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Mental Health

Psych Talks: Being a Student with Sensory Overload Anxiety

There are noises, lights, tastes, feelings and all other sorts of stimuli out there everywhere you go. For most people, accidentally brushing against someone might not be a big deal, but for people with sensory overload or processing disorders, it can change the course of their day. Just touching their hands may send them into a full-scale panic attack without warning. I know that feeling all too well, and so do many people around the world. In fact, one in every 20 people is affected by sensory processing disorders globally. While it mainly affects developing children and young adults, many times it carries over into adulthood, which is the case for me.

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I suffer from sensory processing anxiety, which makes an already difficult transition from home life to college even harder. While my transfer from home to college was better than expected, I still have daily struggles that can ruin my day or even week. So what exactly is sensory processing anxiety? Sensory processing and overload disorders can stem from generalized anxiety or they can be exclusive of one another. The kicker with sensory overload anxiety is that we become overly sensitive to our environment and the stimuli in it. Loud noises, bright lights and touching are some of the most common triggers. The stimuli may be muted or not bothersome to people without these disorders, but they disrupt the lives of people who have sensory processing issues. The surroundings of someone having a panic attack from sensory overload can become distorted and blown out of proportion.

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A prime example of the worst place someone with sensory overload anxiety can go is a nightclub. During my first week in college, I went to one of the local nightclubs and was stricken with anxiety almost immediately. The flashing lights were blinding, the music and shouting were overpowering, and everyone was crammed together with no room to move. It was everything I hated in one room; literal hell. I had a panic attack when everyone began pushing against me and every sense I was taking in was amplified to the maximum.

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An environment that is fun for so many people was like a nightmare for me, which is upsetting because people with these disorders don’t go out often for that exact reason. This is incredibly difficult, as I am a frequent concert-goer. I find joy in seeing the artists I love performing live, but sometimes the environment gets the best of me. At Governor’s Ball Music Festival this past summer, I was so excited to see Tyler, the Creator live. I even got up to the front of thousands of people just to see him. However, the wall of death, a common form of moshing, swept me up. Me being 4 feet, 11 inches tall, I was Mufasa and the other tens of thousands of people were the wildebeests trampling me. I was sweating profusely, overtaken by so much physical anxiety that I couldn’t move, and started sobbing. Eventually, someone beside me noticed my state of panic and lifted me up so the security guards could pull me from the mass of people. It was traumatizing and negatively impacted an experience that I usually find so much joy in.

Even the little daily things negatively affect us. Accidentally bumping into someone, bright lights in a classroom, sharing a room with someone all day every day, overlapping chatter and yelling can take a massive toll on someone with sensory overload anxiety. This makes college hard because it’s not something we can change nor avoid. In a 300 person biology class, I can’t ask that 299 of my classmates leave the room so I feel comfortable. However, there are some resources and tips to relax and calm down after the excitement. Meditating in The Globe’s meditation room, taking a break from your roommate(s) in the residence hall study rooms, hammocking in the evening or going to the top floor of Strozier Library are some really helpful ways to get away at Florida State University that I’ve found to reduce my anxiety in times of oversensitivity and stress.

It can be extremely hard navigating college and adult life with something that can feel so crippling. There are times when I feel like the whole world is crashing into me, making me feel claustrophobic even in an open space, but the first step to helping yourself escape that feeling is knowing that you are not alone. Many students on FSU’s campus alone struggle with some form of sensory processing disorder, which has led to an increase in resources and accommodations for us. If the safe, quiet places on campus aren’t helpful enough, try speaking to a therapist, whether it’s on or off-campus. No matter what, there will always be someone or something there to help you if you’re feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated.

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Amanda Macchiarola is a freshman at Florida State University studying Psychology. For as long as she can remember, Amanda has always had a passion for writing, whether it be creative writing or journalism. She hails from Tampa, loves a good book, and is on the hunt for the best Mac N Cheese in Tallahassee.
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