I Couldn’t Understand Her At The Restaurant: Experiencing Sensory Overload

I experience sensory overload easily, and it’s been getting worse as I get older.

I’ve sort of known the symptoms for a while;  I just thought it was more akin to my friends who are introverts who have to withdraw for a while after being around other people. 

But I really realized this was a problem after simply going out to dinner with my girlfriend.  We got to the restaurant early, and I was fine, but as more people came in and it got louder and busier, it was harder and harder for me to maintain focus.  The problem disappeared as soon as we left, but returned when we stopped in a store that had a lot bright flourescent lights and lots of people talking.

And she thought I was disinterested in being there with her, when that wasn’t the case.  Which is, obviously, a big problem.

Of course, I turned to the internet, and almost immediately ran across this passage with some examples of sensory overload:

  • When lots of people are talking around me, at the same time, such as
    in a pub, I get overwhelmed and start to zone out, and can’t make sense
    of any of it.
  • Fluorescent lighting makes me feel dizzy and unwell, and I can start
    to shake and sweat. When the lights are turned off, I can feel a
    tangible difference – my whole body relaxes, and I feel a huge sense of
    relief, even if I hadn’t been consciously aware of the fluorescent
  • I have a hypersensitive vestibular system – I could never go on
    merry-go-rounds as a kid without feeling very unwell. I would fall on
    the ground after getting off the merry-go-round and be unable to stand
    up for a while. As an adult, I get this feeling to a lesser extent in
    buses and sometimes in cars, from the motion, particularly in areas with
    winding roads.

All three of these are really accurate descriptions and true for me now (I didn’t have the motion issues as a child).   There’s some other things I’ve known for a while – for example, I can only process words in one format at a time.  I can listen or read or write or talk… but doing two at the same time can be nearly impossible for me.

And then I read this account:

I went for a meal with my wife and kids. When we arrived at the
restaurant it was quiet but it quickly filled up. The restaurant became
very busy and was fairly loud, with lots of different conversations,
piped music, etc. For the first time in my life, I became aware of
sensory overload. Previously I would have zoned out and hid in my phone
or found something to allow me to isolate myself from the background

Being on my best social behaviour, I persevered and tried to
continue take part in the conversation. I found I was totally unable to
understand anything that was being said. I heard words but they did not
make any sense to me. It was very much like listening to the teacher
from Peanuts. My hearing kept homing in on the voice of a guy on the
next table. Often he was all I could hear. I wasn’t even eavesdropping,
because he was a local guy and I don’t speak Cantonese. I was so
stressed that I had a strong urge to get up and leave. I stuck things
out until after the peak time and the restaurant eventually started to
quieten down. There must be a certain threshold background noise level
for me, because I started to understand the conversation again and felt
less stressed. The peak time was hell though.

That one gave me chills, it was so much like what I experienced.

I’ve had some experience dealing with other people’s sensory integration disorders, but it’s still good to see you’re not the only one who experiences this sort of thing.  I don’t seem to have all the possible triggers, and some things that are problematic for others actually help me. 

One big example there is that loud, fast, repetitive music (particularly trance electronica and speed metal) makes a huge difference in my ability to focus…but usually only on one thing.  While at a con last year, I had to occasionally step outside and put on my headphones and listen to Generation a time or two in order to clear my head.

Before someone thinks I’m trying to self-diagnose myself with anything, I’m going to say that I do not think I’m what used to be diagnosed as Asperger’s.  I do, however, seem to have these symptoms and traits that are remarkably similar to what Aspie folks report.  (Of course, Wikipedia says sensory overload can also be caused by other things, so there’s that.)

Yes, I’m going to talk to my doc about this at my next appointment.  And I’m going to more consciously crib tips and tricks that have been hard won by other people (like here, here, here, and here).

I am posting this here because I remember how much the Road To Mo*Con 8 posts helped me (to the point of inspiring me to write a guest post there myself).  Having found these other accounts of sensory overload makes me realize that there’s probably quite few other people out there in the position I am/was in:  Knowing how you feel, and not knowing why.

Hopefully this helps.

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  1. December 6, 2014

    I'm fortunate that it doesn't affect me as strongly, but I've realized the loud music and bright lights at the new gaming venue were what made it so hard for me to enjoy the board games last week. The old place played music too, but the atmosphere wasn't nearly as intrusive.

  2. December 11, 2014

    Scheduling breaks has helped, as has letting my SO know what's going on so she can signal me when I'm zoning. I've read on some of these boards that folks will use earplugs or even listen to music in one/both ears to help deaden things, or wear very lightly tinted sunglasses.

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