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Sensory Overload

I guess most of us have experienced “sensory overload” at one time or another. It’s anxiety caused by over-stimulation of the senses any one or all of them. We just don’t often give it a name.

There can be many causes of sensory overload, including:

  • A crowded room

  • Multiple conversations going on at once

  • Flashing lights, or a loud party

  • A challenging, unfamiliar situation

Sounds familiar? If not, you’re very lucky. For people living with dementia it can be a big problem.

My daughter Verity got married a couple of weeks ago. I, of course, had a part to play, and I was determined to do it right.

On the day, I remained focussed on the “father of the bride” job and managed to play the role faultlessly. After the service, we retired with the happy couple and around thirty close family members for a socially distanced afternoon tea in the spacious garden of Verity’s new Mother-In-Law.

That’s when it all went “pear shaped”…

After an hour spent casually chatting to the other guests, we were called into a bright, breezy tented area where we were seated in our “bubbles” to enjoy the refreshments laid out on the beautifully decorated tables.

Suddenly, I felt closed in, and the hubbub of voices made it impossible for me to concentrate on what anyone was saying. - I just couldn’t make sense of it all.

I became withdrawn and anxious. I couldn’t trust myself to speak as I was so full of emotion. I tried to calm myself down. I didn’t want to let down my daughter or frighten my family and the other guests, but then, the dam of emotion burst, and I started crying. Verity had noticed, and she nodded her head to let me know that she understood. Then I fled to a quiet place where I could get my emotions under control.

My family understand that I sometimes experience sensory overload, but you see, it was worse that day because I was worried that I was disrupting the happiness of her special day by my presence.

I found a quiet room, and sat there for some time, trying to gather up the courage to re-enter the fray. People looked in on me to ask if I was OK. That just made things worse - they were trying to help bless them, but I couldn’t be helped. I knew that I was a distraction, and that I should bow out gracefully and go home. Sadly that put an end to my wife’s participation too.

I know that people understand that these things happen, but I am still disappointed and a little ashamed that I am no longer able to tolerate rich, vibrant, multi-sensory situations in the way that I used to.

So what have a learned?

I have learned that I am changing from an extrovert into an introvert – but it’s not that simple. if I am focused, and have a job to do, I can still function perfectly. It’s when the pressure is NOT on, that I become overwhelmed by a busy environment.

Knowledge (as ever) is power. So, I am now developing a coping strategy that will involve:

  • Avoiding challenging environments where possible unless I have a role to play (public speaking, meetings etc are not a problem for me – in fact, I relish them. They are meat and drink to me.).

  • Letting my friends and family know that I will remain in a quiet place while they party, and I will be quite happy there – they needn’t worry.

  • Having an “exit strategy” for if things go wrong.

The more I speak with people who have dementia, the more stories I hear that match mine. In my humble opinion, sensory overload is very common indeed amongst people with dementia, yet it is not often addressed head on.

Do a quick internet search on “sensory overload” and you will find thousands of interesting and scholarly articles that link sensory overload to ADHD, PTSD, fibromyalgia, autism, multiple sclerosis etc. What you will NOT find however are many articles that include dementia up front as a likely cause.

I’d like to write more on this topic – it deserves it, but a Blog post is probably not the best place for an article that’s too long, so I’ll leave things hanging. But I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Please leave a comment or two with your thoughts on this important topic. I like to hear any anecdotes you may have too.

It can get lonely out here in “Dementialand”.

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17. Sept. 2020

Pete, your daughter must have been so very proud of you, perfecting your role at her wedding. "Father of the Bride" is such an important and, I imagine, stressful role and one which I guess causes many a dad an attack of nerves and probably a sleepless night or two! I remember with love my own dad unable to contain his tears on my wedding day, 51 years ago! So, during the afternoon tea you became anxious and felt uncomfortable amongst all the other guests. What did you do? You made a decision to remove yourself from the situation and sit quietly on your own in order to compose yourself. Perfect. Sadly things got worse for you when concerned…

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