Sensory overload

I read this post by Laura Collins with interest this morning. The research she discusses is a study on the presence of autistic traits in recovered versus currently unwell anorexics. It’s a subject that I am fascinated by, because although I am not autistic, I have a lot of difficulties often associated with the condition. I have, as I said in my reply to Laura’s post, a tic disorder, OCD (now generally thought of as a neurological rather than psychological disorder), food allergies, sensory problems and aversions not related to my eating disorder. In fact, I spent most of therapy today talking about this subject. I am not under the illusion that these problems will lessen if I talk about them enough because they are not caused by emotional issues, they are physical and neurological, but I DO need to learn how to calm and control them better.

The tic disorder is an irritating thing. I have not been diagnosed with Tourette’s because I rarely develop phonic (vocal) tics, 99% of mine are motor tics. These are…they are difficult to describe. It feels like a repetitive muscular itch that can only be ‘scratched’ by contracting the muscle. They are not things that I want to do, and they are not like OCD rituals because in OCD, rituals are usually preceded by obsessive worrying about bad things happening if you don’t carry out the compulsive behaviours. A tic disorder has nothing to do with trauma or family difficulties, it is a neurological quirk, kind of like your brain misfiring. They do tend to get worse with stress, and in my case they also became very severe when I was put on antidepressants. When I was coming off effexor I felt like my tics were trying to take over my body, I couldn’t control them at all and I even developed a stutter that stopped me talking on one of the worst days. Yet another way in which medication and I don’t agree with eachother! Most of the time my tics don’t bother me too much, they irritate me but I mostly ignore them. But sometimes they can be quite distressing – I had facial tics for a while at school which was embarrassing as hell, and tics involving my eyes can become very painful. They tend to fluctuate in frequency and intensity and they also change every few months, so in January the main one might be quickly tensing and relaxing my calf muscles and by September it might have changed to blinking too much. Usually there’s one that happens most often and a whole host of other little interchangeable ones. Most people don’t notice unless they are with me when I’m anxious or excited, then they might ask me if I’ve got something in my eye/my leg hurts/my stomach is OK/etc.

My OCD is different to this. Mostly, I tidy things obsessively. I rearrange things that don’t look ‘right’, I can’t stand to be in the kitchen when it’s messy and I am always loading and unloading the dishwasher (my nemesis!). I’m not phobic of germs but I do end up washing my hands repeatedly beyond the point of necessity if I get something like milk on me. Milk makes me so sick that I have actually become phobic of it! I have also had problems with counting things in the past – when I was very ill in 2007 I counted EVERYTHING. It drove me nuts, I couldn’t walk anywhere without counting my steps. When I was a kid I counted the number of groups of three letters in words for a period of six months or so, which was highly irritating.

I’ve talked about my odd diet on my blog quite a bit, and I am fascinated by the alleged links between neurological and psychiatric disorders and food allergies/intolerances. My depression and anxiety have calmed down a lot since I cut out milk and wheat two years ago, and things have further improved since I started taking a multivitamin and extra supplements for nutrients I kept developing deficiencies in. I am not suggesting that everyone do this obviously, it can be very dangerous for someone in recovery from an eating disorder to make drastic dietary changes, but in my case the allergies/intolerances had been diagnosed by blood tests and it was necessary as my digestive system had virtually packed up. I have had a milk allergy since I was a baby (not all allergies cause anaphylaxis; I am allergic to milk but intolerant to all the other things on my list), and spent the first ten months of my life screaming because of the pain from the digestive problems it caused. I carried on eating it anyway as I got older and I often felt very nauseous and tired, but no one never made the connection. For seven years between the age of 9 and 16 I felt sick pretty much constantly and got to be a medical mystery. A large proportion of the neurotransmitters in your brain are manufactured in the gut, so it’s no wonder that people with digestive disorders often develop psychiatric and neurological disorders. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are also associated with depression and anxiety, and poor nutrient absorption due to damage in the digestive system can contribute to this. My immune system and emotional stability have never been as good as they are at the moment, and I am sure that changing my diet and treating the deficiencies helped with this improvement.

My sensory problems are not so easily controlled. Basically, I am really oversensitive – in the physical sense, not the emotional. Everyone has a tolerance level for things like noise, temperature, tiredness…caffeine 😛 and mine is lower than most. When I was with my ex I would have to leave his gigs sometimes because they were so loud they actually made me cry – when everyone else in the room was fine. I get palpitations after drinking a can of coke (although IBS dictates that fizzy drinks are entirely out these days). I start feeling sick and faint before most people in hot weather. I can’t cope with crowds, I panic due to the sensory overload. I got hypothermia in the Millennium Dome a few years ago! It wasn’t exactly warm in there but I was wearing three layers and nobody else there was shivering so much they almost threw up. My ex used to say that he thought I should be rolled in bubble wrap so there was an extra barrier between me and the world. It pisses me off SO MUCH that most people seem to think that this oversensitivity is a sign of character weakness or of being fussy, but it is REALLY not. For example: I was in Barcelona on holiday, and it was really hot so I was wearing a new dress. It was a very pretty dress, but unfortunately it was made from some material which…I can’t really explain it, but it made my skin crawl. I went out in it and within half an hour I was in so much discomfort it actually gave me a panic attack and I had to go back to the hotel and change.

