If you stop where you are right now, you’ll notice there is so much going on around you. There’s the noise of traffic or an airplane overhead. Maybe your partner has the TV on. Someone in your office applied fragrance with a heavy hand today. Or that shirt you’re wearing has a really scratchy tag. Maybe your pants are a bit too tight.
Sensory overload occurs when sensations from your senses—sight, touch, smell, taste, feel—come flooding in to the point where you don’t feel as if you can handle it anymore. Maybe you could deal with the bright lights in the grocery store, but now there’s a family whose kids are screaming in the aisles, and that becomes too much. Or maybe you just can’t ignore how noisy the traffic is today. In fact, it feels like it’s becoming noisier by the minute. You can’t focus on anything else.
Anyone can have sensory overload, but for someone with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, sensory overload can cause additional anxiety. It can also allow for OCD to come in and trigger obsessions: recurrent thoughts that are so distressing that they cause people to do repetitive behaviors, called compulsions, for temporary relief.
In this article, we’ll talk about sensory overload more in depth, how it can affect people with OCD, and how to get help for your OCD and sensory overload with the right therapy and support.
Understanding Sensory Overload
To understand sensory overload, you’ll first want to keep in mind that your brain is constantly processing tons of information from the outside world—we’ll call those inputs. For various reasons (more on this in a minute) you may reach a point where your brain feels frazzled and says no more. I can’t take it. In turn, this brings symptoms like stress, anxiety, fear, distress, and even panic.
Sensory overload can be triggered by anything, but it’s more likely to happen if your brain and body’s needs have not been met. “I’d ask: Did you get enough sleep? Have you eaten today? Are you dehydrated? Is it uncomfortably hot outside? Did you have a stressful day of work? Are you having a generally lousy day? Are you sick?” says April Kilduff, a licensed therapist and OCD specialist at NOCD. When your batteries are fully charged, you can handle more of these sensory onslaughts. If you’re feeling energized and comfortable, the dog barking might just be annoying, rather than sending you over the edge.
However, when you’re exhausted, stressed, or otherwise not operating at full capacity, “it won’t take much to tip into a place of sensory overload or overstimulation,” says Kilduff. Unfortunately, when your brain is burdened by other stressors and fatigue, it can be difficult to function. “Overstimulation sucks away a lot of energy and motivation that you would have otherwise. It makes it harder to have the energy to cook dinner or clean your apartment,” says Kilduff. Not only do you feel more anxious, but your day-to-day life suffers, too.
Sensory Overload from Intrusive Thoughts
We’ve been talking a lot about the environmental factors—sounds, smells, sights—that can contribute to sensory overload. Those are all things on the outside.
However, there’s also the reality that the noise isn’t just coming from the outside, but the inside, too. Intrusive thoughts, images, or urges are unpleasant, distressing, against your will, and uncontrollable—they just pop out of nowhere. One reason why they’re so distressing is that they don’t represent your beliefs or values. They might involve sexuality, self-harm, harm to others, contamination, false memories, and far more. In addition, according to the literature on OCD, some of the uncomfortable sensations you experience in OCD are triggered by intrusive thoughts like about things simply feeling “wrong” or incomplete. These initiate OCD symptoms, leading to the cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
Intrusive thoughts can pop up for anyone, but are more prevalent in people who have OCD, anxiety disorders, or have been through a stressful event. When these thoughts occur, they can be confusing. You don’t really want to drive head-on into traffic or stab yourself in the leg with the knife you’re using to cut onions. Right? If you have OCD, a compulsion—like thought blocking, repeating a phrase, or counting—feels absolutely necessary. The condition makes people fixate on these innocuous thoughts, convincing you that a momentary blip in your brain means something about who you are, puts others in harm’s way, or can influence the world around you.
For people with OCD, “anything intrusive by definition will be triggering and stimulating in a negative way. As people get closer to what we’re describing as sensory overload or overstimulation, that’s when the urge to do compulsions is the strongest,” says Kilduff.
Your brain will bargain with you and work to convince you that there’s a reason for this reaction: “The number one job of your brain is to keep you alive,” says Kilduff. And when people with OCD perceive their intrusive thoughts as threats, their brains are put on high alert, a state known as hypervigilance.
You just can’t block these thoughts and feelings out, and that can cause some serious problems. For one, you may feel stuck in this hypervigilant state constantly attending to each of your thoughts and sensations, and the sensory information from the environment can make that anxious, keyed-up feeling even worse. “You’re paying extra attention from an already anxious point,” says Kilduff.
