If you have ever experienced a sensory overload after brain injury, you are not alone. Hypersensitivity to stimulation is one of the most common TBI side effects.
Today’s article will explore the causes of brain injury sensory overload and show you some effective ways to avoid getting overwhelmed.
Causes of Sensory Overload After Brain Injury
Many factors can contribute to sensory overload after brain injury.
First, your brain is devoting most of its energy towards repairing itself. Scientists have found that the injured brain is more active than a healthy brain, with many brain regions working overtime to compensate for lost function.
Therefore, the brain has no residual strength to process or organize information from your senses. This means that even a little stimulation can cause an overload.
Similarly, your attention and concentration skills are limited after brain injury. So if more than one thing is happening at once, your brain will get easily overwhelmed.
Finally, the stress, pain, and fatigue you naturally experience after TBI can intensify your senses and put you on edge. Things that you never noticed before can now bother you and lead to sensory overload.
Some examples of sensations that might now trigger you include:
- Background noises that you can no longer ignore
- Itchy clothing
- Bright lights
- Large crowds
Overstimulation will cause adverse cognitive effects, which is why it is so important to learn how to cope with sensory overload.
What Sensory Overload Looks Like
Sensory overload activates the body’s defense mechanism, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” response. As a result, each person will experience overstimulation a little differently, depending on whether their instinct is to fight back or run away.
Some people will become aggressive and display other behavioral problems such as screaming and violent behavior.
Others will simply shut down emotionally and will not respond. Some might start crying or even vomiting.
Categories of Sensory Overload
Not all sensory overloads are identical. Below are the three most common types of brain injury sensory overload you can experience:
- Immediate overload. Some forms are immediate. You hear a loud noise and you are instantly overstimulated.
- Accumulative overload. Other types are a result of accumulation. No one single thing sets you off, but at some point, you can no longer process your senses and anxiety sets in.
- Fatigue-induced overload. Finally, sensory overload can occur if you focus on one task for too long and you fatigue your brain. This is why, during rehab exercises, it’s crucial not to push yourself too hard.
Now that we know what sensory overload is and what causes it, it’s time to learn what you can do to treat it.
Coping Methods for Brain Injury Sensory Overload
The following are some general suggestions to help you avoid sensory overload after brain injury.
The best way to avoid sensory overload is to limit exposure to overstimulation. This means doing your shopping early in the day when there are fewer people around and asking people to speak one at a time. Or taking naps throughout the day to avoid fatigue.
You’ll also want to modify your environment to give you a space to decompress. If possible, dedicate a room in your house where you can relax, distraction-free.
Know your limits
Learn to monitor yourself so you can tell when things are becoming too much.
It helps to come up with a safe word you can use with family and friends so they can know when you’re getting overwhelmed.
It’s also a good idea to pack headphones with you wherever you go. These can help you calm down, especially in loud places.
Gradually increase exposure
We know, this sounds like a contradiction of the advice above. But eventually, you will need to increase your tolerance.
You should start slow, maybe by walking in a library first before moving on to the mall.
Just remember never to overdo it. You want things to be challenging, but not overwhelming.
Besides these general guidelines, however, there are other interventions, such as a sensory overload “diet” which can help improve your symptoms.
How to Follow a Sensory Overload “Diet”
Sensory diets are not really diets in the traditional sense. Rather, they are routines created by you and your doctor that help you receive beneficial sensory input throughout the day. The goal is to slowly increase your tolerance to stimuli.
Some examples of sensory diet routines include:
- Using weighted blankets
- Chewing gum or drinking a thick liquid
- Chores that involve the whole body, such as laundry
- Deep breathing
Another activity you can do on a sensory diet is the Wilbarger Deep Pressure and Proprioceptive Technique. It involves a series of brushing and joint compressions every two hours for at least two weeks.
Again, the more you expose yourself to gentle stimulus like this, the better your brain will get at processing it.
Overcoming Brain Injury Sensory Overload
Sensory overload can be a frightening thing to experience. Fortunately, with the right strategies, it’s possible to find effective ways to live free from the crushing anxiety of a hypersensitive brain.
We hope this article has helped you find helpful ways to avoid sensory overload after brain injury.