Navigating a mall or a discount store involves many sights and sounds, which most people successfully ignore to a point. However, approximately five percent of the population has trouble ignoring sounds, sights, or other types of stimuli, experiencing a form of sensory processing disorder. When these situations create a sensory overload, it can be a challenge to cope. Both children and adults can struggle with sensory overload, especially in bustling places like stores and shopping centers.

What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload involves an overstimulation of one or more senses, causing problems as a person’s nervous system tries to process triggers that come from the surrounding environment. People with autism spectrum disorders will often experience sensory overload, although this issue can also impact those with chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, and other health issues as well. The cause of sensory overload is unknown, but it tends to result from certain triggers.

  • Noises that come from multiple sources at one time can trigger sensory overload.
  • Flashing, bright lights may be triggers, especially if they are set to music or other loud sounds.
  • Strong scents from candles or perfume may overload the senses.
  • Tactile stimulation from bustling crowds can trigger sensory overload.
  • A combination of sounds, sights, scents, and tactile stimulation may be too much for some people.

How Sensory Overload Feels

Sensory overload while shopping can feel distinctly uncomfortable. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by one or more triggers.

  • When a large group of people are talking, the noise might feel amplified. This sensation might feel even more intense if varying pitches and tones are present. Someone with sensory overload might also be triggered by a squeaky shopping cart, crinkling shopping bags, crying children, or the beeps of cash registers.
  • Large crowds might bring on feelings of claustrophobia or panic attacks that stem from feeling unable to escape.
  • Having a tactile sensitivity can make it overwhelming to be jostled in a crowd or experience temperature extremes in a shopping mall.
  • People who have health issues such as fibromyalgia often experience pain much more easily than others, making them more sensitive to sensory stimuli. Those who experience migraines often have an elevated sensitivity to lights and sounds.
  • Someone who has trouble with sensory overload might feel embarrassed by the sensitivity, which can create or worsen anxiety.

Signs of Sensory Overload in Children

Children may have trouble verbalizing how they feel when they have sensory overload. Thus, it’s important to look for clues to know if a child is suffering.

  • A child might suddenly refuse to participate in an activity.
  • Children may have episodes of anger and irritability directed at certain people or objects.
  • Kids might become hyperactive.
  • They may make unusual complaints about sounds.
  • A child might cover their eyes or ears to protect against sensory overload.
  • Sometimes, a child may fixate on the source of the sensory overload, such as an object of a certain color.

Coping With Sensory Overload While Shopping

Understanding sensory overload is the first step to helping someone navigate this problem. Observation will help you identify triggers, which you can then take steps to avoid. It may also help to devise some actions to take to avoid or get out of these situations.

  • Keep a journal to learn about triggers. When an overload occurs, take notes about what set it off, how long an episode lasts, and anything that helped quell the response.
  • Discuss triggers to increase awareness. It might help to use a safe word, which the sufferer can use to let others know that symptoms are escalating.
  • Plan shopping to avoid triggers. Leave the sufferer at home, or plan trips for quieter shopping times. Avoid peak hours and big holiday rushes.
  • Use noise-canceling earplugs or headphones to block out noises.
  • Hold hands to try to instill calmness.
  • Avoid stores with heavy scents.
  • Shop for short amounts of time, and allow for recuperation time immediately after shopping.
  • Use patience when assisting someone with sensory overload. Strive to avoid overreacting to the symptoms.

Additional Resources