How to self-regulate sensory overload

sensory overload

The point at which you reach sensory overload depends on your tolerance level for sensory input.

Not only is each person different in this regard, but we also react in different ways to overload. Knowing your triggers and how to self-regulate your environment affects how well you cope in a stressful and potentially overwhelming world.

Too much information?

“Our brains are constantly bombarded with information from the world around us,” says Dr Annemarie Lombard, an Occupational Therapist in learning and development. She is the author of the book called ‘Sensory Intelligence’. “There is a point where the incoming information becomes too much to process, and the brain simply shuts down.”

Know your sensory threshold

We don’t always have control over our immediate environment, but to an extent we can make choices based on our knowledge of ourselves. If you have a low sensory threshold, you won’t enjoy working in a day care centre, for example. A sensation seeker with a high sensory threshold won’t enjoy being a librarian.

Coping strategies for sensory overload

Lombard mentions three main strategies to cope with sensory overload:

1. Avoid/Add

2. Anticipate

3. Self-regulate

The first two are reliant on a certain level of self-knowledge and personal experience. There are however some very valuable tips on how to self-regulate our levels of mental arousal and alertness in order to function most effectively and appropriately, and to keep the brain and body in a state of equilibrium.

Before we know what works for us, we have to become aware of our particular thresholds.

Become aware of your sensory habits

These could include things such as biting your pen, twirling your hair, chewing gum, tapping your feet – in other words, the ways your brain uses to help you focus.

Conscious and unconscious filtering of information

The first one is when we use self-talk and mental preparation to regain control.

The second one is when we use sensory messages from our body to become alert and organised. This could involve listening to music, going for a massage, taking a walk, or looking at something which you find pleasing.

Once you have done that, you will be able to know what to do when you are about to become overwhelmed by sensory input.

Self-regulation strategies

There are five basic self-regulation strategies (many of which we do instinctively) we can use to take a break and calm ourselves down. They are:

1. Put something in your mouth: lick or chew or suck or drink something.

2. Move about: this basically reboots the body’s ‘GPS’ and feeds the brain. It can also physically remove you from a stressful scenario.

3. Touch something or be touched. This includes fidgeting with objects, taking a warm bath, being touched or hugged (obviously only if it’s not unwanted).

4. Look at something soothing. Natural light, pastel colours, calming interiors, even beautiful photographs.

5. Listen to something soothing. This can be quiet music, whispering voices, or so-called white noise, such as the sound of running water.

All of these can help to ‘reboot’ your mind, and make it possible for you to focus on the task at hand. Or just to feel happier and more content.


The Content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Image:  Freepik

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