5 Ways To Recalibrate Your Senses When You're Feeling Overwhelmed & Overstimulated

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For some highly sensitive people, being in loud, busy spaces can leave them feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed.

Loud and busy spaces filled with the many different voices, music, and unpredictable unknown sounds with colorful sights can feel overwhelming, which can overload their nervous systems.

For others, this same space can be energizing and give their nervous systems the boost they've needed to feel "alive" and invigorated!

What about a quiet, distraction-free space — like a Zen garden at a silent retreat? Not a lot of sounds. Very restful static visual input. 

For some, that would be bliss. For others, they would be bored out of their minds.

RELATED: How To Practice Mindfulness With Each Of The 5 Senses

Your sensory system and your brain are not wired the same as everyone else's.

You don't have the same kinds of experiences with sensations. Even if we all started out the same, your lived experiences would differ enough to have them change over time.

And, of course, as you age, each sensory system ages and changes along with you.

This is why it's important to learn how to deal with sensory overload.

How to inventory your 5 senses so you can avoid overstimulation & enrich your life's experiences.

1. Sight

Your sense of sight provides information about the world by making sense of light waves that your eyes and brain are able to process.

As light bounces off of objects and lands on your retinas, you come to know the speed, direction, and trajectory of objects along with their colors, textures, shapes, and brightness.

Think about how you use this information when you’re driving on the freeway. Or taking in a sunset.

The sense of sight gives so much information about the world. People are heavily reliant on it for pleasure and excitement. 

So what kinds of things do you enjoy looking at? 

What colors alert you? What colors calm you? Do you prefer moving images that are predictable or unpredictable in how they move? Or do you prefer still images?

The thing is, when you see things that move, you become more alert, which is sometimes fear-inducing. Things that don't change are calming and even boring.

Once you're aware of how different types of visual inputs increase and decrease your level of alertness, you can intentionally choose things that are pleasantly alerting.

Other times, you may prefer visuals that are calming. It depends on what you need.

2. Sound

Sounds come to your ears as waves — energy patterns that your ears are well suited to make sense of.

You're able to process the volume, pitch, rate (as in when someone speaks slowly or quickly), and even make sense of sounds as a means of communication (think: language!).

Due to the placement of your ears (on either side of your head), you're also able to make sense of where sounds are coming from in your 3-D world.

The predictability of sounds along with their pitch, volume, and rate will often affect how pleasurable or unpleasant a sound is when it interacts with your individual nervous system.

What kinds of things do you like to hear or listen to? What kind of music? Improvisational jazz or a classical symphony orchestra? Country or heavy metal? Instrumental only or with a vocal component?

Like sights, sounds that change tend to be alerting and sounds that are more predictable are soothing.

What sounds help you feel more happily alert? What sounds help you feel more contentedly calm?

What alerts me may be boring for you. And what calms me may feel unpleasant and uncomfortable for you.

I love listening to Thelonius Monk's music — to my ears, it's fresh, invigorating, modern, and soothing. It makes me feel both alive and safe. You may disagree!

Find your acoustic preferences for increasing and decreasing your level of alertness and you're well on your way to creating sensational soundscapes for you.

3. Taste

You can taste sweet, sour, bitter salty, and umami. 

Which do you prefer? Which are alerting for you?  Which are soothing? 

Sweet, salty, and umami are generally soothing unless something is too sweet or too salty. Bitter and sour tend to be alerting. But that may not be true for you.

Tastes change throughout your lifespan.

I remember enjoying sour candies as a child but not so much now. I used to love eating raw carrots too. 

What flavors feel comforting for you? What's more stressful? 

RELATED: How To Tell If You're 'Too Sensitive' — And What To Do About It

4. Smell

Your sense of smell allows you to make sense of chemicals that are in the air around you.

These chemical receptors help you avoid harmful chemicals but also help you appreciate aromas that are positive — like your favorite food! 

Think about the last time you had a stuffy nose. You probably didn’t enjoy eating as much. That’s because the aroma was stifled.

As with all the other senses, there are no universal rules. With the exception of some noxious smells (like gas), what might be pleasant to me may be unpleasant to you.

I know people who love anything that’s lavender-scented. It calms them and even supports their sleep. I know others who despise the scent and can’t understand why anyone could appreciate such a stench.

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5. Touch

The tactile sense is likely the most complicated as there are many different "tactile feelings" covered under this one term. "Touch" receptors are spread out, in different concentrations, throughout our skin.

Light touches can feel like a tickle, an itch, or affection. Deep pressure touch can feel soothing (like a massage) or uncomfortable (even painful) if you happen to have a tender spot or a bruise. 

There are also pain and temperature receptors in your skin.

What kind of tactile sensations do you prefer?

If someone came up behind you randomly and bumped into you, would this feel distressing? Or would you barely notice?

Your answer would most likely depend on where you were and who you were sharing your space with. At the mall, unexpected touch may be unsettling. At home, curled up on the couch, it may feel quite safe.

Just remember that just because you like the touch of something, whether random or predictable, doesn’t mean that everyone will.

I remember having the chance to pet a chinchilla once. By all accounts, their fur is extremely soft. They certainly looked soft and cuddly. To me, the moment my hand came in contact with his fur, I felt sharp, fine needles piercing my skin.

It was unexpectedly unpleasant and I pulled my hand away. Since I doubted my experience, I tried a second time with no change in results. I don’t pet chinchillas anymore.

Learning how to identify your sensory preferences and needs and then intentionally using your senses to alert, calm, and soothe yourself can be a key life skill.

It’s helpful to manage emotions, especially for self-care. And, when families learn to apply this knowledge to understand one another, it can strengthen and even heal relationships.

A child who likes to speak at the top of their lungs can be overwhelming for a parent or sibling who finds loud noises uncomfortable. This sensory interaction can be harmful.

And a spouse who doesn’t like to be randomly touched or bumped into can feel quite unsafe in crowds — from malls to Christmas parties — and be more than a little overwhelmed.

That can look like panic, grumpiness, or complete withdrawal from engaging with others. They may even unexpectedly pull away from affection when they’re already feeling overwhelmed.

Relationships can be — and often are — impacted by unique sensory preferences and needs.

Increasing awareness of your own, as well as your loved ones', sensory preferences can enrich your daily life, improve your sense of well-being, and prevent ruptures in important relationships.

This is a simple, but powerful expertise to develop and apply in your daily life. For you and for those you love.

RELATED: How To Master The Art Of Being Happy In 15 Steps (Or Less!)

Judith Pinto is a Registered Occupational Therapist in Alberta, Canada with extensive training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) and Sandplay Therapy. For more information, visit her website.