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Sensory overload: A guide for people with low vision

Rows of bright light bulbs on a ceiling causing a visual sensory overload

It’s overwhelming. Too much information pours in from too many sources. You feel like running away, but you also feel unable to move. 

It’s sensory overload, and it can happen to all of us from time to time. If you suffer from low vision or you have a degenerative eye disease, you’re not immune. In fact, gradually worsening eyesight could cause stress and do even more damage. 

This overview of sensory overload for people with low vision will help you understand what’s going on and how to deal with it. You’ll learn: 

  • How to identify the symptoms of sensory overload.

  • Why you need to understand the risks of information overload.

  • How stress affects vision loss and sensory overload. 

  • Why some people are more likely to feel overwhelmed.

  • What you can do to deal with sensory overload.

  • Where to go to learn more about coping with sensory overload.   

What are the primary symptoms of sensory overload? 

All five senses play a role in sensory overload. The primary symptoms of sensory overload are therefore best outlined according to the affected sense:

SightBright, flashing lights in a city or marketplace
Smartphone and TV screens
Intense video games, TV shows and movies
SoundLoud, intense music
Machinery or mechanical processes
Crowds or screaming voices
SmellCigarette smoke
Industrial gases
Food being cooked
TouchVideo game play; computer and touchscreen use
Rain, wind or strong weather
Unwanted personal contact
TasteRich food that triggers sense memories
Spicy meals that incite thirst
Bitter medications

Experiencing too many of these stimuli at the same time can trigger sensory overload, whose symptoms include feeling: 

  • Agitated, angry or anxious. 

  • Depressed or sad.

  • Moody or irritable. 

  • Lonely, isolated or alienated. 

  • Generally overwhelmed.

If you feel an urge to hide in the closet or take a two-year vacation from the world, then you might be experiencing sensory overload. 

Understanding what’s going on can help you figure out what to do about it. 

Information overload: What it is and why it matters

Your brain can’t process everything from all sensory sources at the same time. It has to zero in on the most important things while filtering everything else out, especially if you’re in the middle of a complex task.

This can have real-world impacts on issues like public safety and decision-making.  

Researchers have documented this effect in a concept called perceptual load theory. Perceptual load is the volume of signals you get from your five senses. The greater the volume, the heavier the load — and the greater the decrease in processing signals that aren’t directly relevant to a task you’re performing. 

Driving a car, for instance, requires a certain amount of attention, or perceptual load. Researchers in one study used a driving simulator to see how a complex task like parking a car affected drivers’ perception of things nearby, like animals or people. 

The research, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, found that as people’s  perceptual load grew heavier, they became less likely to notice an unexpected animal or pedestrian. This illustrates one possible risk of information overload. 

Another example: A study in Frontiers in Psychology found a connection between perceptual load and the ability of witnesses in a legal case to accurately remember what they saw. “High perceptual load events were recalled with less accuracy, and these memories were more malleable, with recall strongly affected by leading questions,” the authors concluded.  

Both of these studies were based on experiments rather than real-world observations. But they do strongly suggest the possibility that a heavy perceptual load — another way to describe sensory overload — may have a cost.  

The journal Business Research published an exhaustive review of the impact of information overload in the world of commerce. The report noted that information overload made people unhappy in their work, thereby imposing costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars. 

Thus, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Sensory overload is real, and it is pervasive. 

What’s more, sensory overload causes stress that can have a direct impact on the well-being of people with low vision.  

How are vision loss, stress and sensory overload connected?

Sensory overload can trigger a stress response that puts your body in fight-or-flight mode. This response evolved over millions of years and helped our ancestors survive conflicts with predators and other people competing for food and resources. 

In the 21st century, flashing lights, noisy crowds, social media flame wars and countless other contributors to sensory overload set off our stress receptors. Now, consider the stress levels of learning you have an eye disease that may cause blindness

The prospect of losing your vision is bound to trigger fear, anxiety and worry, which can feel overwhelming if you’re already overstressed. 

Plus, stress, a common response to sensory overload, might also make your vision loss worse. How can that be?        

EPMA Journal, a research publication that focuses on predictive, preventive and personalized medicine, addressed this question in a 2018 article. Damage to the retina, optic nerve or brain make it harder to read, recognize faces and hold down a job. The strain of struggling to perform these normally straightforward daily tasks can easily overwhelm the senses and feel like too much. 

On top of that, if the damage is getting worse and likely to end in blindness, mental stress along with depression and loneliness are likely to compound any already existing anxiety.  In light of these issues, the authors of the article composed a provocative hypothesis: “While prolonged mental stress is clearly a consequence of vision loss, it may also aggravate the situation.” 

That is, knowing you’re losing your vision may actually be speeding up the process. Alternatively, there’s evidence that therapies might be able to help. The authors also cited a case in which a woman lost most of her vision after a traumatic incident in her life. Therapies, including counseling, alternating current stimulation, relaxation and eye yoga, produced notable improvements. 

The researchers conceded that the cause-and-effect relationship between vision loss and stress has not been proven beyond doubt. But they do build a persuasive case on these points: 

  • The eyes connect directly to the central nervous system and the circulatory system. 

