Can you imagine what it feels like when your brain is on FIRE during a sensory overload?
Today on Voices of SPD we are joined by The Full Spectrum Mama, who suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder and is sharing her personal story about how it feels to have an adult brain on sensory processing overload.
The Burning Brain: The Adult Brain on Sensory Processing Overload
As a variation on the theme of the Sensory-Processing-Differences-induced Full Brain, I offer The Burning Brain:
Just one little Burning Brain story among many: There was a family-welcome, community-building meeting for our local Autism Spectrum Disorders group a few weeks ago. I’d never been before because I always have the kids with me at night, but thought I would go since kids were welcome this time.
En route to the meeting, we stopped by our town’s First Friday celebration where there is art and music and stuff. That was our first mistake. Two events? What was I thinking?
I began to get a headache.
We arrived at the meeting and there was a ceiling fan! And bright lights! You can see where this is heading…And there were a bunch of very, very nice people, mostly educators and paraprofessionals, at whom I could not look. No other kids, but hey, my kids are a lotta kids.
By this point I could barely see or hear. I could feel the inflammation inside my skull (see above), and my head felt like it was about to explode. Just throbbing with pain. The fans, the lights, the conversation, the nice, nice people? Unbearable.
I drove home trying not to vomit, got home, vomited from pain…
One single burning thing I was able to think during this episode: I can only imagine how a child would handle this!
This is Sensory Processing Disorder: a relative overabundance of stimuli (whether of activities or sensory input) causes migraines for some people. This same overabundance can also cause some of us to feel overwhelmed with despair, or anxiety, or anger and – especially before we are aware of Sensory Processing Differences – to not know why we feel this way. Kmarie Audrey has written wonderfully about this subject here.
Again, imagine how this process of Sensory challenges leading to emotional/social/physical pain and/or overload would affect a child! A huge meltdown or tantrum seems almost – dare I say it? — ”under-reactive” in this context!
My son, who also has Sensory Processing Differences, tends to shut down, or get more flappy and loud than usual when in Overload Mode. I talk to him about it, and hope he will have the words and wherewithal to deal with it as he grows up.
Me? I mostly get Burning Brain these days. Once I am in that state (and by this point medications do not help) my migraine will amplify any sensory input so as to make the smallest thing (lights, sounds, smells, movement) literally agonizing.
On the most basic level, I get why a clothing tag might make someone scream, why swinging on a swing soothes some and dysregulates others, why seeing a bright color could cause nausea or even vomiting…
There is a great deal of skepticism around Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), so I write this for those who cannot put their experiences into words as well as I can (at least in writing), and/or who do not have an audience. As an adult, I have a certain legitimacy, where a young child might not. I am able to be articulate in ways that a non-verbal or less verbal person might not be…As a college professor and an individual with some level of “success” in life I implicitly have the credibility that those who are even more profoundly affected by Sensory Differences might not be freely given by others.
SPD is not an “excuse” for me – I have a good life! – but it is very real and very challenging and as a label itdoes explain some of my lived experience. For some of us, including many children and people with autism/autistic people, SPD – while it may have its positive aspects (about which I have written before and will write again) – can make life quite difficult.
We may need help. We may need accommodations. We may need creative solutions and adaptations. We will need understanding.
Please believe us.
This post originally appeared on Full Spectrum Mama. You can read more from her there.
If you’d like to become a part of Voices of SPD on The Sensory Spectrum, please read about how to join Voices of SPD.
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f. humphreys says
when I got to the red hot brain drawing on face book, I knew I found something. only to fam. and very close friends I have explained the feeling as crawling hot worms in my brain. have tried to explain it to my neurologist too, who was treating me for another issue. he never asked any questions or followed up, obviously not something he felt competent to investigate further.
always have been a sensitive person, also very in- tune to other’s pain and suffering. last week visited ellis island, glad I was by myself, so I did not have to talk or explain my silence and tears. felt the raw emotions and trepidation oozing from the building. the 1000.000’s of human beings coming from far and wide, arriving in this total chaos of new impressions and a tower of babel languages. memories of arriving at kennedy in 1968 with my little baby in my arms.
also the same overwhelming feeling I experienced several years back, visiting a civil war battle field in virginia. driving through there, beautiful green, bucolic surroundings, the only thing I felt was an overwhelming sense of pain and terror. could not leave fast enough.
I became a nurse in my mid 40’s, a very bad decision looking back 30+ years later. it totally destroyed me, trying to keep up, the physical, mental but mostly the emotional expense. starting nursing school, I was already a basket case from the trials and tribulations coming to this country at age 22, being the first generation.
somehow survived a hateful in-law family, living in total poverty with a husband who worked barely 3 years out of 13. wanting ” to get out “, a very ugly divorce, a long ugly child custody case, losing my old but cozy home in a mid winter fire, no insurance!! ending up living in section 8 housing, with drug baggies and needles on the sidewalk, teenagers with enormous ” boom boxes ” in their cars, blasting day and night. unable to garden, having to give up my dogs, cats and chickens.
i always loved taking care of injured wild animals, to be a nurse should be a natural, and I needed an income to survive and provide for my children. the stress of college and still having two young kids at home crumbled more bricks from my being. later, working difficult and demanding long hours, having more and more duties and responsibilities piling up, realizing that nursing is for young and healthy people.
my bricks were crumbling faster and faster, trying to concentrate, doing the same work over and over, any noise distracting me, unable to finish my work in the allotted hours, giving up lunch, clocking out but staying later and later. finally, total destruction , could not drive a car, could not tolerate the sound of my own voice, any sound was unbearable noise, everything was like a bombardment, unable to filter out any and all sensations. my 2’d hospitalization in psychiatric hospital.
this was 10 years ago, today, to the outside I appear a fully functioning person, but i am an old crock with lots of cracks. my family knows how my life has changed, how limited I am with activities, how easily overwhelmed. glad I found this site, to read that others suffer like this too, that it has a name…. thank you.
I’m so glad you have learned to be kind to yourself. I too was a nurse, and while I loved the caring, nurturing side, I retired early because of the toll it takes. I wouldn’t change anything though. I’m glad for the contribution I made, and I’m sure yours was valuable as well.
Kate Stoune says
What a relief to know I am not alone in this feeling. You call it burning brain – I describe it as my head getting ready to explode. In fact, I tell those close to me, “My head is about to explode” so they understand that I quickly need quiet. It is the one of the most horrid feelings in the world, especially because there is no controlling it once past the point of no return. Thank you for sharing with us!