Sensory overload is a common problem in fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS.) It’s a symptom that can have a significant effect on your daily life and keep you from doing a lot of the things you enjoy.
Sensory overload can make you feel panicky, confused, and overwhelmed. It can result from a variety of things, which can vary from one of us to another.
Sensory Overload: What Happens
Hypersensitivity is believed to be a core mechanism of FMS and ME/CFS.
It means that our bodies react strongly to all kinds of input – noise, bright or flashing lights, crowds of people, strong smells, a chaotic environment, or multiple things competing for your attention.
Our brains appear to have a hard time processing a lot of input at once, possibly because of dysfunction of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Some researchers believe we have a problem in our brains with what’s called inhibition.
Inhibition helps your brain filter out things that are unimportant. When you answer the phone, it should help you ignore the television or your family’s conversation. It should help you ignore a repetitious noise, like a loud beep. It should, after a short time, stop you from noticing the buzz of fluorescent lights.
However, our lack of inhibition means that we can’t tune those things out. That means our senses bombard our brains with information, and our brains can’t handle it all.
The result is that you can’t focus your attention on things that are important. It becomes hard to think, so you may forget what you were doing or frequently lose your train of thought. It can also result in a panic attack, which can involve a pounding heart, sweating, trembling, dizziness, tingling, and fear.
Later, you may have increased pain and/or fatigue. Panic attacks can sometimes lead to a major symptom flare.
Over time, you may begin to fear having panic attacks when you encounter situations that have triggered them before. That can make you afraid to go to certain places or put yourself in particular environments or situations. This is one way in which our illnesses can lead to isolation.
Handling Sensory Overload
When you begin to feel overloaded, the best thing to do is get yourself out of the situation and go somewhere quiet. If that’s not possible, you may be able to take some deep breaths and calm your body and mind. Some of us learn how to mentally talk ourselves down from that state, but it takes time and practice.
We don’t have treatments specifically aimed at sensory overload, but we can treat the anxiety it leads to. A lot of people with FMS and ME/CFS take anti-anxiety medications. Some people say they have luck with certain supplements to calm them down, such as DHEA or theanine.
Remember that treatments need time to work, so taking them when you’re in a crisis may not help much. You may have better luck taking something to counter anxiety before going into a potentially overwhelming situation.
If sensory overload and panic are regular problems for you, you may want to talk to your doctor about a daily supplement or medication regimen. Many drugs that are prescribed for FMS and ME/CFS can also help with anxiety.
Avoiding certain situations may become necessary for you. For example, if a crowded grocery store is a common trigger, you may need to shop during slow times, such as early in the morning or at night. (See what else can help with grocery shopping.)
Avoidance can be necessary but it can also become a problem if you find yourself avoiding too much – such as any place that might be noisy or crowded.
If you find yourself becoming isolated by avoidance, or missing things that are important to you, you may benefit from professional counseling.
The important thing to remember is that, with treatments and management techniques, this symptom is manageable. It can take time to figure out what works best for you, but in the end, you can take back control of your life.
Carrillo-de-la-Pena MT, et al. The journal of pain. 2006 Jul;7(7):480-7. Intensity dependence of auditory-evoked cortical potentials in fibromyalgia patients: a test of the generalized hypervigilance hypothesis.
Neblett R, et al. The journal of pain. 2013 May;14(5):438-45. The central sensitization inventory (CSI): establishing clinically significant values for identifying central sensitivity syndrome in an outpatient chronic pain sample.