Table Of Content

What Is Sensory Overload?

Updated Apr 19, 2024

Reviewed By: Erin Black

Table Of Content

For Logan and his family, every day was an absolute struggle. For his first few years of life, Logan struggled with Sensory Overload and simply could not properly regulate his body, emotions, or much of anything. 

His sensory overload challenges were so severe his family could not go anywhere in public. They could not take him grocery shopping, out to eat at a restaurant, or to playdates with other children his age. They dreaded the school years up ahead, worrying his constant tantrums and meltdowns would show up there and get him kicked out of school. 

At one point, Logan’s sensory overload challenges were so much that he cut himself badly and was bleeding; but he didn’t even feel the pain and instead was simply bothered by the feeling of the blood running down his arm. 

Thankfully as you’ll find out later on in the article, when we discuss drug-free options for sensory overload and other Sensory Processing Disorder challenges in kids, you’ll learn that Logan overcame his struggles and is now a thriving honor roll student. But his beginning years and early development were the opposite of easy, and eventually led to not only the sensory-related diagnosis, but also an autism diagnosis. 

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload refers to a condition in which a child’s senses become overwhelmed by the amount or intensity of sensory information they receive from their environment. This can also affect adults, but it primarily affects children. 

When children experience sensory overload, it hampers their ability to process sensory stimuli effectively. This can then lead to frustration, anger, outburst, tantrums, and emotional meltdowns that can significantly limit the family’s quality of life. 

Various triggers can contribute to sensory overload. Some common ones include:

  1. Loud noises: Sudden or prolonged loud sounds can overwhelm a child’s auditory system, causing distress and discomfort.
  2. Crowded spaces: Being in environments with a high concentration of people, such as busy shopping centers or crowded classrooms, can lead to sensory overload.
  3. Emotionally intense situations: Strong emotional experiences, like witnessing a heated argument or confrontation, can overwhelm a child’s emotional and sensory systems simultaneously.
  4. Drastic environmental changes: Abrupt changes in the physical environment, such as moving to a new house or traveling to an unfamiliar place, can trigger sensory overload.
  5. Unexpected or unwanted physical contact: Some children are highly sensitive to touch and may experience sensory overload when touched unexpectedly or in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
  6. Intense smells: Strong or unpleasant odors can overwhelm a child’s olfactory system and contribute to sensory overload.

What are the Symptoms of Sensory Overload?

What Is Sensory Overload? | PX Docs

Sensory overload can show up as a range of symptoms. Some common signs include:

  1. Discomfort: Children experiencing sensory overload may feel physically or emotionally uncomfortable, constantly squirming or wanting to immediately leave the situation.
  2. Crying: Overwhelmed children may cry in response to sensory overload, which then often escalates to full-blown tantrums and meltdowns. 
  3. Anxiety: Overstimulation of the senses can trigger anxiety in those with sensory overload.
  4. Irritability: Sensory overload can make individuals easily irritable or agitated.
  5. Loss of focus: Individuals may struggle to concentrate or maintain attention when overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.

Additionally, since sensory overload negatively affects all the body’s senses, children who are struggling with it often close their eyes, cover their faces, and place their hands over their ears when in loud, stimulating environments.

Unfortunately, since children struggling with sensory overload struggle so much to process normal, everyday information from their environment, there can be negative long-term health effects in the form of developmental delays and missed milestones. The child’s brain gets so busy and distracted dealing with the sensory overload that it then misses out on important sensory learning information that is crucial to the development of things like motor coordination, speech, behavior, and emotional regulation. 

Causes of Sensory Overload

Sensory overload occurs when the brain struggles to properly process and integrate the vast amount of sensory information it receives from both the body and the environment. 

For most children, sensory overload is perhaps the most obtrusive symptom they experience when struggling with Sensory Integration Disorder (also known as Sensory Processing Disorder), or other conditions such as Autism, ADHD, and ODD

This means to fully understand what the root cause of sensory overload really is, we need to explain what’s causing Sensory Processing Disorder overall. And we’ll do that by first quickly explaining what the function of the nervous system is overall. 

Simply put, the role of the nervous system is 3-fold: 

  1. To receive input and process information from both the internal and external environment (perception)
  2. To integrate and process information, filtering it so that the important information gets in and the non-important information does not (integration) 
  3. To make decisions and generate appropriate actions, responses, and functions throughout the entire body (action) 

Another way to understand the crucial role the nervous system plays in your child’s health is to look at this quote from renowned Cellular Biologist and Epigenetics expert Dr. Bruce Lipton, who states: 

“The function of the nervous system is to perceive the environment and coordinate the behavior of all cells in the body.” 

When a child struggles with SPD and thus sensory overload, they simply cannot properly perceive and coordinate their environment. For kids struggling specifically with sensory overload, their nervous system lets in far too much noxious or annoying stimuli that is supposed to be filtered out and not reach the functional centers of the brain. 

