Sensory overload occurs when the body is over-stimulated by environmental elements, sounds, smells, sights, people and flavours.
Sensitivity ranges from people to people, and symptoms often including irritability, ‘shutting down’, avoiding or seeking touch, avoiding eye contact, difficulty focusing, fatigue, self-harm and struggling with social interactions. Sensory overload is often associated with a variety of other mental health illnesses from anxiety to schizophrenia.
HO, HO, NO
In the festive season, with all the busy shops, loud music and bright lights, it is easy to become over-stimulated. Annoyingly for me, the festive season is one of my favourite times of year.
I lovingly await the family time, films and food but being out and about in all the Christmas festivities is an unfavourable challenge to face, and throughout my life, I’ve felt like I was ruining the time for everyone else.
Every Christmas Eve my family like to haunt the pub, a festive outing to begin all the fun. Now I, on a good day, struggle with pubs in general, the crowded nature and noise of them, all of which I'd dialled up at Christmas.
Whenever I go with my family it ends up the same way; I sit huddled in a corner away from the people, picking at my nails, avoiding being too close to anyone, including my family, and generally being a self-confessed grump.
So why go? Why put myself into a place I know is riddled with triggers? Where I’d be as valuable to the conversation and festive spirit as Scrooge himself? In answer, I don’t bother. When my family traipse of for a good old-fashioned English outing I stay home, I watch a film and generally take an hour or two alone before the madness commences.
BRAVING THE SHOPS
But not everything is avoidable. Christmas shopping is something of a necessary evil, like a vaccination. Nowadays we can do lots of it online, but inevitably, there comes a day where we gird our loins and head out into the cold, busy streets.
Shopping, again, a problem for me, and again, even more so at Christmas. The hectic ramblings of people fuelled by mulled wine makes it a tricky thing to navigate.
Intentionally walking straight into a situation you know will be difficult takes some spunk, but knowing about which stimulus in particular bother you means you can find things that make them easier to cope with. Even if its all of them.
Personally, when I’m alone in busy towns you’ll find me with headphones stuck in. If the only things I can hear is my own music, no shouts and crying and laughing distracting me, no generic lift music driving me mad, it means I can focus more on navigating my way through people and finding what I need. But going with other people stops me from doing this.
Luckily, I’m careful with the people I go with. This particular festive season, I went with my mum, who throughout my life has her own coping methods for me...
Once when I was younger and walking with her, she produced a lollipop out of nowhere to boost by blood sugar back up.
I digress. In busy places she’ll offer a hand for me to cling onto like a monkey, she’ll make us stop for a drink and she’s often the one to take a look at my face and declare its time to go. This year was no different. When I got fed up with being jostled about like a Mexican jumping bean, she quickly swept us away.
IT GETS EASIER WITH PRACTISE
Identifying particular triggers can be the stepping stone to managing or alleviating sensory overload. If you can’t avoid or remove yourself from a place to calm yourself down, deep pressure against the skin (something about proprioceptive input) or listening to calming music can help calm the nervous system.
It's worth noting that there is a lot of information out there for people who struggle with sensory overload (you should see how many articles I have bookmarked) and it’s never a bad idea to learn about an issue to help you manage it.
So, despite the many occasions I had this festive season of chewing my hair and having my mum mouth to ask me if I was alright across a crowded room, it was a good Christmas.
Each year I manage to do more and more, even if I’m not particularly aware of it. We all do.
WHAT I LEARNT FROM THIS EXPERIENCE:
It helps hugely if people know what you’re struggling with. Understanding it is a whole other subject, but having people be aware of challenging situations means that when you need to remove yourself from them, those people are sympathetic and helpful.
It is far better for you and your loved ones if you do your own thing, go at your own pace and enjoy what you’re doing, rather than going with the flow and ending up anxious and uncomfortable. On the whole, your loved ones want to see you happy, even if it means they don’t see you for an hour or so. Trust your gut, if you can’t do something, you don’t have to.
People grow. As I mentioned, each year I do more and more things than I did the year before, because each year I do more things that previously made me anxious. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we change slightly as we come to terms with our struggles. I still hate the idea of going to a pub, but I managed a busy restaurant, so there’s that.
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