What Sensory Overload Feels Like for People with PTSD

January 7, 2020 Beth Avery

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results in sensory overload and is exhausting. I often describe PTSD as a brain at war with itself, fighting and pulling different parts of your mind in all directions. The thoughts, worries, and instincts circling through your head can get so loud at times that it makes you want to cover your ears. 

With so much going on inside the minds of people with PTSD, it's natural for them to feel overstimulated by the outside world. Much like those with autism or ADHD, people suffering from PTSD can experience sensory processing issues as they navigate their day-to-day lives. 

What PTSD-Related Sensory Overload Feels Like

One of the main symptoms of PTSD is hypervigilance, or constantly being on guard. It's more than just being jumpy or easily startled. People with PTSD are always searching for signs of danger.

There are times when it is normal and appropriate to be on high alert, such as when you're walking to your car alone late at night. For people with PTSD, every situation demands that high alert, whether or not it is actually needed. 

Being on guard 24/7 is exhausting. Because I look and listen for danger all the time, I force my brain to take in massive amounts of input every day. Sensory overload tends to happen when my brain is struggling to take in everything I'm shoving at it. This happens in crowds more often than not, where there are so many sights, sounds, and smells that I can't process them all.

When sensory overload hits, it feels like someone has turned up the volume in my life. The lights start to seem too bright; the noises, too loud. Conversations around me become louder and louder until I feel like I need to cover my ears to make it stop. It's very uncomfortable, and it makes dealing with public settings much more difficult.

How to Cope with Sensory Overload in PTSD

The good news about sensory overload in PTSD is that there are a number of ways to deal with it. It's an experience shared by many types of people, and there are tools and resources that can help reduce the anxiety it causes.

The best way to deal with sensory overload is to be prepared for it. Over time, I've come to accept that sensory overload due to PTSD is a part of my life, and I know the times and places when it is likely to happen. By being prepared for it, I've made navigating my day-to-day life a little easier.

The biggest thing that helps me when I'm experiencing sensory overload is finding a quiet place to be alone. It's not always easy to do this, but you can get creative when you need some alone time. Anything from a bathroom stall to a corner of the room can be a quick respite from the noise and activity of your surrounding environment. 

If you're at a social event or party and are feeling overwhelmed, step outside for a few moments. If you're at work, sit in a bathroom stall and cover your eyes and ears for a couple of minutes. It can sound silly to people who don't understand, but what's important is if it works for you. 

Sensory overload is an experience shared by people with PTSD and all different sorts of trauma. It can feel uncomfortable or even scary, but it's a natural reaction to an overactive brain. Learning to accept its place in your life is the first step to overcoming it and adapting to the noise. Little by little, you can find peace in the chaos. 

How do you deal with sensory overload due to PTSD? Share your thoughts in the comments.

APA Reference
Avery, B. (2020, January 7). What Sensory Overload Feels Like for People with PTSD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, October 19 from

Author: Beth Avery

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August, 3 2021 at 11:32 am

I use aromatherapy often. Scents are a big trigger for me so countering a scent that causes me anxiety with something like lavender essential oil (i have my own faves but lavender seems to be a good one for most people) helps me a lot.
Someone else mentioned mints or gum, those also help me sometimes, something a little "shocking" like a starburst candy can work for me.
Lastly, if I am just at home having one of these moments, putting on my headphones and playing an immersive (and chill) video game helps me. I always recommend Zelda breath of the wild. It's simple and if you turn up your headphones you can block out the outside world and just listen to the nature sounds as you roam around. (And then if you feel like it go fight some baddies).
Those work for me. I hope this helps someone else.

