Exclusive Content

MS and Sensory Overload

By Mary Pettigrew
AdobeStock_243350045-flip.jpgSensory overload is a frustrating phenomenon which affects many people with MS. I’ve had experiences with this issue before and after I was diagnosed with MS. It can be quite shocking and overwhelming when it happens, especially when you don’t know why or what to do about it.
When such an influx of sensory stimuli delivers a potentially overwhelming combination of sounds, smells, lights, colors, and motion in a crowded space the experience can be too much for people with MS to handle, or adapt or respond effectively. 

Sometimes sensory input (sounds, crowds) causes significant pain, physical malfunctions, confusion, and frustration – the fatigue itself can become quite debilitating. Here’s just a sample list of situations and conditions which can come into play.
  • Environmental (e.g., crowds, shopping, dining out, acoustics, driving)
  • Social (e.g., meetings/parties, multiple or even one-on-one conversations, phone calls, dates)
  • Work, home, school (multitasking, chores, family, planning, studying, creating and writing letters, documents, email/texts) 
  • Sleep Issues/fatigue
  • Psychological/mental wellness 
  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • Menopause/hormones

Some people with MS try to avoid certain environments, possible signs or “triggers” that can make them more vulnerable to a sensory overload meltdown. It’s helpful to plan ahead and prepare for whatever appropriate measures you’ll want to take in order to escape or to prevent anxiety riddled symptoms from escalating into a bigger problem.

For others (such as myself) it’s an unpredictable problem which can arise without warning. I hear people talk about how driving in traffic, crowded places, and noises can take them into full blown panic attacks. I too have experienced this from time to time and it’s a scary, terrible feeling. It’s not always easy to prepare for every scenario which may arise.

Potential, yet temporary problems that can result from sensory overload related episodes include compromised thought processing; focus, vision, speech, swallowing, ear pain/tinnitus, dexterity/movement, emotional disturbances; PBA; and others.

There have been times that I’ve felt so overwhelmed by places or events that I must take a break. Other times, I’ve literally needed to escape, removing myself fully from the environment. I keep the Uber and Lyft apps handy on my phone. It’s helpful to let others know about your situation – don’t be embarrassed, you may be surprised to discover how understanding and accommodating they’ll be. In general, others will want you to feel comfortable and involved.

One of the most challenging issues I face is when too much information is coming in all at once. It’s too much and I can’t process anything. In this situation, I notice a lapse in word finding. My own thoughts/speech are lost or making a simple decision becomes almost impossible. As a writer, this is such a painful, emotional experience for me to deal with, oftentimes leaving me utterly exhausted and in tears.

What are your triggers? 

Knowing what bothers you the most is the first step in doing something proactive to avoid the effects of sensory overload. If you have control of your environment, try reducing the amount of noise. Avoid trying to multitask, for example watching TV and carrying on a conversation at the same time.

Sound control - Use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones to block out sound or to listen to something you find soothing instead. Tinnitus might make it more noticeable.

Sights/ Light - Use natural light, softer light bulbs, dimmer switches, etc. There are glare reducing sunglasses available which can also help when you’re in some unexpectedly bright environments, such as a grocery store. Computer screens and cellphones have controls to adjust brightness too, use them. 

At home - Clutter and other visual chaos can certainly overwhelm the mind as much as other stimuli. Plus, clutter hinders the way we navigate throughout our surroundings. If you find yourself trying to function in clutter, more energy is expended, physical movement is compromised and unsafe.

Everyone can feel overwhelmed occasionally. Whether it might be related to your MS or not, do whatever you need to take care of you. Incorporate mindfulness, strengthen your tools for emotional wellness and remind yourself to include self care in your everyday lives. And always remember that you are not alone!