Sensory overload, meltdowns, and you need a damn break

TW: mentions of self-harm

Last time I talked about sensory processing and stimming. Now I’d like to talk about a little something I like to call sensory hell.

When too much is TOO DAMN MUCH

Gods, this is he nemesis for every Autistic person I know. Yes, we experience the world through our senses and it can be a lot of fun, feel like ecstasy, and then there’s friggin living hell. When we get exposed to too many sensations it is actively harmful to our health.

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When I don’t protect myself from these situations and the sensory stimulation gets too much I get physically ill. Like I said, headaches are common, but also nausea, exhaustion, problems with executive functioning (decision making, planning, organising, processing emotions, etc.), I become non-verbal, start to sweat, vomiting, and it comes with heavy emotions too. Usually I get anxious or depressed, but it can lead to anger as well.

It’s important to make sure we don’t get overstimulated, or to take appropriate self-care steps when it does happen. Sometimes you can take the offending sensory input away, like by wearing earplugs, sunglasses or removing the object that creates them. Sometimes we can lessen their effects by stimming, like rocking, cuddling with a pet or interacting with a comfort item. But sometimes the only thing you can do is remove yourself from the situation.

I know leaving can be hard. I know the guilt and shame. I know the looks you draw and the unasked questions aimed your way. The lack of understanding, but it’s important to take care of your health when possible. If you can’t leave completely, try taking breaks in quiet rooms or going to the toilet. Take a walk outside (maybe you can take a dog with you).

If you see someone get overstimulated (if you know someone well enough you can recognise it) ask if they need a break. Offer to go on a walk together or offer them something. Just keep in mind it’s hard, sometimes even impossible to communicate while overstimulated. Give them space, be patient and if you are close to them, talk about what they want and need beforehand so you have a plan in case something happens.

Meltdowns & shutdowns

Not removing myself from the situation or when the stimuli come in heavy and at once, it can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns. These are the brain’s ways of protecting you when the environment is actively hostile to your body and too much to bear. You didn’t get out, so your brain does it for you. It’s often described as a physical fight or flight response, because usually in cases of a meltdown you do just that. You flee, or you fight.

I’ve had several meltdowns over my life, and they usually express themselves as fleeing like my ass in on fire, panic, crying, screaming in fear, and punching, pinching, or scratching myself. It’s a complete loss of control and one of the worst things I’ve ever felt.

Shutdowns I’ve experienced once, as far as I know. I was at a festival, we went into a small room where a band would play but it was too crowded. We were being smushed together and the weird thing was, I felt the fear, but mostly physically, not mentally. I tried to soothe myself, and ended up in this weird mode where I dissociated, couldn’t process anything, my thoughts were just “there’s a lamp. Someone’s on stage.” Sort of thing and my head was just so empty. I turned non-verbal, and tried to smile to make sure no one was worried about me. Afterwards I could only hold on to my boyfriend’s arm as we went on. Obviously it was the last performance we attended that day.

Overflowing emotions

Talking about sensory stuff, I also want to address emotional overload a bit. Something I didn’t know, but made a lot of sense once I knew was that emotions are stimuli as well. Emotions can make your heart race, make you sweaty, make it hard to breathe, make you jittery, bouncy, it does a lot to your body as well as your mind. Especially something like fear can add a lot of unwanted thoughts to your head and stress you out, which are also stimuli.

I’ve had an anxiety attack, that turned into a meltdown because it overloaded my senses. Those aren’t fun. Yeah…

So too many emotions can trigger meltdowns or shutdowns, but it can also go the other way around. Because of how destructive meltdowns are (to us, just to be clear) they often come with heavy emotions.

Information overload

Another thing which made me go wtf is information overload. So far for me they’ve not been as destructive as the other types of overloads, but they were… weird. The moments I’ve had this I was having a long and chaotic day, lots of executive functioning demands on me and my brain just couldn’t keep up. Eventually my processing slows down until it stops completely. In extreme cases I couldn’t read information, could barely understand spoken speech, and it got incredibly hard to speak.

So yeah, there can be too much of anything. Even sensory input and information. Take breaks folks!

3 thoughts on “Sensory overload, meltdowns, and you need a damn break

  1. Elisa, your blog will soon be added to our Actually Autistic Blogs List ( Please click on the “How do you want your blog listed?” link at the top of that site to customize your blog’s description on the list (or to decline).
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)

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