August, 2 2021 at 10:03 am

I agree on seeking therapy or at least learning skills to manage cPTSD. I steered clear of asking for outside help for YEARS, until COVID sent me into a new low. I didn't want a diagnosis and I don't take medicine due to how it always affects me and dr's never listen to my request for older medicines or the fact that my body is very sensitive to medicines. Anyway, I was having suidicidal thoughts daily. And, although I didn't think I'd do it, I was scared that I may and sought out help. She heard me when I said I don't take medicines. She told me that cPTSD typically does not benefit from medicine. That we need to learn new skills to manage it. 8 months later, I am happy, no longer suicidal and I've found myself through the journey. Many things make more sense now. Please note, I'm 47 years old and its the first time I went to talk therapy completely honest. I'm not hypervigilant 24/7. I'm a new version of myself and am VERY happy I found a good therapist to help me through. There are so many out there just looking to make money off of you however they can. Mine said she thinks unless I feel I need to work on something more, that we are done meeting. That was very good news and reinforced that she isn't just stringing me along for money. ;-)

August, 4 2021 at 6:31 am

Thank you for this. It gives me a little hope. But how did you find them? Do they work on zoom? I really need a good therapist or counsellor but I'm reluctant because of bad experiences awful ones in the past. Is yours in America? Regards. Robert

October, 18 2020 at 4:44 pm

I was quite overwhelmed recently going into Costco and, recognizing that I was in the midst of ups cycling into a panic attack, asked a manager to assign a assistant shopper to me to help me navigate due to my brain injury. They were awesome about it. The assistant shopper helped me to find things and move very efficiently through the grocery aisles and teaching me how to plan my shopping for next time if I want to do it on my own but I could always ask for help.

September, 13 2020 at 11:50 pm

Nothing is a sure fix for everyone, but my go to is eating something chewy like a toffee or a chewy mint (ie Minties). For me, this gives me something other than the sounds/light to focus on and takes my mind off my triggers. :)

August, 24 2020 at 8:16 pm

Sometimes I play classical music on my earbuds to mask the loud noises that happen outside my office or down the hall. But that can be overwhelming sometimes too. At family or friends’ home so it is nice to pick a quiet space even if just excusing myself to go to the bathroom or walk outside like I’m taking a call.

Susan Cotton
August, 23 2020 at 3:35 pm

I sleep alot. Don't want to wake up. Enjoy dreams. I am tired of being alone at home due to Covid. Look forward to a short day, that's why I sleep a long time in the morning.

Charlie Lewer
May, 18 2021 at 11:48 am

This is a very fortunate option. I am exhausted, but sleeping is no comfort - the dreams are like torture. Then, I have to get up every day and pretend like I don't go there every night. Get up and start working like nothing happened.

Mel Helmcke
August, 21 2020 at 11:20 pm

I use ear plugs where ever I am at, when I'm driving walking in the grocery store, when I am at home and my kids are running around. I can still hear with them but everything is way quieter and gives my senses a break.

August, 21 2020 at 1:42 pm

I drink alcohol

Jim Steele
September, 1 2020 at 10:37 am

Tried that for 30 years. Never worked, almost killed me. Try something else like seeing a doctor.

Garvin Titan
May, 18 2021 at 11:56 am

Yes, you should definitely trust your health to an idiot who memorized enough to pass the boards and then couldn't get into a real medical specialty. Also, the fact that they will invariably prescribe you a medication that you don't need from a pharmaceutical company that they'll receive compensation for giving you their brand of poison. Check out some of the ingredients and side-effects of some of those SSRIs or SNRIs. I'm aware that most individual will never experience symptoms from those medications - and if you have the illness that you claim to have any expertise concerning, they you'd realize that those 10mg of pro-lexa-zol-whatever are not valid prescriptions. But, the kind of clinician you're referring to has no business calling itself a doctor, demonstrated by its repeated behavior - handing out pills to people who don't need them, irrespective of the social, ethical, or clinical results. Yeah, go see a doctor bro. Dude, you are the problem.

August, 3 2021 at 11:24 am

Whoa dude. That was completely unnecessary. Sorry you have had issues with unethical physicians, honestly, I am, at the same time there is some massive generalization going on in your post and some clear hostility directed at someone who more than likely doesn't deserve it. "Alcohol didn't work for me, see a Doctor" is perfectly sound advice. They didn't say "alcohol didn't work for me, pop some pills". "Doctor" encompasses lots of roles...including know, the talk therapy people who don't have the prescription writing maybe take a step back before commenting next time. Your attack was completely unwarranted and off base.

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