Is sensory overload a mental illness?

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Sensory overload refers to a state where one’s senses are overstimulated by the environment. With sensory overload, a person finds it difficult to process and integrate sensory information properly. This leads to stress, anxiety, fatigue, and even physical pain. Sensory overload is common in individuals with autism, anxiety disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But is sensory overload itself a diagnosable mental illness? Let’s explore this complex question.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload occurs when the brain struggles to integrate and process sensory information from the body and environment. There are various types of sensory overload:

  • Visual overload – too much visual stimulus like flickering lights, movement, colors
  • Auditory overload – too much sound from conversations, traffic, music
  • Olfactory overload – too many smells from perfumes, foods, chemicals
  • Gustatory overload – too many tastes from highly spiced or flavorsome foods
  • Tactile overload – textures of clothes, labels in clothes, crowds bumping into you

When a person experiences sensory overload, they have difficulty filtering important sensory information from background sensory details. This information processing difficulty makes it challenging to focus on tasks, think clearly, and communicate.

Sensory overload creates a stress response in the body. The sympathetic nervous system activates, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. As a result, the overwhelmed person may experience:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hyperventilation
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety

To quickly manage the uncomfortable sensations, the overloaded individual may:

  • Withdraw from the overstimulating environment
  • Cover their ears or eyes
  • Rock, flap, or pace repetitively
  • Snap or yell at others

Sensory Overload in Mental Health Conditions

While anyone can experience sensory overload occasionally, some mental health conditions involve chronic sensitivity to sensory stimuli:


Many autistic individuals have sensory processing challenges. Their brains have trouble filtering important sensory information from background sensory details. Sudden loud noises, bright lights, strong scents, coarse textures, and other stimuli can quickly overwhelm the brain. This contributes to social anxiety, emotional meltdowns, and repetitive self-soothing behaviors.

Anxiety Disorders

People with anxiety disorders often feel stressed by sensory input like crowds, noisy places, and bright lights. They are prone to sensory overload because their brains are hypervigilant, constantly scanning for potential threats. Loud noises and visual clutter trigger feelings of losing control, inducing panic attacks.


People with ADHD struggle to filter out distracting sensory stimuli. Their attention jumps between different sights, sounds, and sensations. This makes it exceedingly difficult to focus when there is background noise, visual clutter, or other distracting sensory input. ADHD sensory overload often causes restlessness, irritability, and emotional outbursts.

Is Sensory Overload Itself a Mental Disorder?

Sensory overload is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a standalone mental illness. However, it is a key feature used to diagnose conditions like autism spectrum disorder, anxiety disorders, ADHD, PTSD, and OCD.

Mental health professionals debate whether sensory processing challenges should be classified as their own discrete disorder. Here are some key considerations:

Arguments For Classifying it as a Disorder

  • Brain imaging studies show sensory processing pathways are wired differently in people who suffer sensory overload.
  • Genetic studies indicate genetic mutations affect sensory processing abilities.
  • Sensory overload can significantly impact daily functioning and quality of life.
  • Standardized scales like the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile can systematically measure degrees of sensory sensitivity.
  • Classifying it formally would improve research, assessment, and treatment.

Arguments Against Classifying it as a Disorder

  • Sensory overload is a symptom, not a distinct disorder.
  • It often improves when underlying conditions like autism, ADHD, and anxiety are treated.
  • Sensory thresholds are on a spectrum in the general population.
  • Calling sensory processing differences a “disorder” further stigmatizes neurodiverse individuals.
  • Everyone has sensory pet peeves – this is not abnormal.

Overall, while sensory processing challenges significantly impact patients, most mental health professionals believe classifying it as its own disorder is unnecessary and risks overpathologizing normal neurodiversity.

Causes of Sensory Overload

Sensory overload has complex roots in both biology and environment:

Biological Factors

Genetic mutations – Research finds gene mutations that affect synaptic transmission between neurons play a role in sensory sensitivity. Many genes implicated in autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions impact sensory processing pathways.

Brain differences – Brain scan studies reveal structural and functional brain differences in people who are easily overloaded:

  • Enhanced connectivity between auditory and limbic regions, so sounds trigger greater emotional arousal.
  • Decreased filtering of sensory input by inhibitory interneurons.
  • Overactivity in the amygdala, the brain’s threat detector.

Neurotransmitter imbalances – Neurochemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA regulate neuronal excitation and inhibition. Imbalances in these neurotransmitters can make it hard to filter sensory stimuli.

Environmental Factors

Aspects of a person’s environment can increase vulnerability to overload:

Stress – Chronic stress depletes neurotransmitters and tires out the brain’s filtering capacity. This sensory gating deficit leaves the brain overwhelmed.

