In today's guest article, author Tesni Linden shares their experience with sensory overwhelm on a grocery store trip and discusses strategies to help adults with sensory processing disorder.
Everyday Life with Sensory Processing Disorder: An Adult's Personal Experience
By Tesni Linden
What does sensory processing disorder look like in adults?
Here at Neurodiverging, we recently shared an Introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) post in which we looked at the basics of SPD. In a nutshell, Sensory Processing Disorder is a type of neurodiversity in which a person’s brain has difficulty sorting and identifying input from the various sensory organs.
For example, a person who does not have SPD can go to a multisensory place like a mall, airport, or movie theater and not experience much or any discomfort from the bright lights, conglomeration of noises (or volume level), smells, or moving through a crowded space. A person with SPD, though, may struggle with all the sensory input (lights, noises, smells, navigating people and objects) at once. In this post, we’d like to offer a specific instance of sensory overwhelm in everyday life and then give a few tips for how to manage SPD in similar situations.
After writing the Introduction to SPD article, I wanted to share an experience I had, one that was baffling at the time. It made so much more sense once I learned about SPD. I hope that by sharing my experience with you, you will feel less alone if this situation sounds familiar, learn something about what it’s like to live with SPD, or how to help a partner or friend manage SPD in daily life.
This is not medical advice.
I am not a medical or mental health professional, nor am I trained as a life coach (as Danielle is); I encourage you to seek advice from a trained professional for all health/mental health concerns you may have, including SPD. I am writing simply from personal experience as a late-identified adult.
Sensory Overwhelm at the Grocery Store: My Experience
While I can come up with many examples of sensory overwhelm throughout my life there are a few that stand out in my memory as particularly clear examples of having difficulty with processing multiple sensory inputs all at once. One of these instances happened several years ago while I was doing something utterly mundane – grocery shopping.
At that point in my life, I’d heard a little bit about SPD, and thought it could explain my sensitivities to noise, lights, smells, and body contact/touch. But for a lot of reasons I didn’t look into it further or seek out a diagnosis. All I knew was that going shopping – for clothes, food, household items, anything – was an exhausting, completely unenjoyable experience. And it made me feel like this weird, dysfunctional, incompetent adult to need a long nap after routine food shopping trips.
Note from the author:
I’m still working on being kinder to myself, it’s a process! But, once I learned there are other people out there who struggle with everyday things like going to stores or traveling has really helped me so, so much. I’m not a weird, dysfunctional person – my brain simply works differently.
In this specific instance, my partner and I needed to go food shopping and the only time we could go was on a Saturday afternoon. This was a store I’d been to many times before, so I knew where everything we needed was located and I had a list. Well…it turned out the store had rearranged significantly since my last visit and it was extra busy that day.
The rearrangement of the aisles meant I needed to go up and down every single aisle and scour the shelves for what I needed. Usually I’m on a sort of autopilot, knowing exactly where in the store the things on my list are, and going directly to those places and nowhere else. This time, though, I couldn’t use that targeted approach, I had to look at every item on every shelf to find the items on my list. Did I mention the store was crowded? I felt increasingly awkward and in-the-way as I stared at the shelves looking for what I needed.
By the time we’d found everything and checked out, my head felt heavy, my brain felt like it was wrapped in thick fog, my eyes didn’t want to focus (or would get snagged on one thing for no reason) and forming coherent thoughts – not to mention speech – was beyond me. I knew I needed to sit or lie down, close my eyes, and have as little noise, light, and smells around me as possible. I am incredibly grateful and fortunate for my partner’s understanding. There was no way I could have driven us home, and as my partner drove, they respected my unspoken need for peace and quiet. I spent most of the ride with my eyes closed, just breathing, waiting for the noise of the turn signal and traffic sounds to stop causing me physical pain.
The Sensory Components of the Grocery Store Trip
Once I learned about SPD I was finally able to make sense of that experience, as well as many others. Let’s look at it in terms of the sensory components.
I’ve since figured out that I am most likely to become visually and aurally (senses of sight and sound) overwhelmed first, although my sense of smell is very easily overwhelmed too.
As those senses reach the overwhelm threshold, I am increasingly likely to become uncomfortable in my own skin – clothes that were fine are now too tight or a seam is rubbing, causing pain; I simultaneously feel like my usual bubble of personal space is insufficient and I am no longer sure how much space in the environment my body is occupying. (And it feels like I’m taking up much too much space, that I’m in the way of everyone and everything around me. This sensation is probably not caused by SPD; SPD simply exacerbates it.)
