Making sense out of senses

Thanks to my geeky father, I was exposed to personal computers earlier than most of my friends did. My dad set up his computer so that his five year old daughter could watch “stars” as if flying through the universe (which I later learned was a screen saver). When I was a couple years older, I had my own computer, a hand-me-down running on 286 processor, and I played games that came on floppy disks. I was the cool kid on the block. 
By the time I was nine or ten, I had saved up enough allowance, and my dad built me a brand new computer with it. It was a great feat. It was running on Windows 95 and I was still the cool kid who could type up homework and use the Internet.

During the lifetime of my first computer, PCs became widespread and most of my friends had computers at home. Computer programs and operating systems became more and more sophisticated each year with the growing power of hardware. To help me keep up with constantly evolving softwares, my dad would update the OS, or upgrade pieces of hardware for me once in a while. I remember bragging to my friends when he bought me a 4.3GB hard drive when my friends only had 1.6GB. But those small upgrades could not hold up much longer. I didn’t have much understanding about computers, but I knew about Windows’ multi-tasking, unlike previous MS-DOS. I could launch multiple programs and go back and forth. As I got older, I learned to use more programs, and each program’s minimum system requirement grew more demanding. Towards the end of my first computer’s life, it would barely meet the system requirement for new games that I wanted to play. With all the applications open and my switching around, my computer would get sluggish, and sometimes it would completely freeze the operating system and crash. All those programs that I was demanding my computer to run were beyond its processing and memory capacity.

With my M.E. worsening, I feel like I’m that old computer, being overwhelmed by all the stimuli that my brain has to process. All the signals are amplified, requiring more brain power to sort through. But my brain is less capable than before, so when it’s inundated with everything that my sensory nerves are sending, it crashes, just like the old computer did.

We easily recognize conscious effort that we have to put in when we are walking around a shopping mall, or thinking hard about the math problem in front of us. At some point in our lives, we had to learn these activities. But using our basic senses – seeing the blue sky, hearing morning birds chirping, smelling fresh-baked bread, feeling warmth of a tea mug, tasting sweet and bitter chocolate – is something that feels innate to us. Just like breathing, we don’t have to be conscious about using our senses. It feels natural.

So explaining to others that these things that should be effortless are overwhelming is not easy. It’s not only the physical use of my body that has a toll, but also anything that makes our brain spin. When I am overloaded with senses, everything gets tangled up and making sense out of those senses require much more effort than sum of each individual stimulation. That’s why I don’t like to have more than one person in the room with me, because I cannot make anything out of two different voices without getting exhausted. I  don’t listen to music although I love it very much – I was in choir in high school and one of classes I took during the first semester of college was music theory. I cringe when I sense fragrances and refuse to wear deodorant. I can’t kill time watching movies while resting in bed. Many things I loved or took for granted became a part of exertions that I am told to avoid if I want a chance for healing. 

So I sometimes wear shades indoors to limit the amount of light that my optic nerves have to transmit. Or I close my eyes while listening to someone talking to me, so that my brain has one less sense to process. I don’t keep my shades on as a fashion statement, and I am not lacking social skills because I’m not making the eye contact. I don’t mean to be rude when I request someone with a perfume on to leave the room. I am not trying to be annoying when I ask people to speak softer and slower, one person at a time. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feeling when I refuse a hug or gentle strokes on my hands. 

The thing is, when I am in those situations, I am most likely already overwhelmed. When I’m exhausted from flooding sensory stimuli, I don’t have energy to process anything and I get irritable. I just want some time to relax and avoid my body and/or brain shutting down. I am just trying to look after myself. But because I was trying to do what was best for me and M.E. didn’t spare me some energy to explain, phrases like “poor social skill”, “depressed”, and “flat affable” are permanently left in my medical record from my hospital stay when none of those words were true description of me during those moments. 

When I am overwhelmed by my  surroundings, a lot of times, I can’t even think properly about what I need to ask for some space. I get agitated that people cannot see I am clearly suffering. Or even if they notice I’m getting uncomfortable, but they don’t realize the offender is merely my existence in that specific place at that moment, and carry on. Or in some situations, I just end up swallowing all the entangled mess of signals going to my brain and face much worse PEM(post-exertional malaise) because I cannot explain my need to someone who is biased towards M.E. 

