How to Use Your 5 Senses to Help Your Sensory Overload
Sensory Overload. Whether you're an introvert or extrovert, you've likely been to an amusement park, concert, fair, or holiday party where every sense has been kicked into high gear and leaves you dazed, irritated, or anxious.
Introverts are especially sensitive to sensory overload because of how their brain processes stimuli. They are more sensitive to dopamine, so when we are blitzed with it in high doses at one time, like at a holiday party or amusement park, our brains tell us, through a variety of physical responses, that it has had its fill. Introverts process this stimuli differently than extroverts and more on the science is explained in this amazing article, titled Introverts’ and Extroverts’ Brains Really Are Different, According to Science by Jenn Granneman over at Introvert, Dear.
BUT, there is good news! Just as our 5 senses intake all the grandeur the world has to offer, they can also act as buffers and filters to prevent overload from creating anxiety-filled and claustrophobic outings this Christmas.
So, whether you're hopping from the office party to the neighborhood ornament exchange or from the candlelight service to the food bank, all before heading to 5 Christmases in two days, consider preparing to handle sensory overload in a healthy way.
Here I offer some tips to help you use your senses to triage or refuse the additional hustle and bustle brought about by your other senses. Try these tips to help balance your senses and bring a little calm to the present:
Try focusing on one thing in the room. Picture it, you're at your spouse's Christmas party and he and all his co-workers settle into old routines, jokes and stories. The guy next to you elbows you as if nudging you will help you get the inside joke. Cigarette smoke is wafting in from the open door, you've rested your hand on the sticky table, and the strobe light blinds you every 7.8 seconds. Yay, holidays!
By focusing on one item in the room - a person's shirt, shoes, or a door, while taking 5 quick but strong breaths, followed by 3 deep, cleansing breaths, you can bring your thoughts into focus and cut off the rest of the sensory distractions. Like Lamaze, your focal point, along with this breathing technique, can help desensitize some of the overwhelming triggers around you.
Food, food, everywhere! All these parties means tons of potlucks, cookie exchanges and big meals. If you're feeling overwhelmed by other senses, cleanse your palate as a way to tame your taste buds.
Foods that can help calm your taste buds and therefore a path to calming your other senses include white bread (excellent palate cleanser!), pickles, bananas, and apples. Consider bringing your own travel mug full of lemon, pineapple, or cucumber water as an excellent palate cleanser or for a calming effect exactly when you need it.
We all know lavender has a calming effect, but did you know that lemon and other citrus does as well? You can create a simple but effective sachet of lemon zest or peel to ward off headaches and soothe the senses.
Not sure you can finish the mincemeat pie Great Aunt Cindy made just for you? Discretely pinch your nose as you chew to minimize unpleasantness.
By taming your sense of smell, you also tame your sense of taste and leave room for your brain to process the other stimuli fighting for processing time.
Zero in on an object - maybe your fuzzy socks or soft sweater. Pet the dog. Grab a pillow. My family is big on pillows. Decorative pillows everywhere. And we use them. Holding a pillow in your lap is super comforting. So whether you're at the table playing cards or watching old movies, don't be afraid to grab a pillow and snuggle up. And don't forget - when traveling and staying with Aunt Maude, don't forget to bring your own pillow!
I've said it before, but it is worth saying again - get a white noise app on your phone. There is nothing like it. When the quiet begins to feel lonely or the excitement of the train station or airport gets overwhelming, listening to the sounds of a campfire, fan, wind chimes, or raindrops, brings me back to the present. Pack your earbuds. Then pack a spare pair.
During my research into combating sensory overload, I came across a coping technique called 5-4-3-2-1. When stimuli cross the line from joyful, beautiful, delicious, and desirable to irritating, screeching, blinding and disastrous, the noises seem to get louder, the lights brighter, and the sweater scratchier. You may even experience cold sweats, pressure in your chest, or a sense of nervousness. These are all physical responses to the overproduction of dopamine. Neutralize yourself before your situation becomes intolerable by trying the 5-4-3-2-1 method:
Say out loud (if possible), otherwise recognize in your head:
5 things I see - I see the books on the shelves. I see the family in picture frames...
4 things I feel - I feel the rings on my fingers. I feel the glasses on my face...
3 things I hear - I hear my grandfather snoring...
2 things I smell - I smell the fire in the fireplace...
1 thing I taste - I taste the cinnamon of my mint...
Consciously recognizing the obvious can help bring your mind to the factual present when we would otherwise exaggerate our surroundings. Those who suffer from anxiety or experience sensitivity to sensory overload could benefit from such a simple technique. Those with a temper also benefit - or so I heard from a friend.
Remembering and focusing on the purpose of the cradle to the cross is the most important and effective way to bring peace to sensory or any overwhelming situation. Pray, spend time in God's presence (which is everywhere, always), acknowledge His goodness, and remember why He has you in this moment.
May God bless you this Christmas and always.
How about you? How do you combat sensory overload? Comment below and don't forget to subscribe!