Ask a Therapist: On Sensory Rest
Q: I feel like everything gets on my nerves, like all the noise and light around me is just too much and I long to escape to somewhere quiet and dark.
How can you help with this sensory overload?
A: We live in a world that is full of noise and other sensory stimulation and it is easy to become overwhelmed by that incessant input! What might be happening is that you are experiencing a low tolerance for additional stimuli because you are already overloaded; that is, you have a limited capacity to manage additional sensory input without it tipping you into distress. You need a break from that hyper-activation of your senses in order to regain some margin for a more balanced response.
Sensory rest is the type of rest that helps to downgrade sensory input in order to restore and soothe the senses. Making intentional choices about your environment as much as possible will help to manage the overwhelm caused by too much stimulation of the senses or from an excess of toxic burden.
Sometimes we aren’t aware of how much we have acclimatized to certain things considered “normal” in our work or home environments. If we pause for a moment to take stock of all the things our senses are taking in throughout an average day we might notice how much burden is actually there and then we can address it.
For example, if you are working in construction or in a factory where there is a lot of industrial noise you may not even realize how that is affecting your physiology and your mood. You may work in a shopping mall that has an overload of synthetic fragrance pumping through the air and you may not be aware of how these chemicals may be disrupting your endocrine system because you don’t notice the smell anymore. Working on a computer or “blue screen” all day or in unnatural or fluorescent lighting can affect the fatigue your eyes experience on any given day.
You can begin to address sensory fatigue by naming the inputs and then choosing practices to help reduce the burden and/or to rest from exposure. For example, If you work in a loud environment, make sure you are using proper ear protection and spend a few minutes in silence each day to soothe your ears. If you are working on a computer all day, wear blue light glasses and take short breaks to look out a window or close your eyes throughout your workday. Of course, minimizing screen exposure in your leisure time will also allow your system to recover.
If you are in a school or workplace that has poor air quality or limited ventilation, be sure to spend some time outside or open windows to allow fresh air to circulate to counterbalance that negative sensory impact. If you are burning candles that have synthetic fragrances in your home, at least reduce the amount of time that fragrance is burning or - better yet - switch to fragrance-free candle options and essential oils to eliminate those toxins permanently from your environment. Taking a sauna break or a charcoal or epsom salt bath can help eliminate toxic burden as well. At the CWC wellness bookshop, we are committed to providing non-toxic products to help minimize sensory burdens as people are journeying toward wellness.
Keep it simple: small changes can be so beneficial to your overall well-being. However, if you make some changes to your sensory inputs and engage in sensory rest, you may still struggle to manage that level of irritation or overwhelm. If that’s your experience, talking to a therapist might be a healthy next step to uncover other psychological, emotional, or mental components that may also be contributing to how you are feeling.
There are so many ways that our senses help us navigate through our days and we want to be aware of how they can become exhausted and in need of restorative care. Think about ways to provide sensory breaks or reprieves and consider minimizing or altering exposures where you can to help alleviate unnecessary stressors.
Our senses can also be such a source of delight and joy that you want to take good care of them!
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