For those with a sensory processing disorder – or ADHD, PTSD, and autism – sensory overload can be a difficult thing to live with. Here, writer Emma Johnson describes her experience, and shares tips for spotting signs in yourself and others

Over-stimulation may not be very obvious from an outsider perspective – and, having ADHD, sometimes even I have trouble spotting the signs from the inside, too. But many adults with ADHD, autism, or PTSD can experience discomfort or feel extremely overwhelmed when exposed to certain sensory triggers. These can include:

• Excessive noise
• Intense or flashing lights
• Crowds or close contact with groups of people
• Textures of food, or clothing irritating skin
• Overpowering scents such as perfumes

Here, I will describe five common signs of sensory processing disorder (SPD) that I experience, and share how I avoid and ease feelings of over-stimulation. Familiarising yourself with these examples may help you recognise them in yourself or others, and could help avoid symptoms escalating into an anxiety attack.

Irritability and disproportionate emotional reactions

I work in a busy retail environment, which means my brain is regularly trying to process several things at once. Trying to deal with loud noises, several people talking to me at once, all while working on the checkout, can be very stressful, and sometimes overwhelming. This can quickly become externalised as frustration and anger. Feeling too warm, sweating, or overreacting to situations, can also be a sign I’m over-stimulated. Removing myself to somewhere calmer usually helps to diffuse my discomfort.

Body-focused repetitive behaviours

BFRB can involve hair-pulling, nail-biting, skin picking, and knuckle cracking, to name a few. These types of symptoms can become quite disruptive for the people around me, but I may not even notice them. While my brain is trying to process all of the external sensory information I’m receiving, I may unconsciously use this as an outlet. These habits can prove exhausting, and sometimes harmful. To channel this into a less damaging habit, I have a fidget spinner ring that I wear. Instead of picking my skin, or being perceived as rude or impatient with my finger tapping, I now spin my ring. Fidgets are available in many forms, however I chose this one as I can keep it with me at work.

Loss of, or shift in, focus

In some cases, my attention involuntarily shifts to something that is making me mildly uncomfortable. Most people can do their best to ignore irritants such as itchy tags, or uncomfortable materials in clothing, but once I’ve noticed it, it’s all I can think about. This can make staying on task particularly difficult, and highlights the varied and often unnoticed information we are processing, even if we don’t particularly pay it much mind.

A solution I use is to wear long-sleeved cotton tops under my uniform or clothes. Identifying clothing that feels uncomfortable and changing it can have a surprisingly big impact on your mood.

Anxiety attacks

If I spend a prolonged amount of time in an over-stimulating situation, it can lead to an anxiety attack. Outer signs for anxiety vary from person to person, however common and noticeable indications are:

• Sweating and/or flushed appearance
• Heavy breathing
• Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
• Feeling overwhelmed by or ‘disconnected’ from your surroundings
• Shaking

If things escalate to this point, I will find somewhere quiet to sit and calm down. Being given a glass of water and a few minutes alone, while knowing there are people not far away if I need anything, is the most help I like to be given. However some people prefer having the comfort of friendly conversation – once again, it depends on the individual. Communication is extremely important with regards to mental health, and if you’re unsure, it’s never impolite to simply ask, “How can I help you?”

Emma is a writer specialising in ADHD and mental health. Visit

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