Sensory overload is not unique to M.E. At least (when I am in a better condition) I can express what was amiss to others around me. But a child with a sensory processing or autistic spectrum disorder may not even know what upsets her and throw a tantrum. People who experience sensory overload are not trying to be annoying or oversensitive. It’s just how our brains are wired to our sensory nerves. So instead of passing quick judgement as poor, socially unacceptable behavior, please open your heart and show your patience and understanding when you encounter someone struggling with  over-stimulation. We might be too overwhelmed at the moment to say thank you, and sometimes take a while to be able to even recognize your kindness (because our brains are too busy, not knowing what to do with all the stimuli), but we definitely will know and appreciate your thoughtfulness.


8 thoughts on “Making sense out of senses

  1. Candy says:

    Thank you for explaining this so others can understand. I am the exact same way. They have diagnosed me with depression, anxiety, inept social skills, etc. They have me on welbutrin which helps sometimes but makes me numb to some situations which isn’t good. I wish i could process everything like normal people but i can’t. Certain smells and sounds cause me to get nauseous and dizzy and give me migraines. I just wish everyone could read this so they know why i am the way I am. I had to leave a concert because the noise caused me to throw up. I don’t go to concerts. I can’t listening to radios or music constantly. Ill listen once in a great while to music while driving but I’d rather have the quiet and listen to the car barreling thru the wind. My skin feels like it has spiders or something crawling on it. The only touching I can stand is when I pet my cats. No doctor except my psychologist said I might have a hyper sensitivity to things but she hasn’t really addressed it as she just categorized me as depressed with anxiety and poor social skills. Thank you again for posting this. I just hope the word gets out. My sister found this article as she understands I am this way and told me about it. Thank you again.


    • Thank you for sharing your story! It helps/encourages me a lot to know writing about my experience is helpful to others (even if just a few people, I think it’s worth it!).
      I didn’t write much about how to “cope” with sensory overload because my case is associated with ME and if I am getting so overwhelmed, I absolutely need to be resting.
      For patients with ME, adding another “thing to do” is more harm than good, so I skipped writing about other ways of managing besides being left alone. If you are experiencing it due to other reasons, there are some helpful tips out there (“sensory processing disorder” is a good search term to start even if you don’t have SPD).
      Anyway, I hate that they (health care providers) throw labels like poor social skill at people just because someone does not fit the mold that they consider normal. It’s hard to play nice (or whatever word they want to use) when we feel like a train horn going off every second, but instead of looking for a reason that makes it difficult for us to be patient, etc. (heightened sensory signals jamming the traffic in the brain), they just focus on the consequential outcome (we become irritated).


  2. I can relate to all of what you are saying here. Starting out on a new relationship a few months ago was fine until I had a mini-relapse & couldn’t comprehensively explain what I felt or how I was ‘behaving’. This puts it all very clearly. Thank you.


    • It’s a hard thing to explain even to people who I am familiar with. Actually, explaining to people who are “close” to me was my main motivation for writing about sensory overload. And thank you for your comment!I’m glad you found this post helpful!


  3. ahimsa says:

    I enjoyed your post! Sensory overload is a problem that some folks just can’t fathom. I hope your computer analogy will help them understand.

    It’s a shame that the hospital misinterpreted your situation so badly. Doctors are supposed to be helping us, and understanding us, not judging us. *sigh*

    I’m lucky that my sensory overload is not as bad as yours. But even though mine is not as bad I can still relate to so many of your examples, such as closing my eyes to concentrate better.

    My biggest problem when I’m really crashed is trying to speak. I have so much trouble with word finding, answering simple questions, and pretty much any verbal interaction. It’s like my CPU and memory may be a bit slow and overloaded but they still work. However, my I/O (input/output) is completely broken down. So many times I have the correct thought or idea in my head but just can’t say it. That’s one reason writing/typing is so much easier. I can take the time to think through the problem at my own pace with no interruptions.

    PS. Your computer examples made me feel a bit old, LOL! When I got my degree in Computer Science, way back in 1982, the Intel 286 chip had just been released and was the latest thing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thankfully my sensory overload is not *always* this bad. It’s when problems compound on one another that I get in a big trouble. It’s much easier being at home now where I have more control over the amount and type of sensory inputs. For instance, I can ask my family to text me instead of talking to me even if they are just right outside my door.
      I can really relate to your experience with speaking – it’s how I feel exactly! It’s like a simple question just flies over my head and I’m left so confused.
      I am a chatty person (if you couldn’t tell already!) and it’s such a bummer that I cannot keep talking and talking all day anymore. And it’s one of the reason I picked up writing. It’s definitely a much easier form of communication now. I enjoy the luxury of being able to take as much time as I need.

      And I thought I was old (j/k) for experiencing MS-DOS!


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