While the festive season brings a lot of fun with it, one of the downsides for many with chronic illness conditions is all the noise, crowds of people, flashing lights and so much more. This form of sensory overload during the holidays (and at other times too) can be overwhelming and really take the joy out of the season.
As someone with migraine and fibromyalgia, sensory overload can happen to me fairly easily. I tend to prefer a quieter time these days in order to experience less symptoms. However, this can be more tricky during Christmas / the holidays. This post has some ideas for how to cope with sensory overload during the holidays that have helped me, and I hope they are useful for you too.
This post is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice in any way. Always consult a medical professional for your health conditions.
What is sensory overload?
To quote Healthline, sensory overload 'happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process'. There is too much happening all at once for your brain to process and it can’t interpret it all at the same time (Healthline).
Our five senses are: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. To name just a few, the types of 'information' that may cause sensory overload can include competing noises (for example multiple conversations, the TV playing and maybe a dog barking all at the same time), lots of twinkly or flashing lights (such as those for the holidays) or overly pungent smells (such as perfumes or fragrance).
Sensory overload and chronic illness conditions
Many of us living with chronic illness conditions will be aware of the 'it's all too much' feeling that comes along with sensory overload. It can feel physically and mentally overwhelming, and make us want to escape from the issue at hand.
Migraine is one such condition where sensory overload seems fairly common, and research shows a higher level of prevalence of sensory processing difficulties in those with migraine (including children) (Genizi, et al. 2019; Goadsby, et al. 2017). It is known that migraine 'is associated with increased hypersensitivity to various sensory stimuli: visual, auditory, odor and somatosensory, both before aura and during the headache attack' (Genizi, 2020).
I think most of us with migraine can understand that certain stimuli such as bright lights, smells or loud noises, can be a trigger for an attack. So too can we know of the desire to remove ourselves from situations where those stimuli are to be found during an attack, and to be somewhere calm and quiet.
Healthline reports that many other conditions have sensory overload as a common symptom, including fibromyalgia*, multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue syndrome, amongst others. Personally I also find certain stimuli can also worsen my exploding head syndrome symptoms.
How to cope with sensory overload during the holidays
The holidays bring with it a lot of stimuli. Think about going into a shopping mall to purchase your gifts for loved ones. There is likely to be a lot of people, loud holiday music from all different stores, bright flashing lights, lots of colourful decorations, perfumes and fragrances and so much more.
This overwhelming cacophony of sounds, scents, lights and more, makes many of us want to head straight back to the car. We can feel stressed, irritable and very uncomfortable. It can cause anxiety or panic attacks for some people.
Some situations, such as a busy shopping mall, aren't easy to cope with and choices have to be made as to whether it will make you feel unwell or is something you can manage, even for a short while.
Over the years I have learnt a few tips and tricks for how to cope with sensory overload during the holidays. I hope you find them useful:
Personally, I find this the most difficult because there is just so much going on. Every store will have music, crowds and there is a lot of visual stimuli to deal with. I could only consider visiting if my chronic illness symptoms were lower that day.
- Consider whether a mall is a good idea, or whether smaller towns, markets or good old online shopping are better for you.
- Visit stores early, or late, when less crowded with other shoppers. A few stores have an hour once a week where lights are dimmed and no music is played.
- Go on a lower symptom day so you aren't starting already on the cusp of triggering a migraine attack, or flare-up of symptoms for other conditions.
- Wear sunglasses if need be, or noise cancelling headphones.
- Go prepared with a list and only visit the stores you need to.
- Don't start out hungry or thirsty, and take snacks!
Visiting loved ones or hosting a gathering
Holiday celebrations can be lovely, but also involve a great deal of noise and commotion. The kids are arguing over their gifts, the dog is barking, and there are three conversations happening at once, all with the TV playing in the background.
This is where open and honest conversations come in, and the need to advocate for yourself. Always tougher than it sounds, but your health really is important.
- Set boundaries. For example, the TV only being on when people are actually watching it, the dog being walked before family visit so it is less excitable, and noisy kids toys being given to play with at home, not during the day (or gift them when the kids are leaving so there aren't tantrums over this. The kids get a surprise gift as they are going home, and you get some peace!).
- Either make clear you may need some rest time and so guests need to entertain themselves for a little while, or ask your hosts for a place you can retreat to if it all gets a bit too much.
- Ask for help if you are hosting. Guests can bring a dish, be in charge of drinks or help cook. People tend to like lending a hand I find, including kids. It will help you feel a bit calmer not to be doing it all.
- Have a strict 'arrival' and 'going home' time if you are having guests. Also consider having a smaller gathering so there isn't as many conversations happening, and other stimuli to contend with.
How to cope with particular sensory stimuli
As mentioned, open and honest conversations are a key way to help reduce activities or situations that can lead to sensory overload during the holidays. Some of these tips are noted above, but I thought it may be helpful to have them by 'sense' as well for easy reference:
- Scents are largely unavoidable in stores, but ask guests or hosts not to wear perfume or use strong smelling body oils or other cosmetics. And of course, that you prefer not to receive scented gifts too.
- Similarly, ask that scented candles aren't burnt before you visit during the holidays, or that similar products such as diffusors or air fresheners aren't used in the home for at least several days before you visit.
- If there are any particular foods that have an aroma that you find problematic let the host know, and ask that meals are prepared that don't include that ingredient.
- Depending upon your sensitivity to lights, you may wish to ask hosts of a holiday gathering to keep tree (and other) lights off altogether, or as I do, to have them as 'static' lights that don't flash.
- Bright lights on high streets and in shopping malls are tricky. Wearing migraine glasses may help, or you may wish to visit smaller towns to do your holiday shopping instead.
- In my home, noisy toys are basically off-limits. We have a joke that somehow the batteries are always 'worn out' so they can't play highly annoying tunes or flash lights . . . Ask others to be respectful and suggest that noisy toys are played with at home.
- As already mentioned, the TV doesn't need to be on unless everyone is watching and the same with holiday music. Those combined with conversation are a sure-fire sensory overload for most of us with migraine and other conditions. So ask for adjustments to be made, and your health to be put first in planning the day.
- Allodynia is an issue for many with fibromyalgia and other conditions. Clothes can literally cause pain, just from the touch of the fabric on the skin. Don't feel that you need to wear certain outfits as it is the holidays, if they are of harsh or scratchy material that will be uncomfortable for you. Be comfy always!
- Something I became aware of recently was the effect of metallic wrapping paper on some people. The combination of the noise, visually shiny surface and touch can feel problematic. Ask that brown paper is used to wrap gifts, or a fairly plain wrapping paper without a lot of pattern to it. Or no paper at all, and have gifts in a nice bag instead.
I hope that this post on sensory overload and the holidays was helpful. Come join me on Instagram and Twitter for more posts on daily life with chronic illness!
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*See Wilbarger, J, and Cook, D. (2011) 'Multisensory hypersensitivity in women with fibromyalgia: implications for well being and intervention', Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 92(4): 653-656
Genizi, J. et al. (2019) Sensory processing difficulties correlate with disease severity and quality of life among children with migraine', Frontiers in Neurology.
Genizi, J. et al. (2020) 'Sensory processing patterns affect headache severity among adolescents with migraine', Journal of Headache and Pain, 21(48)
Goadsby, P. et al. (2017) 'Pathophysiology of migraine: a disorder of sensory processing', Physiological Reviews, 97(2): 553-662.
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