I am also aware that there is likely overlap with other neurodivergences (autism, OCD, anxiety) that can make it misleading to say “this is 100% an example of SPD.” My overwhelm in this situation was so significant in part because my brain couldn’t handle sorting noises, a crowded space, smells, AND looking closely at shelf after shelf of products.
Another Note from the author:
I would like to pause here and acknowledge my privileges and how they took some of the stress out of this situation. I am an upper-middle class white person living in a relatively prosperous area of the U.S. In this example, the store was well stocked with plenty of food, and I was not stressed about the cost of the items or whether something was on sale. I choose to buy less expensive items that otherwise meet my criteria, but I am not obligated by economic factors to do so. Simply put, some of my overwhelm in the store came from having so many products and brands to choose from. This is an incredible combination of privileges, ones I try not to take for granted, and an aspect of my life that I am continuously grateful for.
My partner didn’t enjoy the experience of a reorganized and crowded store mostly because it slowed us down. They did not experience overload or discomfort as I did. Chances are, if I asked them, “do you remember that one trip to the store years ago…” and described it, they would say no, they didn’t remember. Or, they would remember it only because of the difficult time I had.
What helps adults with sensory processing disorder?
Now for the hopefully more encouraging part! Even before I knew to call my sensory discomfort “SPD,” I’d come up with several strategies for managing the situations when I typically became overwhelmed. Using these ideas can help adults with sensory processing disorder before we get overwhelmed.
Prepare ahead (if possible)
1 - Set a date and time for your excursion and put it on your calendar a few days in advance. If possible, choose a day of the week or time of day when the store might be less busy.
2 - If you are going shopping, make a list of what you need before you go. For me, the more detailed the better, but that might make someone else anxious or stressed. Do what works for you! A list helps adults with sensory processing disorder home in on what you’re looking for, which can hopefully reduce the amount of time you are in an overwhelming environment. It might also help you be less anxious about whether you’ve forgotten a key ingredient for making dinner.
3 - Take care of yourself! If you know you have to face a busy store on Saturday morning, try to get enough rest, sleep, and hydration in the days leading up to it. It is amazing how much of a difference getting enough sleep and sufficient rest can make on handling sensory input (as well as other health challenges like anxiety, chronic pain and fatigue, etc.). Consider taking a short sensory break before you go.
4 - Find a balance between planning ahead to reduce anxiety and focusing so much on it that you become more anxious. The goal here is to help you feel calm and prepared, and to do things that will help make a sensory-challenging experience more manageable.
Create supports to lean on during your trip.
1 - Bring a friend! Consider asking a trusted friend to go with you. Another person with you can help you feel more comfortable in a potentially overwhelming environment, stay on track (if you’re easily distracted), provide an external opinion if you get stuck making a decision, and know how to help if you get overwhelmed. It’s important to talk to your friend before you go, though, and clearly communicate your needs – and listen to theirs as well.
2 - Wear headphones or ear defenders to reduce some of the ambient noise. For me personally, I find having over-the-ear headphones best and I’ve found listening to some type of gentle nature noise great when I’m going through airports. (As a side note, I also tried some of my favorite relaxing music, but that was too much. A white noise was best for helping my brain.) It will take some trial and error to figure out what works for your brain, and what works in one situation (like being in a busy airport) may not work in another (a grocery store).
Practice makes perfect
Unfortunately, overwhelm or sensory overload will still happen at times no matter what you do. That’s when it’s helpful to recognize the signs of overload before you reach meltdown. Learning what sorts of sensory inputs cause the most difficulty helps adults with sensory processing disorder come up with strategies like those I’ve described here, ones that will work for our brains and our situations. If you’re new to SPD, it will probably take time, patience, and being kind to yourself to figure out what’s best for you. I hope the suggestions here give you a place to start!
Learn more about Sensory Processing with these Neurodiverging resources:
- Sensory Processing Disorder + 3 Tips to Avoid Sensory Overwhelm
- Introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder for Adults
- What Is Sensory Regulation? with Occupational Therapists Robbie Levy and Ingrid Smith of SensaRooms
- Auditory Processing Disorder at School with Suzanne DeMallie
- My Favorite Earplugs for Autism Sound Sensitivity
About the Author: Tesni Linden lives in a quiet corner of New England with a chatty, sweetheart of a feline and an amazing, supportive partner. Tesni has so many interests including reading, yarn crafts, and learning about the insects, arachnids, and amphibians inhabiting Tesni’s yard (and sometimes, house). Keep an eye out for future posts by Tesni here on Neurodiverging!