Sensory Overload –

Sensory Overload –

A pan boiling over on a hob

There I was at the office, sat at my desk. A normal day. Listening to music through my noise-cancelling headphones: some classic 90s Manchester tunes from the likes of James, New Order and Happy Mondays.

No indication that anything was wrong: I was getting on with my work as usual. Went to get a drink from the kitchen/break area…

That was when it started to hit me. Sounds jostling and crowding me, every footstep and every word like a stab in my ears. I felt dizzy, had to close my eyes against the suddenly-too-bright light and hold on to the counter to steady myself.

Took my drink and returned to my desk.

Sat down.

Had a couple of sips…

Have you ever been wading in the sea and gotten hit by an unexpectedly strong wave, knocking you off balance? And then another, and another? Or you go round a corner on a dark road to be confronted by the dazzling headlights of an oncoming car in the middle of the road?

It was a moment of sheer panic as all the lights and sounds and smells and tastes and other sensations impinging on me suddenly went off the scale as my senses overloaded.

I bolted, instincts taking control from my stunned conscious mind. I vaguely remember struggling with the door, dashing to the lift, hitting the button.

Then I was in front of the wall opposite, banging my head against it in a desperate attempt to silence the unholy racket going on inside. I dropped to the floor, holding my hands over my eyes and hyperventilating.

The receptionist came over, asked if I was okay. I managed to say, “Overloaded.”

I regained enough control to know I needed to find somewhere dark and quiet to recover: I looked in vain for a free room before grabbing my hat and coat and heading out towards the river.

I thought being outside would help: the natural light of an overcast winter afternoon. But there was no escape from noise. Infrequent cars passing, more distant traffic sounds from busy highways. And above it all the constant tone of my tinnitus.

I walked all the way down to the riverside. No matter where I went there was that background traffic noise and my inescapable, painfully intrusive tinnitus.

Giving up on the great outdoors, I returned to the office in a state of distress, unable to think clearly. I knew what I needed for relief but couldn’t work out how to get it.

My line manager helped me to a vacant meeting room, reserving it for the next hour and putting a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. I discarded my hat and coat and lay down on the floor in the darkest part of the room.

There was still noise from the ventilation and people outside in other parts of the office, and my tinnitus was unbearable. I lay on my back and hit my head rhythmically with my fist, counting. Two blows per number, about two blows per second: I reached 150 and stopped.

There was a welcome numbness in my head and I began to feel a modicum of control. I stimmed verbally, reciting lyrics and poetry, singing a couple of Janis Joplin numbers, gradually coming back to full consciousness as the instinct to flee ebbed away.

I felt worn out and it was an effort to get up off the floor and onto a chair. I sat, aware of the tone in my ears still but relieved that it was no longer preventing me from thinking clearly.

Outside the room I was in, the door to another part of the office kept banging shut as people moved to and fro. Every time it latched shut I would jump, hyper-vigilant and skirting the edge of an anxiety attack.

My attempts to calm myself weren’t looking like they would improve my state of mind when my manager popped in to check on me before he finished work for the day. I decided that I felt up to driving home, and that my home environment would be much more amenable to recovery.

This all started some time around 3.30pm. It’s now 7.30pm, I’ve been home since shortly before 6, and I’ve finally almost recuperated from my sensory overload. I feel fragile and battered, like I’ve been in a fight. Physically and mentally exhausted.

The only effective response I’ve found to my sensory overloads is to go some place dark and quiet where I won’t be disturbed: I need to feel secure as well as reduce the input to my body’s various senses. Overload stresses my body and mind, makes me far more susceptible to anxiety attacks.

In this case my self-harm was minimal: apart from the impact with the wall the blows to my head were only of moderate intensity, not enough to be painful. I simply needed the rhythmic stimulation to help regulate my mind.

An overloaded mind is like an engine without a governor to limit its speed: it races away and will tear itself apart in a meltdown if not regulated. I know that if I can’t find some relief from my overloads then I can tip into a meltdown where I rage uncontrollably, driven by the pain of my overloaded senses.

8 thoughts on “Sensory Overload –

  1. Ow, this is a nightmare, I’m so sorry to hear this. Glad to see your manager was understanding and helped you.
    You might want to evaluate that with them, thanking them, and maybe see what other things could have been done. I’m thinking for instance that maybe it would have helped if you had your headphones with you in the “recovery room”.
    It is só difficult to think of these things at the panic moment, it can really help if other people know what to help you with. I went to a festival with a friend, and we discussed what to do when the other panicked. For me, being reminded to recite “Jabberwocky” helps a lot, because when I’m finished with “Jabberwocky” I know I can continue with other things.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Unfortunately my headphones don’t help at all when my tinnitus becomes so intrusive.

      You’re absolutely right about the benefits of having a plan worked out in advance. If other people know what I need it can help me calm down a lot sooner and the effects don’t last as long.

      Today I have a kind of sensory hangover where I need to keep everything muted: quiet environment with low lighting. I’m laid in bed with the curtains closed.

      I love Jabberwocky! Don’t know it well enough to recite.


  2. Reblogged this on bunnyhopscotch and commented:
    A frank & honest look at autistic sensory overload – the setting here is the office, but overload can happen anywhere. Christmas and New Year season can be especially triggering for us. And overload is not a fanciful thing “just in your head”, it is real, palpable and painful with long-lasting biological effects (often even trauma to the body).

    Liked by 2 people

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