The Wall: A Tale of Sensory Distress

The Wall: A Tale of Sensory Distress

Today I hit a wall.

Some days you keep going, push through, find your flow and coast home. Not today.

I woke sweating around 7am. The sun was up, the day warming. Warming my bedroom a little too much it would seem. I hate that clingy feeling as the sheets adhere to my damp skin where it’s not covered by my pyjamas. I kicked off the duvet–I especially hate this transitional period in the weather between comfortable and hot, when I awake early feeling too cold if I lie on top, and wake drenched as if I’ve come from the shower if I get under the covers–turned over and tried in vain to grasp the fading tendrils of sleep.

It wasn’t to be. Sleep, once departed from the stage, was unwilling to put in a curtain call, however brief.

I’d had about 6 hours sleep which sounds okay unless you–like me–are the kind of person who really needs her sleep if things aren’t going to go south at some point.

I could tell I wasn’t quite right after I got to work and needed to put my headphones on almost immediately to cope with the noise level from the air conditioning, computers and people. It’s a strange feeling: each of the noises is not particularly intrusive and I can usually filter them out. But when I can’t do that, often because of tiredness, they start clamouring for attention and my brain hops from one to another in a vain attempt to glean some meaning from the signal. They’re beaming in and my brain just shrugs, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

So I plug in my headphones, put them on, and first up on the Spotify playlist is Loose Fit by the Happy Mondays. Top, sorted tune: guaranteed not to twist my melon, know what I mean?

Things are feeling okay until we have our team meeting, where we stand around and tell each other how hard we worked yesterday. Well, there’s other people talking in far corners and my hearing starts going a bit “glitchy” where all the words pile in from every direction and jumble together.

By the time we get around to my turn I’ve had to sit down because I’m getting disoriented and slightly confused by all the sounds. I make it through and crawl back under my headphones to be soothed once more by the aural nectar of proper Manc voices singing the best that the 90s could produce in what was for a time the music capital of the known world. (Okay, I admit it: I’m into that whole Madchester sound. What can I say? I was born in Manchester and grew up with those bands.)

Fast forward a few hours and the magic of the noise-cancelling headphones is starting to wear off. Don’t get me wrong: they’re fantastic and I can get through a lot more with them, but they’re no substitute for an environment that’s sensory-friendly from the start. I’m at the point where my tiredness kicks in and my tinnitus starts to intrude. That’s something the headphones can’t help with; indeed, they often make it harder to ignore.

My tinnitus isn’t loud but it is constant. And it saps beneath the walls of my ability to bear it, gradually weakening them until at last they fall and I’m left with no defence against its assault on my senses.

So far I’ve only mentioned noise and hearing, but one of the effects of sensory overload is that it increases the responsiveness of some of my other senses, particularly my sight. In basic terms, light appears brighter.

Of course it’s not quite that simple because my vision gets “glitchy” in a way that kind of equivalent to my hearing, which I guess makes sense. As well as seeming brighter, everything gets a bit sparkly and where there’s contrast between lighter and darker–something like, say, text on a screen that I’m trying to read–it all gets a shimmery aura around the edges that is distracting as all hell.

So that’s what I was experiencing this afternoon when it finally reached the point where I couldn’t stand any more. Will power wasn’t going to overcome it no matter what: I’d run into the brick wall of my physical and mental limitations. So I did what any sensible person would do: I gave up and went home.

Er, no, I didn’t. That’s what a sensible person would do, but I think I’ve managed to demonstrate time and again that I’m not one of those. No, what I did was find a vacant meeting room and lie down on the floor with the lights off for a little while until my head stopped clamouring. And then I got up and went back to my desk and tried again.

This is far from the first time I’ve had sensory overload at work, and every time I keep trying and pushing myself in the hope that this time it’ll be different and I’ll be fine. And do you know what?

I wasn’t. I never am. This time was just like every other time: a failure.

Okay, perhaps failure is harsh but that’s how it feels, and every time I fail the cracks inside open up a little more: I become a little more broken. Because I ought to be able to handle it, or so the voice in my soul says. And it wouldn’t lie to me, would it?

Oversensitive: Sensory Processing Difficulties

Oversensitive: Sensory Processing Difficulties

Photograph of the author at work, smiling, and wearing tinted eye glasses and headphones


The human body has several senses. There are the well-known ones: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. And then there are proprioception (the awareness of our body in relation to our surroundings), interoception (the body’s internal state: things such as being hot or cold, thirsty, hungry, in discomfort or pain), and the vestibular system (concerned with balance).

Neurodivergent people often experience sensory input differently to the neurotypical majority. Some of us feel certain sensations more strongly: those aspects of our sensory systems are over-responsive. Others have under-responsive senses and experience things less strongly.