What’s interesting is that if you’re always scanning your surroundings for the next big threat, you may experience what’s called attentional bias. “If we have a bias toward the negative things like fear or anxiety, our attention will go there,” says Kilduff. “It leads to ‘confirmation bias,’ which is when you pay specific attention to something and find what you’re looking for,” she says.
That doesn’t mean that there’s suddenly more to fear, but because it was front and center in your mind, it’s easier to find. She gives the example to members about buying a car. If you’re looking at buying a Jeep, soon enough you’ll notice just how many Jeeps are on the road around you. In fact, it seems like the world is full of Jeeps!
Neurological and Psychological Factors
Here’s the deal with OCD: it’s an opportunistic disorder. It just waits to attack when you’re down—when you’re at your most vulnerable. That’s when the disorder knows it has the best chance in roping you in.
And when you’ve reached sensory overload, “it’s easier for OCD to come in and throw bombs at people who are already down and take advantage of that,” says Kilduff. What will your OCD do? It will tell you there’s only one way to deal with the anxiety or sensory overload you’re feeling right now: compulsions.
Earlier research on about 1000 people with OCD found that 65% said that some form of sensory phenomena were behind their urge to perform compulsions. Likewise, people with OCD who experienced sensory overload also experienced worse OCD symptoms and anxiety, according to a 2019 study that assessed OCD in kids and adolescents.
“OCD takes a lot of things that are uncomfortable and presents them as dangerous,” Kilduff says. Per the literature noted earlier, people with OCD are extra sensitive to these sensory sensations—and as hard they might try, it can be impossible to tune out benign sensory info. That’s why you might feel overwhelmed by the neighbor mowing his lawn, while your friend barely even notices it’s happening. Your threshold for the world around you sits much lower and your brain is more likely to be flooded with “warning” signals as a result.
Finally, a note about somatic obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a subtype of OCD where you hyperfocus on physical sensations that you can’t control and otherwise happen naturally (such as your heart beat, blinking, or swallowing). This type of OCD often leads people to pay very close attention to these bodily processes that are continually happening.
You might feel as if you need to make sure your heart is beating to reassure yourself that the rate is optimal and you are not having a heart attack. It’s likely you cannot focus on anything else. After all, these bodily sensations are largely uncontrollable, but they happen all day, every day. It can lead to a lot of compulsions, such as distraction, avoidance, or reassurance-seeking, all of which can contribute to sensory overload.
Seeking Professional Help
If the world around you (or inside you) feels like it’s too much, you have real treatment options.
If you have OCD, the best course of treatment is exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP. During ERP, your clinician will work with you to help you trigger your OCD symptoms. Once an obsession is triggered, you’ll experience a familiar rush of distress and anxiety. While you’d normally use a compulsion to neutralize that obsession, ERP asks you to sit with that distress and make a conscious choice not to indulge your OCD for quick relief.
If sensory overload is a factor in your OCD, your therapist may first work with you on developing sensory soothing strategies. “A neurodivergent person’s brain, for example, is wired such that sensory issues take priority to process and appropriately accommodate,” says Kilduff. These tools widely vary depending on the individual, they say. After these strategies are in place—and you are able to employ them in order to get your brain back down from high-alert in sensory overload—then ERP therapy can come into play, since it requires a good deal of focus and brain processing, Kilduff explains.
A particular type of exercise called interoceptive exposures may also be used for people with OCD who experience sensory overload. In these exposure exercises, sensory or physical experiences are actively triggered—perhaps you’ll work with your therapist to create bothersome noises, physical sensations, or visual stimuli. When you start to feel overload creeping in, you will work with your therapist to accept these feelings and cope with them, rather than fighting them with compulsions. While it can feel overwhelming in the beginning, it will continue to get easier the more you practice.
Anyone can experience sensory overload, which is when sensory inputs from the environment become so overstimulating, you feel as if you can’t handle them. In people with OCD, distressing intrusive thoughts, somatic obsessions, and certain mental compulsions like rumination or mental checking commonly cause or add to sensory overload.
It’s more likely that you’ll experience sensory overload if you are already stressed, tired, not well fed, thirsty, or any number of energy-stealers that make you feel rundown. “The idea is that you should start every day with a full cup,” says Kilduff. If you tend to have sensory overload with or without OCD, prioritize sleep, exercise to decrease stress, eat a nutritious, well-rounded diet, sip on a water bottle during the day, and take breaks or seek alone time as necessary.
These tenets of wellbeing will help you approach the day from a more even-keeled place and allow you to make the most out of your ERP treatment for OCD.
If you have questions about how ERP treatment can help you with sensory overload, intrusive thoughts, and OCD, book a free 15-minute call with NOCD. All NOCD Therapists have specialty training in treating all subtypes of OCD with ERP therapy.