. When you fully relax the tension it should feel like a bit of relief.
While these tips will get you through a moment or two when things become overwhelming, working on your underlying anxiety is where the real gold is at. Check out my course on taming your anxiety or visit my work with me page to find out about working directly with me on your anxiety.