top of page

Sensory overload is a nervous system issue

Updated: Oct 31, 2023


blurred image of busy ceiling at airport, information boards and other stimuli that overwhelm the senses

Autistics and highly sensitive persons (HSPs) have one major thing in common: a tendency toward sensory overload. And it’s a very big deal: While it can make us extremely good at some things, it can be absolutely debilitating outside of a controlled and predictable environment.


I am both autistic and highly sensitive. I’ve known about (but neglected) my HSP traits for many years but just discovered my autism this spring. While there is notable overlap in the two populations, they’re most certainly distinct: Not all autistics are highly sensitive and not all sensitives are autistic. I’ll go so far as to say they’re two different forms of neurodivergence.


As I contemplated the challenges of both neurotypes, and the ways that they intersect, I wondered whether it would be possible to tone down the downsides without losing the upsides.

  • For sensitives, there is constant pressure to “be less sensitive.”

  • For autistics, there’s constant pressure to adapt, usually by masking.

  • In both cases, we lose critical pieces of ourselves and are cut off from aspects of our natural intelligence when we tone down or hide who we are.


And that’s how I stumbled upon nervous system training – or applied neurology, as the field is called.



Sensations as information


The nervous system operates on a sensory level. It picks up subtle (or not so subtle) cues in your environment and triggers chemical reactions in your body to send messages to your brain to take action, freeze or chill out.


As I read about how the nervous system works and where it exists in the body (spoiler alert: it’s everywhere), I started to suspect that the overwhelm resulting from sensory overload could, in fact, be mitigated if there was a way to exert control over the nervous system’s interpretation of sensory information – sensations.


I’d been learning about neuroplasticity at the time and was still very much invested in the idea that the brain controls everything, so I first wondered whether there was a contemplative path to nervous system control. It wasn’t long before I learned the truth: Your brain doesn’t have much control over your nervous system, but your nervous system has a TON of control over your brain.


You read that right: Your brain talks to your nervous system about 20% of the time. The other 80%? That’s when your nervous system is telling your brain what to do instead.


So how in the world would I ever be able to “think” (or meditate or positive-psychologize) my way out of sensory overload?


I wouldn’t.


Nervous systems seek safety. The key to influencing your nervous system is to go directly to the source by working with your senses and stimulating targeted nerves as gently as possible. The goal is to create a deeply felt sense of safety inside your body, and your brain will automatically follow suit.



How I slept through the night after major, disruptive stress


I’d just started training my nervous system when I encountered a conflict. I hate conflict. I’m bad at it. I get so anxious that I can’t follow the conversation – it moves too fast, and then I feel lost and usually melt down, sometimes in really ugly ways.


But this particular conflict was different. I felt the anxiety intensely, but it didn’t overwhelm me to the point that I melted down. Instead, I had access to rational parts of my brain that prevented me from speaking out of anger. I was able to slow the conversation down. My voice sounded funny and flat (I’m autistic, for sure), but I was able to stay in the conversation to a point of resolution.


But it got even better: Afterward, I used some very simple neural exercises that I’d already learned could calm me – some as simple as glancing up and to my right – and I was able to sleep through the night.


Folks, I never sleep well after conflict. It might take three or four nights to feel normal again, and in the meantime, I lose hours or even days of productivity. But not this time. The difference? I know how to calm my body now, and it knows how to calm my mind.



Sensory overload can be managed


Since that night, I’ve learned many more tools to not only bring me quickly into a felt sense of safety when I feel overload building inside, but also to train the parts of my nervous system that are most sensitive to overwhelm.


For example, I know I over-rely on my visual system to stay safe under stress, but as a result, I underutilize information from my vestibular and proprioceptive systems, thereby feeling unnecessary levels of stress when I try to move too quickly or in new contexts. This means:

  • I can leverage my eyes to calm down and stay steady.

  • I can close my eyes (when it’s safe) and let my vestibular and proprioceptive systems take charge to start building confidence there.


What works for me won’t work for everyone – every nervous system is different and has adapted in thousands (or billions) of different ways to keep us safe. So while it’s true that sensory overload absolutely can be managed, it also takes a highly personalized approach to figure out what works for each individual.


My goal is to create personalized training regimens to help people regulate their nervous system on-command, because none of us should have to “be less sensitive” or adapt to the point of masking who we are just to avoid the sensory overload we can’t help but feel.


--

Interested in learning more about how nervous system training can change your life? Check out this post from last month (and this one too). Then, subscribe to my newsletter for priority opportunities to train your nervous system 1:1 or in small groups.

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page