In general, those who have under-responsive senses often seek additional sensory stimulation, while those whose senses are over-responsive tend to avoid situations and activities that provide greater sensory input.

My body over responds to input from a number of my senses: touch, sight, sound, and balance–these kinds of sensations can cause too much input for my brain to process and result in a negative reaction such as stress, panic, pain or disorientation.

Taking the senses one by one, these are the kinds of effect this has on me.


  • I dislike getting anything on my hands: dirt, oil, paint, food, water, etc. and get the urge to wash or wipe them immediately. I avoid touching anything I perceive as dirty or otherwise likely to leave a residue.
  • I keep a distance from other people and try to avoid crowded environments so that I won’t be touched inadvertently or unexpectedly. I react to unexpected touch by recoiling strongly, sometimes enough to cause me injury.
  • Light touch is uncomfortable
  • I favour clothing with soft, stretchy materials that don’t bunch, scratch or chafe.
  • I hated having my hair combed, my nails trimmed, and my teeth brushed as a child. I still find these activities uncomfortable.


  • I find bright lights or changes in the intensity of lighting very uncomfortable.
  • Flickering or flashing lights are uncomfortable and very distracting, as is a lot of motion in my field of vision.
  • I often close my eyes or try to find a dark environment as a response to discomfort.


  • Unexpected sounds make me anxious.
  • Exposure to constant noise exhausts me, even if it’s at low levels (such as the sound of ventilation fans) because I find it very difficult to filter it out. Noise cancelling headphones are brilliant!
  • Loud noises like fire alarms are painful and can make me disoriented. I have ear defenders close at hand in my workplace because the alarm noise affects my ability to evacuate the building. Hand driers in bathrooms are another source of discomfort: I avoid using the noisy ones.
  • I struggle to pick out sounds such as voices from background noise, making it difficult to hold conversations unless I’m in a quiet environment. The effort of trying to discern words can be exhausting and lead to disorientation.
  • I can cope with structured, predictable sound like music that I know even if it’s loud. I think this is because it doesn’t trigger anxiety and my brain doesn’t need to work hard: the cognitive load remains low.


  • I get motion sick very easily if I don’t have an external visual frame of reference such as the horizon. Boats are especially bad and I’ve sat out on deck in cold, dark and rain to avoid becoming seasick.
  • Unstable or uncertain footing makes me nervous about falling.
  • I hold the handrail when going up or down stairs, and move carefully to make sure I don’t fall.
  • I become very anxious when lifted up bodily so my feet leave the ground.
  • I panic if my chair tilts backwards when I lean back.
  • I dislike spinning and rapidly become dizzy.
  • I lose my balance if I tilt my head back and look upwards.
  • I don’t like to close my eyes when standing or walking because I feel unsteady on my feet when I can’t see my surroundings.


  • I can’t stand certain strong odours. As a child I would hold my breath going through the perfume section of department stores, and even today I ran through the Duty Free shopping area of an airport terminal because the strong smells were distressing.
  • I don’t wear perfume and find it uncomfortable to be exposed to its powerful scents. This can be a major problem on public transport and in other enclosed public spaces, so I avoid such environments as much as possible.
  • Other strong smells like food or many “natural” odours pose no problem to me at all, leading me to suspect my sensitivity might be to volatile solvents frequently found in perfumes rather than the scents themselves.


This is kind of my odd-one-out because, unlike the other senses, my interoceptive sense is under-responsive. This means that I’m often unaware of the state of my own body.

  • I’m not very aware of feelings of hunger or thirst. In particular, I can become dehydrated to the point of headaches and visual disturbances before I realise I’m thirsty.
  • I can’t tell when I’ve eaten enough, and unless I restrict my portion size I continue to eat to the point of being physically full and in discomfort.
  • I’m not always aware of physical discomfort or pain, especially when caused by poor posture when sitting or standing.


What I’ve described are the effects I experience. While most of these are fairly typical for a person with over-responsive sensory systems, not everybody will experience all of them and some will experience effects I don’t get myself.

There are also many people whose senses are under-responsive, and in those cases their reactions can be very different from somebody who is over-responsive. It’s also not uncommon to have different degrees of sensitivity across different senses.

Because many of my senses are over-responsive I experience more situations where my environment can overwhelm me, and being overstimulated in one sense can make the others even more sensitive. I’ve learned to avoid these situations as much as I can because avoidance is one of the most effective strategies, but that’s not always possible. This is where aids such as ear defenders and tinted glasses are valuable.

Since all this happens in the brain, other things have an impact on it day-to-day including overall physical and mental health, stress levels, and getting enough sleep. It’s not always an easy condition to manage, and does at times affect my ability to work and do everyday activities such as shopping. It can be disabling, which is why accommodations and sensory aids are important.