About the author
I previously worked full time in a demanding career that I loved. I was reasonably fit, in my mid-late 40s and had a medically managed autoimmune disease. Life was busy, with a mixture of people interactions and computer work, parenting, and running a household. Since catching Covid-19 in April 2022 and developing Long Covid, I suffer from frequent sensory overload – particularly from noise, light and movement.– Female, NZ European, Central Otago
A brief explanation of sensory overload
Sensory overload occurs when external stimuli such as sound, light, touch, taste and movement overwhelm the senses and the brain can’t process it all. Sensory processing issues can affect one or multiple senses. People who experience this symptom often find ordinary tasks, such as listening to music and socialising, challenging.
Here is a quick summary of the different forms of sensory overload:
- Sight: this manifests as photophobia, which is sensitivity to light and trouble looking at devices such as phone screens. At its worst, even ambient light is too much and people must stay in a darkened room, or wear sunglasses or eye shields that fully exclude light. This is often temporary and lasts less than a month; however, there are estimates that 20% of people still experience symptoms six months later.
Worried that you have impaired vision? It’s worth having your visual fields checked and OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) done to āwhina | help indicate the severity of the issue. Because people often present with other symptoms, functional vision can be easily overlooked. Having a neurological optical assessment can provide information on how you’re processing visual information.
- Smell and taste: post-Covid, a small proportion of people will experience a long-term loss of smell and loss of taste, or live with a distorted sense of taste and smell. Many people see this as trivial, but those without it know it can be a burdensome and isolating disability.
- Sound: hyperacusis – finding many noises unbearable and painfully loud – is a condition that often overlaps with tinnitus (ringing ears). For many people, hyperacusis is a long-term condition they learn to manage with treatment. Many people in the Long Covid community experience this symptom to varying degrees and they often encounter scepticism from the medical community.
- Touch: allodynia (extreme sensitivity to touch) is often associated with other conditions that must also be treated. The most common are diabetes, shingles, fibromyalgia and migraine headaches.
- Movement: many with Long Covid experience symptoms affecting the vestibular (movement) system, and have trouble with bodily awareness (proprioception). Symptoms include dizziness, balance problems and vertigo, which are very disorientating and often slow down movement. People can have problems focusing on objects or ‘seeing’ objects moving from side to side.
In my experience
Sensory overload feels like a traffic jam in my head, with conflicting signals quickly coming from all directions. This means I can struggle to make sense of situations that are easy for others to decipher.
Crowded or noisy environments are extremely challenging for me, as it’s hard to differentiate the important from the trivial and participate in a focused discussion. Simple tasks, such as emptying the dishwasher or crossing the street, become planned activities. My sensory overload issues are consistently present throughout the day.
In social or mahi | work situations, I have found sound sensitivity the most difficult symptom to manage.
What I and others have tried
The following lifestyle changes can make a big difference:
- slow changes in body position
- minimise screen time
- listen to audio books (public libraries have reasonable access)
- accept tautoko | support for tasks you’re learning how to manage until you gain independence
- practise self-compassion to feel and acknowledge the loss and grief that may come with your changes in health (and possibly also your occupation)
- use humour to keep trying and going. I keep a list of moments that life would be simpler without, eg. using hand wash as moisturiser for three months!
These practical aids can also be useful:
- wearing sunglasses
- investing in non-glare screens and changing colour contrasts
- reading large-print text and using auto-reading apps
- using earplugs that remove the background noise but still let you listen to people
- consider noise-cancelling headphones – but be aware, this is not suggested by all practitioners as it can lead to social isolation
- finding a place to be able to lie down when out, working or at events.
The best advice I received
Planning, prioritisation and pacing will āwhina | help you overcome many challenges. Although you’re experiencing this now, it doesn’t mean life will be like this forever. So communicate to others what helps, and be gentle on yourself. The more you whakatā | rest and stop ‘pushing through’, the better your chance of recovery.
How others can help
Sensory overload is an ‘invisible’ health issue. I am still limited by what I can do but I love to socialise. Please help me by having one person at a time talking in a rōpū | group so I can give you my full attention. It also helps if you can arrange a quiet room or space for me to retreat to if needed.
I may need to leave an event to deal with overstimulation after an hour, half an hour, or even just 10 minutes. This is simply a coping mechanism for this disability.
We do not know the exact mechanism by which Covid-19 causes sensory overload. But possibilities include metabolic disturbance, reduced blood flow to the brain, increased blood-brain barrier permeability, myelin dysregulation, microglial activation, and neuroinflammation.
The condition is often not recognised as an official disorder, which means there’s not a cure-all for the constellation of symptoms. Interestingly, sensory overload is part of the diagnostic criteria in both the Canadian and International Consensus criteria for ME/CFS.
Doctors will most likely treat each sensory overload symptom separately, and come up with a combination of therapies to āwhina | help someone better process and manage sensory input. For example:
- An occupational therapist can help you relearn reactions to stimuli, which helps you cope better in overwhelming situations.
- Physiotherapists can provide exercises to normalise sensory issues.
- Neuro-optometrists can coach you through eye training exercises to process visual inputs better.
Top 5 things to try
Is it all getting a bit much? Hone in on these handy tips:
- Minimise exposure to loud, busy environments (switch to online shopping, schedule outings during quieter periods).
- Break up challenging tasks and prioritise these throughout the day (this is different for individuals and probably different to your ideal)
- Use light- and sound-management devices.
- Communicate your personal limitations to others, and ask for tautoko | support.
- Use calming strategies, such as retreating to a dark, quiet space, or practising slow breathing.
DISCLAIMER: THIS WEBSITE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
Content shared on this website is for informational purposes only. It should not be taken as a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding a medical condition, diagnosis or possible treatments. Long Covid Support Aotearoa is not liable for risks associated with using or acting upon the information provided on this website.