There's Lines in It
A small, incomplete list of things I don’t like:
The smell or taste of mint. Gummy candy. Loud music. The texture of bananas. Riding with the car windows down. Tomatoes. Music with a heavy bass. Bright, flashing, or flickering lights. Clothing tags. Peaches.
What do all of these have in common? They’re all high sensory items. I mentioned in this post that hypersensitivity is a physical symptom of anxiety, and one I experience often. When my anxiety is high, my hypersensitivity gets worse. On particularly bad days, this turns into sensory overload.
Usually, your brain filters through external stimuli and chooses not to process the stuff you don’t need. This is why you become unaware of smells after being around them a while, and why you can't simultaneously hear every conversation in a crowded area.
In sensory overload, this ability disappears. I’m aware of everything and can't filter any of it out. Worse, everything’s amplified. Talking feels like shouting, lights seem blinding, and getting bumped registers more like a punch.
I’m going to try and give you a clearer picture. Imagine yourself in a crowded cafeteria.
Imagine being able to hear every word of the conversation three, four, or five tables over. Imagine hearing them all at once. Imagine being able to hear every fork, knife, and spoon scraping against dishes, ice clink in a glass ten feet away, and the chewing, breathing, and shuffling of those around you.
Imagine being able to smell each food on your plate, your friend’s plate, the plates of the people at the next table. Imagine being able to smell every perfume, cologne, lotion, and hair gel.
Imagine being able to feel the texture of your chair, the table, the floor. Imagine being able to feel the seams and texture of your jeans against your skin, or your shirt tag, or your socks. Imagine being able to feel the pressure of the air.
Imagine being constantly aware of the brightness of the lights, of the reflection of the them off your glass, your plate, the silverware, and the table.
Feeling overwhelmed yet?
Now imagine each sound being blown into a microphone, each scent spread with a fan, and the lights turned up to the brightness of the sun.
Imagine experiencing that for an hour with no breaks. There’s so much input and no way to get rid of it. It fills your head, floods your senses until all you want to do is put your hands over your ears and scream to drown it all out.
That’s sensory overload.
Thankfully, I don’t experience that every day, but I do experience hypersensitivity. When I was a kid, it was even worse. I hated anything with a strong smell, disliked getting my hands dirty, and I avoided a laundry list of foods because of their texture or strong taste. Speaking of laundry, I refused to wear socks with seams at the toes or jeans because, as I used to say, “there’s lines in them.” I’d have full blown meltdowns over jeans and socks. You can ask my parents.
I wasn’t trying to be difficult, I just couldn’t process my physical environment.
As awesome as these Stitch socks are, I wouldn't have worn them as a kid because of the "lines."
(Also, these are the pink pants I mentioned last week. They don't photograph well.)
My hypersensitivity has gotten a lot better, but it’s still something I deal with every day. I turn the bass down in any car I drive. I avoid florescent lighting and sitting in the center of large rooms. I struggle to try new foods or focus next to someone wearing strong perfume.
For reasons I can attribute to nothing other than the grace of God, I’m able to work at a movie theater and handle the crowds, music, lights, and smell of popcorn for the entire shift. But on bad anxiety days, that environment can trigger a full-blown anxiety attack and leave me sobbing in the stockroom.
Hypersensitivity and sensory overload aren’t typically associated with social anxiety, but they're quite possibly the most inconvenient physical symptoms I experience.
Hopefully this has helped you understand sensory overload a little better and now you’ll know what’s going on if you see me flee a crowded area, retreat to a corner with earbuds, or hide in my room all evening.