Sensory Hangovers: The Struggle is Real

It's like that scene in the movie The Hangover where the guys wake up to strange clues of their drunken, chaotic evening - the inflatable pig in the jacuzzi, the tiger in the bathroom, Ed Helms' missing tooth - except it's real life. Or rather, real Sensory Life, as I should say. And sure, it's not exactly waking up face down on the marble floor as an errant chicken walks past your previously (still?) buzzed face, but it's really similar.

Bawk bawk, my lovely

Sensory Hangovers. If you have sensory issues, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's the sludge that sticks with you the day after you put on your neurotypical hat and I-Can-Handle-This shirt and throw yourself into the sensory fray, be it a party or a wedding or a birthday brunch. It's that morning just after the time that you managed to appear completely typical to the untrained eye and even let loose for a while (and by "let loose," I mean moved your body away from the wall for a minute or danced under blinking lights - my over-responsive friends and I can never really "Thelma and Louise let loose"). It's how you feel when you've taken on the sensory world with every fiber of your processing being and succeeded. It's that burn-out, that empty-battery, that frayed-wires sensation. It's like being hungover. 

It looks just like this:

Also this:

And let's not forget this guy:

(Side Note: Google "Hungover Animals" - it's amazing.)

As you may know from pretty much all of my other posts, people with sensory issues have trouble processing sensory information. This is because our brains are wired a bit differently. In the brains of people with SPD, researchers have found that tracts of white matter, the things that join different areas of the brain together for processing purposes, are less well connected than in people without SPD. This means that we simply aren't wired as well for the processing of sensory input. It's also been found that brains with SPD don't ever habituate (or get used to) sensory information. This means that every single time a faulty fluorescent light flashes or an alarm clock goes off, we see the light or hear the sound and work doubly hard to process the information with our less-well-connected brain. 

Now, take these hard working brains and place them in intense sensory situations. Maybe it's time for the office holiday party. Maybe your niece is acting in her elementary school's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Maybe your BFF and her BF are finally getting married on a party boat. Inside or outside; under the stars or under strobe lights; listening to pulsing music, a single harpist, or kiddie soloist: doesn't matter. Your job is to show up, mingle, applaud, laugh, socialize, think, feel, dance, eat, drink - all of this while your brain is working overtime to make sense of every single sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, motion, environment, and internal bodily sensation. Even with our sensory tools. Even with our therapeutic techniques. Even me. (And you know I get this enough to write a book about it.)

It's freaking exhausting.

Efjgibrgrgrburhgburbgrbgr is what this little guy is thinking right now

And so, we sensory folk wake up the next day not unlike the men in The Hangover movies:

It's when we crawl out of bed the following morning and smash right into our dresser, slip in and out of a dozen pairs of not-quite-comfy-enough-to-tolerate pants, dim the light in the bathroom, and refuse to pop our contacts back in that we most need to fill our sensory banks. We need to remember that we're not unlike the typical hungover revelers who feel achy and queasy - the ones who leap in the air at the tiniest noise and want to curl into a ball and hide in the attic under granny's old housecoats. Except for us, we have a neurological reason for wanting to Sleeping Beauty it up for a day just to get some peace and quiet. 

Wrong Disney Princess, Right Sentiment
(You can Snow White it up too, ya know)

Friends, let me tell you this: Sensory Hangovers are real. Sometimes, we need to take a vacation after coming back from a vacation, and we need to be a quiet party of one after returning from a birthday party of thirty. We need to accept these hangovers as part of the delayed-diagnosis sensory experience and share them with others so that they can be supportive of our particular neurological lives. 

And if you happen to wake up with a sensory hangover, be sure to check the closet. You know. Just in case.


  1. I just found your blog. Really enjoy your posts! I've never heard another adult write about this. Thank you so much! I spent the day with a sensory hangover after spending a lovely day with an old friend yesterday. I'm not broken... just hungover. :)

    1. Thanks Kirsten! So glad this one especially resonated with you. Always worth the hangover, right? Just nice to know that you're not alone and what you're feeling is real! I always appreciate the read and the support :)

  2. I just found your blog. I see my youngest son deal with this after visits with his father. He had an uber meltdown Sunday, the first in a couple of months, and we were all exhausted afterwards. Thank you for sharing your heart and experiences. It's comforting knowing he will figure this out at some point and be able to know there are other people out there, like him, who deal with this every day. My son is 6 yo. :)

    1. So glad you found this helpful! A very common experience for people with SPD, and I'm sure it'll all make much more sense to him as he grows. Always an honor to share my story, thanks for reading :)

  3. YES!!!! I'm more typical, but my SPD daughter often requires a couple of days after a sensory-intensive one. And if we have several intensive days in a row where she doesn't get that necessary down time, we can almost bank on her having a seizure. Thank you for explaining this! Forwarding now to everyone I know!


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