This isn’t the same thing as not liking the feel of something, it’s more like it throws my nervous system into chaos. The same thing happens when my mum turns the radio on in the kitchen while I’m watching TV in the living room. I have to turn the television off because it overloads my brain to have two conflicting types of noise going on like that. When I’ve asked her if I could shut the door to the kitchen she has come into the living room to see what I’m talking about and told me that it’s easy to hear the TV over the radio, that she doesn’t like being shut in the kitchen and I am being ridiculous. I’m not meaning to be selfish or difficult; I just can’t ignore unwanted stimuli like most people can. In that situation, if I leave the TV on, I can’t shut the music out and I am fully conscious of it, it makes me more and more anxious and feeling like I’m listening to someone dragging their nails down a chalkboard. It’s so hard to describe but it causes such intense discomfort it’s impossible to sit with.

This sort of thing really affects my functioning. I can’t multitask. If I’m talking on the phone I can’t do anything else at the same time or I end up unable to listen to the other person. If I’m studying I can’t listen to music or nothing I read goes in. If I’m writing a post on my blog it takes me three times as long if the TV is on in the background. My favourite activities are those which involve my senses and concentration as much as possible without overwhelming them. Driving, going to the cinema and solving puzzles like sudoku are the things that calm me the most. When I was learning mindfulness skills I quickly discovered that if I was asked to concentrate on one sense – such as looking at a picture or listening for sounds in the building – I couldn’t do it. I was willing, I did try, but my attention would fly off every two seconds and things didn’t improve even after a year of practise. In contrast, if more than one sense was involved in the task – if I was given something like a stone, which I could hold and feel and study the colours and textures and weight – then I could focus on that almost indefinitely without becoming distracted at all.

I am, however, my own worst enemy. I get almost as anxious at being understimulated as I do at being overstimulated, and I find it almost impossible to concentrate on one thing at a time if it’s not engaging enough cognitively. I often end up trying to do five things at once so I don’t get anxious and finding myself unable to concentrate on any of them. I had problems at school because sitting still for an hour just listening to the teacher was so understimulating sensory-wise that I would start feeling horribly trapped, panicky, itchy and generally psychologically uncomfortable. When I had a summer job at the age of 18 the experience of 4/8/12 hours of standing around doing nothing would make me feel like throwing myself through the shop window – not through boredom, through panic from not having anything stimulating enough to do to keep me calm. I would end up standing behind the sweet counter hitting myself with the toffee hammer to keep myself from having a panic attack. And this is the problem I face now, really.

When I was anorexic I didn’t have these problems to this degree. The anorexia dampened everything down, made it far more manageable and less overwhelming. It was like being constantly on valium. Being starved and malnourished does something physical to my brain which actually HELPS me to function. Of course it also ruins my health, destroys my desire to socialise, makes me obsess about food to the cost of everything else, gradually lowers my mood until I don’t care if I live or die as long as I weigh less tomorrow, and steals my personality, turning me into a scary skinny zombie. So I think this is probably not a good long term strategy 😛 But there’s no escaping the fact that this is why I was able to study endlessly when I was very underweight, and why I am having problems with my physics work now I am weight restored. It also doesn’t bode very well for my attempts at getting a job. I would actually go crazy in an office job, and I mean that literally, not in a spoilt-little-princess-doesn’t-want-to-work way. The lack of stimulation would fry my brain. I would end up constantly fighting the urge to hide in the toilets and hyperventilate or self harm like I did at school. I am not giving in to the eating disorder because that is a sticking plaster, not a cure, and not only that but it’s a sticking plaster that releases poison into your body and slowly kills you, to extend the metaphor to breaking point! But I am also not sure how I go about dealing with this healthily so I can be a functioning member of society. Yeah, sorry for writing this post before I have thought of a solution 😉 if it helps, I know what ISN’T the answer…

I have a feeling that this is a very convoluted post that nobody is going to get to the end of. It’s hard trying to put this sort of thing into words. But apparently these problems are common in people with eating disorders, so maybe some of you will be less confused and uninterested than I fear. Quick poll – does anyone else out there relate to any of this? Have you found anything that helps? That is, anything not involving food or lack there of!

