Sensory Overload

It's been a banner week in the world of this SPDer! Yes, I'm being sarcastic. It's only been a week and a day since I had a disabling sensory overload event (call it what you will: panic attack triggered by sensory stimuli, dissociation triggered by sensory stimuli - when it comes down to it, my senses were taxed and I had a physiological reaction), a hugely upsetting occurrence. It's been a full year since I've succumbed to one of these events, which I suppose is a fact worth celebrating, as they used to be way more frequent.

I'll paint the picture for you: I'm on a double-wide major Manhattan street on a very warm Tuesday afternoon. People are out in droves soaking in the first rays of almost-spring, chatting on their phones, laughing with coworkers. Cars have peeled their windows down to echo music into the air. I am attempting to stay focused on the conversation occurring with my walking companion to the left, while squinting through the seemingly amorphous and reflective beings floating past me on the sidewalk; I am pushing past streams of chatter to listen to a single individual. These tasks come naturally for non-SPDers, sounds and sights sail around and past, unnoticed and harmless. But I have SPD, and the sensory world flows in and out of me as if there are no barricades. We are quickly approaching an oddity in the sidewalk: a gap where steps lead up to a plaza and a bank, which I find very disconcerting. After all, if my proprioceptive sense (body in space) is out-of-whack, imagine how the body feels when the supportive buildings give way to a gap. It happens fast, as if someone has pulled the composure clear from my grasp, and I am left naked and shivering. The once reflective beings are now incomprehensible. They are masses I cannot process or predict, and they are everywhere. Sounds flood through my system and my hands shake. In this moment, I am physically present, but cannot compose myself and cannot move; if I can't process the world around me, cannot feel where my body is located in the din, how am I supposed to get on a subway and go home?

My walking companion puts me in a cab as the tears start to well up.

For my entire teenagehood, these events were strictly called Panic Attacks, and came on without any known cause. (Little did I know they all hit when I was in the midst of a visually or auditorily taxing crowd, under bright flashing lights, or in undefinable spaces. Hello, senses, how's it going.) In the moment, it is hard for me not to transform back into that terrified child, knowingly disappointing those I loved while I waged war against my defects.

A few weeks before the sensory overload, I had an a-ha moment while furiously taking notes in psychopathology class. We were discussing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and specifically the concept of dissociation. When someone dissociates, it is like the brain is a doe that leaps in front of a moving car and pauses to stare. The brain essentially cuts off contact with itself, declaring that what is occuring or is about to occur is just too difficult to comprehend or process, whether physically or emotionally, and it makes a momentary cut. Could this concepty explain the years of panic attacks/sensory events? Is my brain wired differently, and so sometimes unable to process an inundation of stimui? Or has anxiety become my go-to reaction when I cannot comprehend the sensory world around me?

I don't know the answers yet. This event brought up many unresolved emotions towards myself as a person, my abilities, and the guilt I shoulder from my past years of misunderstanding. I am in the midst of final exams right now, working two jobs, planning a wedding, adjusting to my new living environment. (Leave it to the SPDer to prove her worth through involvement in countless activities.)

I suppose I'll take a 20-minute hiccup in exchange for a year's worth of better days.


  1. hi, thanks for blogging your a-ha moment and interested to know more about SPD + PTSD

  2. Try looking down at your feet it helps me for proprioceptive dysfunction


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