  • Stress can trigger immediate responses in these systems (along with the immune system).

  • Thus, stress likely has an impact on the long-term functioning of the vision system.    

The authors note that people with varying personality types respond differently to stress, thereby posing variable implications for eye health. 

Why some people are more likely to feel sensory overload

Some people are just more sensitive, literally. They feel and react to things more intensely than others. Some even become agitated by loud sounds or sudden changes in their environment. This happens in children and adults alike. 

Experts on human behavior and personalities divide these traits into two categories: 

  • Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), wherein people are genetically coded to absorb more sensory information and often react strongly to stimuli.   

  • Sensory processing disorder (SPD), wherein people (especially children) show extreme reactions to specific sensory stimuli.  

Each of these personality types is prone to sensory overload.

Sensory processing sensitivity 

Elaine N. Aron, PhD, an expert on high-sensitivity personalities, has written a series of books about people who feel things more intensely than the rest of the population. These people have SPS and make up about 20% of the human population, according to her research.       

Aron’s website has a test of 27 characteristics of people who have sensory processing sensitivity. You can check a box next to a characteristic if it applies to you. Examples: 

  • “I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.” 

  • “I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.”

  • “I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.”

  • “I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.”

The more boxes you check, the greater the likelihood that you’re a highly sensitive person. 

There’s no winning or losing score on Aron’s quiz. If you click more than 14 boxes, you may be highly sensitive. That can have strong benefits: You could be deeply conscientious about other people’s feelings. You might appreciate art and culture in a depth that eludes most people. 

Aron says highly sensitive people are more likely to experience sensory overload. But their processing of sensations is markedly different from those who have sensory processing disorder. 

Sensory processing disorder 

The following scenarios outlined in an article published in the University of California, San Francisco's UCSF Magazine paint a vivid picture of sensory processing disorder, which often applies to children but can affect people throughout their lives.  

The children reacted hysterically to everyday things like a guitar player in a subway or an expansive view from their living room window. The feeling of a certain fabric drove them to distraction. 

But what exactly is happening in these cases? The website of the American Academy of Family Physicians has a wealth of insights. For instance, symptoms of sensory processing disorder in children include: 

  • Clothing feels scratchy or itchy.  

  • Lights seem too bright, and sounds are too loud.

  • Certain food textures trigger a gag reflex.  

  • Playing on swings brings on fear or anxiety.

Scientists are mystified about what causes these behaviors, which makes it functionally impossible to prevent sensory processing disorder. 

But doctors and therapists can help treat the symptoms of SPD by having patients or caregivers do things like controlling exposure to environments and events that trigger strong reactions. Also, there is occupational therapy to help those with SPD learn to dial back emotional responses before they become overpowering. 

If you have low vision, you may already suffer from the effects of stress and anxiety. So it’s safe to assume, if you’re also among those who have SPS or SPD, you likely need additional help. 

The best route is to consult with a doctor and a therapist to identify where you stand on the sensitivity spectrum. Then, you’ll need to start finding tactics for reducing your risk of sensory overload. 

SEE RELATED: Preparing your visually impaired child for school

How to reduce the impact of sensory overload 

The American Academy of Ophthalmology advises that you start with your digital devices. The AAO says if you’re feeling overwhelmed, a digital detox might help turn the volume down. Detoxing means: 

  • Deliberately spending less time on your computer, smartphone, tablet or other digital device. 

  • Loading apps that help you relax, stay focused and avoid distractions when you have to use digital devices.    

Psychology Today has also suggested ways to confront experiences that cause sensory overload. Among their advice: 

  • Meditate for at least 20 minutes a day.

  • Use mindfulness techniques to manage overstimulation.

  • Reduce clutter in your environment. A messy office or home can contribute to sensory overload.   

EPMA Journal, which published the in-depth study on the impact of stress on vision loss, pointed to research documenting the benefits of yoga, meditation and mindfulness training. The study recommended more proven stress-reduction tactics, including: 

  • Music therapy. Certain rhythms improve heart function and generate measurable relaxation reactions. Classical music is more soothing than rock ‘n’ roll.  

  • Coping strategies. Developing a more optimistic outlook and dealing with anger can help reduce the effects of stress. 

  • Social support. Simply getting together with family, friends and colleagues can make you feel better. 

SEE RELATED: Digital Detox: Challenge your kid to try 24 hours without screen time

Doing what it takes to reduce sensory overload 

If you have low vision, you’re bound to feel anxiety and stress — especially if you’ve always had normal vision and are now losing it. 

You do not have to go through this alone. For starters, talk to your eye doctor about the stress you’re enduring. There’s no need to accept a dismissive response like “Well, you’re going blind. Get used to it.” 

In addition to talking to a trusted eye care professional, consider finding a therapist. An experienced counselor can help you tame sensory overload and do what’s right to protect your visual health without sacrificing your overall well-being. 

Helpful links on sensory overload 

Dig deeper by checking out these articles and websites referenced above:

Stress and vision loss

Sensitivity traits 

Information overload 

Reducing perceptual load

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