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 2020, September 26 from

Author: Beth Avery

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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.

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.

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