Sensory Overload, Anxiety, and ADHD

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

originally written for and published on

At Your “Max”

We’ve all experienced an emotional outburst at some point or another in life. Whether you were frustrated with your kids, partner, work, or just had a case of a really ‘bad day,’ there comes a point when even the most regulated adult meets his “max”. Whether your outburst is yelling at your kids, putting yourself in a “time out” or leaving, or something more physical like banging your fist on the table, your emotional response is likely the culmination of things not going according to plan, kids not listening, or just the problematic logistics of daily life.

Imagine a different set of circumstances that contribute to your feelings of being overwhelmed. Where, the environment surrounding you adds a level of complexity that your central nervous system is working hard to process. Flashing lights, noisy rooms, crowded spaces, people accidentally touching or brushing up against you, strange smells. All environments provide different sensory stimuli that may or may not affect you. For people who struggle with sensory processing, these circumstances are another part of daily life, interactions, and activities that need to be managed or else they can compound and result in meeting a different kind of “max” -- sensory overload.

Sensory Thresholds and Sensory Overload

Think of that “max” that we all have before we lose it - for people with sensory processing difficulties, anxiety, autism, or ADHD, it’s the amount of sensory information you can handle before it all becomes “too much.” Clinically speaking, we refer to this maximum point as a “threshold” of response. How much sensory input it takes to reach your threshold depends on your individual sensory profile, whether you over-respond or under-respond to sensory information.

You’ve heard the phrase: “The straw that broke the camel’s back” - sensory overload can be explained exactly like that! The smell of someone’s reheated dinner in the workplace lunchroom likely didn’t warrant your overreaction (gagging, vomiting) - it was likely the many aversive sensory experiences (bright lights of the office, loudly ringing phones, multiple conversations in the background, accidentally being bumped into by a colleague) that had you already on edge. The highly offensive smell was the culmination of all of that sensory stress! Your sensory threshold had been met and that “one more thing” that came in the form of a noxious smell was enough to put you over the edge.

Explaining Sensory Meltdowns

When a person experiences too much sensory stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input. It’s a physiological ‘traffic jam’ in your central nervous system and the sensory overstimulation causes a physiological response and sometimes even a sensory meltdown.

In times of anxiety and stress, the sympathetic part of your Autonomic Nervous System produces cortisol hormones and triggers a “fight or flight response.” When people with sensory processing dysfunction experience sensory overstimulation, they are unable to regulate the sensory inputs from their environment and their bodies perceive these inputs as threats. It is important to view these sensory meltdowns as physiological responses and not controllable behavioral reactions. You cannot expect logical, rational responses to sensory situations when your body is perceiving those situations as threatening.