My Brain is Just More Sensitive: Mental illness and sensory overload

I experience sensory overload really easily. In other words, things that trigger my senses trigger them so intensely it causes crippling anxiety and immense discomfort. I’ll give you an example: repetitive noises make me have a meltdown. Even as an adult, and especially if the sounds are loud and high-pitched. Oven timers, the seat belt sensor in my car, even the beats of some songs; all potential triggers. I literally cannot listen to the radio because the rushed, monotone cadence of radio ads can push me over the edge. 

Now consider this example in the context of all my other senses. Strong smells, bright lights, pinching or itchy clothing, when the flavor of food is just a little bit “off,” all trigger my anxiety. I experience physical discomfort as all my muscles lock. My breath gets shallow, sometimes shallow enough to hyperventilate if I can’t remove the trigger quickly enough. I get frantic and start immediately trying to escape. My ability to listen to or communicate with others shuts down and the overwhelming need to get away from whatever the fuck is triggering me so hard takes over my entire nervous system. 

The meanest I ever am to my partner is when he leaves the oven timer beeping just a little too long. I don’t snap at him intentionally, he just doesn’t really notice noises like that. Meanwhile, I’m sitting 15 feet away feeling like I’m about to die. I know it isn’t rational. There is no excuse, or way to make sense of it. But these sensory experiences literally make my brain think I’m going to die. Coming home after a day of teaching, bursting into tears, and ripping my dress pants off before I made it two feet in the door was never me just being dramatic. I was literally having a panic attack. I haven’t worn a bra in almost a decade, and honestly, when I’m in the privacy of my own home I barely wear clothes at all. 

I have been sensitive in these ways my entire life. You can imagine the consequences of an intelligent, capable child having uncontrollable meltdowns over things most people don’t even notice. Learning to hide my sensory meltdowns so I wouldn’t get “in trouble” was the first training I ever had in denying my own needs in order to gain and maintain the approval of others. You can imagine the ways this “skill” manifested in my inability to talk about and validate my own needs and emotions in general. 

But hiding those needs doesn’t make them go away. It actually increases my anxiety. And my habit of denying my sensory discomfort rather than developing coping skills meant I lived my life with at least a low level of anxiety at all times. I’m not exaggerating, those who know me best can attest to how high strung I was most of my life, and to how much I’ve chilled out since I started creating space for my own emotional needs. 

Since surviving suicide, my mental health journey has become a process of acknowledging the needs I’ve denied myself in the service of others. Acknowledging those needs, validating those needs, and fulfilling those needs for the first time in my life. Those needs include learning how to cope with my sensory sensitivities. Learning how to dress for comfort and fashion. Learning how to breathe deep and convince my brain the teapot whistling isn’t going to kill me. Learning how to ask nicely for my partner to take out the smelly garbage because I’m annoyed that I always do it but oh my god I’m going to pass out if we don’t get that shit out of here. 

A big part of acknowledging and validating my needs includes talking about them. An important contributor to the stigma around mental illness are the behaviors mental illness sufferers engage in as a result of unchecked symptoms. Adults often punish children who throw tantrums like I used to because people who lack the ability to understand why someone would behave in such a way easily judge or criticize the behaviors of mental illness sufferers. Unfortunately, mental illness sufferers grappling with their symptoms, rarely have the ability to rationally communicate what is happening inside their brain. Especially if they are children. 

The silence and stigma around mental illness leaves mental illness sufferers, like myself, alone to battle the demons in their head while trying their best fit in. I felt like I was somehow different, or bad. Like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t control my reactions to things how others could. This lifelong feeling of alienation was a direct contributor to my suicidal ideation. However, had the adults in my life had the education to identify the symptoms of mental illness, had my peers understood what I was going through from my perspective, had someone stepped in and taught me about my own brain sooner, had any of us had the language to even talk about mental illness in the first place, I can’t help but think my path may have looked different.

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