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WARNING: Sensory Overload

WARNING: Sensory Overload

November 01, 2017   -   Scott B Harris

I’ll start by telling you a quick story. So it was mid-2016, about seven and a half years after my accident, and I really wanted to buy a hat. I was on the hunt for a nice soft, wide brim hat and I thought I knew the exact place to buy it too. I knew exactly what I wanted, so I thought, and exactly where to buy it, so I thought. Where else would I go but the Queen Victoria Market in my hometown, Melbourne?

It was a nice day so my girlfriend, Jasmine, and I went off to see what we could find. I’ve been to this market many times before, but I wasn’t expecting what was about to happen to me, nor did I even know what it was at the time.

If you’ve never walked through the Queen Victoria market before, let me paint the picture for you. As soon as you enter, the chaos begins. In fact, this is basically the same as every other market in the world. There’s sounds coming from every angle, flashing lights, spinning things, people going crazy, kids running around, bands playing, smells from goodness knows what and people hustling and bustling with stuff for sale right in your face. Walking through the market, looking for the stall that has my hat, it’s every man for himself.

I was leading the way with no regard for the other party following right behind me. “Scott, slow down”, “Scott keep to the left”, “OMG Scott, you’re killing me here”, “Ok, you’re on your own Scott”.

I finally found the store that I was looking for and I realized that I didn’t know which hat I was after at all. There was so many to choose from. With an injured brain, decisions are hard at the best of times, but now add in all the chaos and I had no chance. In the half an hour I was there, I picked up the same hat about five times and asked for Jasmine’s opinion. “Scott, you’ve tried that hat on five times now, I’m done, I’ll be sitting over there if you want me”, “But, Jasmine, what about this hat”?

This started World War III so we left the market in a foul mood, with no hat and no idea WTF just happened.

That week, this problem came up with my neuropsychologist, Jill. I explained to her what had happened and she straightaway told me what was going on without batting an eyelid. The way that she explained it made perfect sense. She told me that I was experiencing a sensory overload, or brain flooding, which is very common after a head injury. The way that a healthy brain works, is like a filter. When information enters a healthy brain through the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – it acts like a filter and disregards all the information that it doesn’t need. This means that we can pick and choose all of the information that we need.

With a damaged brain we have a damaged filter so picking and choosing what information we take on is a bit of a challenge. Our senses get bombarded with information causing sensory overload and in turn can result in the feeling of being very overwhelmed. Our brain takes on all the information at once, causing a biological meltdown. I was never aware of this and I have been experiencing this problem for many, many years. This only came to light because of the situation I was in and if I had have been on my own, I may never have realized. Because I was with Jasmine, who was also battling with my injured brain, we discovered this together.

Now that I had both the cause and the effect of this common debacle, I was now after a solution. Jill and I discussed this at length and we mainly spoke about the cause of it. It’s all about knowing what is going to trigger this overload and thus preventing the plant from growing into a monster. For obvious reason, I can’t kick people out of the market when my brain is going cray-cray so it’s about kicking myself out of the situation.

As I mentioned, I don’t even see when this is happening to me. I don’t always see it happening because my mind is too busy fighting demons but I do know that the feeling I get in these situations is very stressful… for everyone involved.

The insightful words from Jill were music to our ears because we now had something solid to work with. Unfortunately, there’s no magical pill to fix my injured brain so it’s now about recognizing the signs and the symptoms. Jasmine can see them a mile away. When this problem pops its funny looking head up, she will grab my hand and ask me if I’m gettting overwhelmed and then to concentrate on her hand. That little technique is all about focusing my mind, something I have much more control over since I started meditation (last week’s blog). It may only be for a couple of minutes, but this makes a world of difference.

This problem is a funny one because I can be attending a really busy festival on the other side of the world, way out of my comfort zone and feel nothing yet I can be in my local town buying a hat at a market and I can totally lose my shit. There could be multiple factors contributing to this but as Jill explained to me, rest can be my best friend. If I feel it coming on, going to a quiet environment will help. Of course, meditation is up there as one of the biggest assisting tools there is.