Trauma – Past trauma can wire the brain to be hypervigilant to sensory cues reminiscent of the traumatic incident.

Masking – Some autistic people “mask” to cope in social situations, camouflaging their true feelings. Masking fatigue decreases their capacity to handle sensory input.

Poor sleep – Insufficient sleep reduces higher cognitive functions needed to process complex sensory information.

Overstimulation – Modern urban environments are full of sensory clutter, lights, noise, scents, and crowds. Our brains were not wired to handle this much stimulation.

How is Sensory Overload Diagnosed?

There are no standard diagnostic criteria for sensory overload itself. It is identified through:

  • Screening scales – Such as the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile, which measures sensory sensitivity across different domains.
  • Clinical interview – Asking about reactions to sensory input in different settings.
  • Medical history – Documenting any developmental delays, learning disabilities, or mental health conditions.
  • Occupational therapy evaluation – Assessing sensory reactivity and modulation.
  • IQ and neuropsychological testing – Identifying information processing and cognitive weaknesses.
  • SPECT brain imaging – Scanning cerebral blood flow to identify overactive and underactive brain regions.

Diagnoses associated with sensory overload like autism, anxiety, ADHD, and OCD are made based on DSM-5 criteria for these conditions. Sensory overload simply helps confirm the appropriate diagnosis.

How is Sensory Overload Treated?

Rather than treating sensory overload directly, treatment aims to address the underlying condition contributing to overload:

  • Medication – Prescribing stimulants for ADHD to improve focusing and calm overactivity in sensory processing regions. Prescribing SSRIs for anxiety/OCD to increase serotonin.
  • Counseling – Helping those with anxiety, OCD, and PTSD face triggers and manage fears. Teaching coping strategies.
  • CBT – Using cognitive behavioral therapy to change thought patterns that influence sensory reactivity.
  • OT – Working with occupational therapists to find ways to adapt environments and build sensory tolerance.
  • Neurofeedback – Training the brain to better modulate its own excitatory and inhibitory processes.

Additional strategies include getting good sleep, avoiding overstimulating environments when possible, wearing noise-cancelling headphones, and using calming sensory tools like fidgets and weighted blankets.

Does Sensory Overload Qualify You for Disability?

While sensory overload alone is not considered a disability, the DSM-5 diagnoses associated with sensory sensitivity – like autism and ADHD – may qualify an individual for disability services under the ADA and IDEA.

To qualify for disability benefits due to sensory overload symptoms:

  • There must be a formal diagnosis like autism spectrum disorder, anxiety disorder, ADHD, OCD, or PTSD from a licensed professional.
  • Sensory challenges must significantly impair daily functioning across multiple life domains – school, work, self-care, relationships, etc.
  • A doctor must document substantial limitations caused by sensory sensitivity.
  • Testing should demonstrate below average cognitive processing speed or difficulties filtering sensory stimuli.

Individuals who meet these criteria may be eligible for ADA workplace accommodations, IEPs or 504 plans for students, disability parking permits, or SSI income supplements due to their sensory processing challenges.

Coping Strategies for Sensory Overload

Here are some simple, practical coping methods to prevent and relieve sensory overload:

Lifestyle Strategies

  • Get enough sleep to let sensory processing brain centers recharge.
  • Build in regular quiet time to limit stimulation.
  • Declutter work and living spaces to reduce visual chaos.
  • Listen to music on noise-cancelling headphones to create an auditory barrier.

Calming Sensory Inputs

  • Use fidget toys and chewelry to provide soothing tactile input.
  • Wear compression garments to create calming proprioceptive input.
  • Surround yourself with comfortable fabrics and textures.
  • Focus on pleasing smells like essential oils to counteract noxious odors.

Soothing Self-Talk

  • “This stimulation is intense but temporary, it will pass.”
  • “I can get through this moment of overload.”
  • “My senses are overreacting right now, but I am safe.”

Pacing activities, taking sensory breaks, and having escape plans for overwhelming situations can also prevent hitting sensory overload limits.


While sensory overload is not formally classified as its own mental disorder, it is an increasingly recognized feature of many mental health conditions like autism, ADHD, anxiety, and OCD. Genetic, neural, and environmental factors can make someone’s brain prone to becoming overtaxed by sensory stimuli.

Though more research is emerging on sensory processing differences, there remains debate about whether sensory overload warrants being its own diagnosis. Regardless of its diagnostic status, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, and other clinicians should assess for sensory sensitivity issues in overwhelmed patients. With supportive treatment and lifestyle adaptations, both adults and children can gain greater control over their neurological reactions to sensory input. This improves their ability to function and find calm in frequently overstimulating modern environments.

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