The Role of Subluxation and Dysautonomia

To fully understand sensory overload, it’s important to know all about two terms that are likely brand new to most parents – subluxation and dysautonomia

To keep it simple, subluxation and sensory processing disorder are two nearly interchangeable terms since subluxation alters the nervous system’s ability to properly receive and integrate neurological information from both the internal and external environment of the child. 

The most common presentation of subluxation is when it causes the entire sympathetic fight-or-flight nervous system to shift into a state of overdrive. This truly is what best describes the root cause of sensory overload, as it is both a simultaneous state of excessive sympathetic tone and neurological function and suppressed or under-stimulated parasympathetic tone and function. This imbalance of the nervous system is known as dysautonomia, and it’s the underlying foundation for sensory overload and related challenges. 

The primary nerve responsible for the “rest and relaxation” side of the nervous system (parasympathetic) is the Vagus Nerve, and it is often injured or damaged (subluxated) during the birth process, especially when interventions such as C-section, forceps, induction, or vacuum extraction are involved. Overlooked and dismissed birth trauma is a very common factor frequently seen with clinical presentations of sensory overload, Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, and other neurosensory related conditions in kids today. 

How to Cope with and Manage Sensory Overload

Traditional medical approaches to sensory overload in children often focus on avoidance strategies, but our approach aims to address the root cause by restoring balance to the Autonomic Nervous System and Vagus Nerve. Key aspects of our treatment strategy include:

  • Restoring Nervous System Balance: Once balanced, children can better handle sensory inputs like bright lights, loud noises, and physical touch.
  • Calming the Sympathetic Response: Focusing on activating the Vagus Nerve and the parasympathetic calming side of the nervous system.
  • Neurologically-Focused Pediatric Chiropractic Care: Our PX Docs Network is trained in clinical protocols to address subluxation and dysautonomia, improving quality of life without drugs and constant avoidance of public places and new situations.
  • Unique Clinical Approach: Differing from traditional medicine, this approach starts with an in-depth case history to identify triggers of sensory overload such as stressful pregnancy, birth trauma, and exposure to toxins.
  • Advanced Diagnostic Technology: Utilizing INSiGHT Scans to detect the presence, severity, and location of subluxation and dysautonomia, guiding precise chiropractic adjustments.

This comprehensive approach not only differs significantly from traditional medical therapies but also stands out within the chiropractic field, offering a targeted and effective solution for children with sensory processing challenges.

Sensory Overload Test

The most important scan for children with sensory overload is what’s called the NeuroSpinal EMG Scan, or Surface Electromyography. That is simply a fancy term for measuring the amount of stress and tension pent up and stuck within a child’s body. Speaking of fancy scientific terms, this tension that comes from the NeuroSpinal System and reaches the brain is called nociception. Simply put, nociception is input or information that is stressful, annoying, painful, and “noisy” to the brain and central nervous system. 

We often refer to sensory overload, SPD, and ADHD as “Noisy Brain Syndrome” because that’s what is really going on. Instead of the brain properly receiving calming and organizing information, this nociceptive “noise” gets in instead. When the noise gets too high and too much, the child then begins to exhibit the behaviors and symptoms listed above. 

The other side of this sensory processing system is what’s called proprioception. Proprioception is movement and position-based input and information processing, and the brain of a developing child relies on proper amounts of motor and proprioceptive input for optimal development and function. You’ve probably heard the phrase “movement is life” before, and it’s most especially true for the pediatric developing brain. 

Subluxation, as mentioned above, alters sensory input and information into the brain in such a way that causes proprioception to decrease and go down, thereby opening the “gate” for nociceptive and noxious, stressful stimuli to get in. This imbalance of sensory information and processing is the true root cause of sensory overload and many other neurological conditions in children. 

Below is an example of an EMG scan on a child struggling with sensory overload, which we’ve nicknamed in our office “Raging Bull” challenges. All of those increased colors (green, blue, red, and even black) and the high Total Energy score in the bottom left (should be around 100-125) indicate this child is subluxated and struggling with sensory overload and dysautonomia. 

What Is Sensory Overload? | PX Docs

From Sensory Overload Struggles to an Easier, Happier Life

At PX Docs, we understand the challenges faced by children with sensory overload and how it can seem like your child will never be able to self-soothe, regulate, and have a high quality of life. But that does not have to be the case for your family. 

Our trained and experienced doctors are dedicated to helping children and their families navigate the complexities of sensory overload. If you’re ready to see your child’s struggles turn to smiles and joy, head on over to our PX Docs Directory and schedule your consultation and INSiGHT Scan appointment right away. Once we see your child’s EMG and other scans, we can put together a customized, drug-free care plan in play to help calm their overwhelm and greatly improve the whole family’s quality of life! 

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