At a later date, I made it back to the Queen Victoria Market. I was wandering through the stalls on my way to get one of those mouth-watering hot jam doughnuts from the mouth-watering-hot-jam-doughnut-man-in-a-van guy, when I struck gold. I wasn’t even searching for it, but I stumbled upon a hat shop, Will & Bear. This hat shop had only three hats to choose from. This was heaven for my injured brain because we all know how hard it is to make a decision with an injured brain. Instead of all these choices between shapes and colors and fabrics and more shape of hundreds of hats, all I had to choose was black, brown or grey. How good’s that? I am now the proud owner of a nice black hat.

35 thoughts on “WARNING: Sensory Overload”

  1. Great post. I’ve had a few concussions, and since my last one, I have been considerably more prone to a lesser version of sensory overload. The good news is that I’ve been noise and crowd sensitive all my life, so already had learned decent coping skills. Now its a matter of expanding the skill set. As you’ve mentioned, awareness, recognizing ones earlier cues helps a lot.

    Some months ago, our local public radio station aired an interview with a veteran with PTSD. He used the analogy of it being like doing everything in your life with a toddler. And when the toddler hits tilt, its time to readjust your plans. I think its very similar to living with sensory overload/ TBI. I like the idea of the toddler, as if its something outside oneself. Makes it a wee bit easier to be neutral and observing about the situation. Thanks for writing!

  2. Today, I went to the beach with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

  3. I love this post, so well written and so interesting to read. I find your solution of concentrating on just one thing when you are starting to feel overwhelmed a really good one. I think that may also be a helpful thing to do if suffering from anxiety. And I am so pleased that you find meditation helpful – it is therapeutic in so many ways for so many different people and so many different reasons.

  4. Wonderful insights on sensory overload due to a damaged filter. Your writing provides so much personal insight and benefits so many. Thanks for following my blog Scott. I enjoy reading hours.

    1. Hi Craig it’s the same kind of feeling as decision making, yes. That’s another blog I need to post because that’s also a massive challenge for me. Thanks for the post on your fb page, I gave it a like.

  5. A helpful post for a lot of people. Jasmine sounds wise and wonderful. So glad you got your hat

  6. What a valuable community you’re gathering here, Scott, where people with TBI can find understanding and solutions. P.S. Thank you for becoming a follower of my blog, From the Inside Out. I hope you’ll find the posts meaningful!

  7. Love this post. Even without a brain injury (which is just awful, I’m sorry. I haven’t read a post on your blog yet about how that happened, please share if you can/want)
    But just to relate- my 3 year old daughter experiences sensory overload from all of the technology and ads on TV etc so I can only imagine how you must react. It is very real. Sounds like your doc cares a lot about you. That’s hard to find!

  8. My husband suffered a TBI one year ago. I often see this sensory overload happening with him. Thanks for following my blog, and I look forward to reading more of your experiences to help us get through the after effects of TBI.

  9. Sensory overload – sounds all too familiar. I’ve been dealing with sensory overload or flooding as some call it for almost 3 years since my mTBI. Over the time I have realized that my body gives me signals. In fact, I have counted a dozen different signals that my body gives before I go into overload. However, I usually miss the signals because they’re subtle and if I’m not being mindful, I totally miss the cues.

    This summer I discovered a signal that kept recurring. If I was humming (and not usually a tune) I knew I was approaching overload. If I was whistling I knew I was way on the other end of the scale. In fact, when I catch myself humming I can’t turn things around by simply switching to whistling. In fact at that point in my downward spiral I can’t muster the effort to whistle. Were as, other times i will ‘catch’ myself whistling and stop and wonder, “Where did that tune come from.”

    The fact that Jasmine notices your sensory loading before you is not at all surprising based on my experience. Hope things improve for you.

    1. Jasper that’s great that you have identified some signals. Haha the fact that you start humming when you’re about to have a meltdown is brilliant!! Very peculiar

  10. I really relate to this having sustained a head injury and being undone by trauma. Really great to share and read.

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