Even in the sanctuary of a quiet church, I hear the tapping of a foot, the chattering of people, voices echoing. The sounds feel heavy, as if they are literally weighing down on me.
When this happens, I can’t focus on just one sense — it is all of them happening at once and on overdrive. Instead of tuning out hushed voices outside my door, it feels as if they are in my face and everything occurring is happening at the same level of intensity.
A busy restaurant is always too much. I must sit against the wall. I'm not sure I can taste the food in front of me. Is it because of the commotion? Chattering voices, music, clattering silverware, and the lights casting a dim glare — coating the plates in a hint of yellow. The lemonade, I can taste that. At least I can taste the lemonade.
When it takes over, I cannot process the things that are going on around me. I feel tired and fearful. I'm unable to experience stillness. My eyes are sensitive to light. My spinning head distorts every noise. I can have headphones in to block out the noise of the world, but my head will still throb with the thickness of expanding brain fog. I feel full of adrenaline, but my eyes are drooping with exhaustion. I want to finish a thought, but I can't.
It’s not just being overwhelmed — this inability to find peace is worse than that.
It can happen without a moment’s notice, any day and any time. It interrupts vacation, and it disrupts work. When my mental health is in peak condition, my work flows effortlessly. My store of knowledge is organized, and I can access what I need with ease. I can see the big picture and follow the details.
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Sensory overload doesn’t kill my motivation; it kills my productivity. I have the urge to create, to write, to do things — but my brain is somewhere else. I will try anything to get out of my head and dispel the fog. I’ll go for a walk, talk to someone, play with my dog, go to therapy, and take a nap. I’ll write on paper instead of a computer. I’ll switch locations and go from my home to a café. It doesn’t seem to matter. I can hardly get an entire sentence down before I lose focus.
Everywhere I look, I can see my nose. Sometimes the pale flesh, white, opaque and shadowed or just a slight shade of darkness, clouding a cover of my vision. I can't see past it, and the more I think about it, the more I see it, I worry. What did I do to cause this anomaly, have I always been able to see my nose?
Am I losing my vision? My mind?
Sensory overload is worse in times of intense anxiety. It feels as if my eyes aren’t moving smoothly when I glance around. They dart from one view to the next. Even if the two views are an inch apart, it's a series of photographs, moving, but as if in hyperdrive and frozen at the same time. The bone, or maybe it's the muscle, right above my eyes aches with a dull persistence. It reverberates through my head, rippling against my skull.
I knew my condition was overwhelming my life at home, but I didn’t expect it to cloud my vision on vacation. I have always loved to travel, and I’ve lived in multiple countries and never felt intimidated by not knowing the language or customs. Travel and moving to new places is what I have often turned to when I could find no other way out of a depressive spiral. I could go out early and stay out all day. I would be energized by the sounds, tastes, smells, and sights of a new place rich with culture.
That is no longer me.
It is an arduous process to learn how to cope with sensory overload, but I have some tools to handle those overwhelming emotions. I listen to my body, and if I am overwhelmed, I remind myself it's ok to take a break from whatever situation I am. I’ve tried visualizations where I imagine a protective cloak of light enveloping me and quieting the outside world — sometimes it works; sometimes it works just long enough to let me make the next decision. I can only hope that by building this arsenal and increasing my self-awareness, I can manage or even overcome these debilitating episodes.