Three good things about today:
1. Julie somehow made sense of my virus induced hypomania, which is kind of astonishing because I thought I was talking crap!
2. I MADE VEGAN MACARONI CHEESE FOR DINNER!!! This deserves to be in capitals, because it was YUM. I hadn’t ever seen a cheese sauce substitute that didn’t involve yeast, which I am also intolerant to, before Aisha posted this link a month or so ago. I made it for myself and my sister (obviously I had corn pasta instead of wheat!) and she really liked it too 🙂 Aisha, you are my hero! It was IBS in a bowl – garlic, cayenne, lemon juice and mustard were involved – so I will probably suffer tomorrow, but it was sooooooo worth it.
3. I only have two more questions to do for the physics assignment which is due in next Thursday, yay 🙂


13 responses to “Sensory overload

  1. This is really interesting. Of course, it makes sense that anorexia “dampened” things down, making them more manageable…but I’m so happy that you’ve made it work without anorexia! I can relate to a lot of this. I have some strange OCD tendencies, like I can’t stand if a DVD sleeve is on the table if the DVD is in the player. I have to reunite them. Ha. I have a general sense of order that seems to make perfect sense to me, though I’m sure it’s odd to others. I also share with you a pretty extreme sensitivity. The smallest amount of caffeine, for example, makes me feel like I’m on speed.
    I also think it’s really interesting that you’ve seen this connection between your diet and treating deficiencies and your emotional well-being. The neurotransmitter-gut connection is fascinating. I’m not sure how this applies to me, but I have an intuitive feeling that it does 🙂
    Anyway, thanks for your insights. I’m going to read the Laura Collins post 🙂

  2. lunchiemunchies

    This is so interesting- I read Laura’s article and can definitely believe that proper nutrition has an effect on lessening the symptoms of psychological illnesses like autism. Considering when I was very physically ill due to starvation, obsessions in everything( not just food related things) were very pronounced. e.g. I had an emotional breakdown and was hysterically crying and physically shaking over a missing teaspoon! It sounds utterly ridiculous now but the feelings were very real to me at the time. I spent most of my time an emotional wreck. BUT, rituals and obsessions have definitely lessened considerably with improved nutrition and a healthier weight.
    On the hyper-sensitivity note, this perhaps is a completely different issue in my case but I was diagnosed when very young with dyspraxia and was told and just read:
    “It is seen that dyspraxics have a hightened sensitivity to physical stimuli like touch, light, sound. This might make them intolerable to certain textures and fabrics, light, loud music or environs and even the touch of a fellow human being. Due to this heightened activity of sensory organs in the body, the dyspraxics are often prone to panic attacks as well.”
    Check out this site for more info

    Anyway I’m not really sure what I’m getting at so I’m just gonna leave it there!

    • themilkfreeway

      Thank you for that, it’s interesting! I don’t have dyspraxia (I am actually very co-ordinated, you should see my poi spinning video 😉 ) but I really think that all of these conditions are linked in some way. They all seem to have a lot to do with the way that the brain processes information. There’s a similar issue in anorexia in which sufferers may be able to see what their body looks like as a whole in a mirror, but cannot judge the size of individual parts of their body. Ah research, how I love thee.

  3. This can be a slightly confusing topic to understand or explain, I do get what your getting at but I dont really have an explaination or solution to it.
    I always was a neat person but since developing an ed Ive become more particular about things, messy rooms annoy me, in my kitchen I like the jars turned a certain way, I dont like things out of place, plugs being left on annoy me and even if my bedroom is clean on the outside I can almost feel the stuffed drawers and feel like I have to clean them to! I also tend to overwash my hands a bit. So while my ed has heightened some things like that it managed to numb and lessen others, I used to be very paranoid among other people and feel like they were looking at me and thinking about me etc but when I developed my ed I become numb to this, I didnt care if people looked or what they thought and it was nice in a way. Now since I am getting better Ive notcied I am starting to feel that paranoid feeling again.
    I wish I knew a proper explaination to all this, I find it quite confusing but very fascinating to read about how our brains work andhow certain things make us think.
    Ive tried to challenge myself a litle at times to break some of the obsessiveness like if I leave the ktichen to go watch tv and suddenly think did I turn the plug off? Instead of racing back to check I proceed to watch tv and rationalise with myself I can always turn it off when I go back later if its on. Little things like that can help.

  4. Confused? Uninterested? Not in the slightest. I can relate to every single word of this post and I honestly thought I was alone in so many of the issues which you and I seem to share.

    The link between digestive disorders and psychological disorders is such a fascinating one for me…unfortunately nothing I have eliminated from my diet has alleviated my symptoms significantly but perhaps these things take time. I have been placed as being mildly autistic but not to such a degree that one would clinically diagnose ‘autism’ due to my social anixety problems, inability to read body language and verbal social signals correctly, occasional tics (though nothing even approaching the level that you have to deal with!) and sensory issues.

    I’ll be honest and say I was just ready to explode with relief when I read the paragraphs relating to overstimulation/understimulation. I’m having such a bad morning and reading that made me cry because I know that I’m not completely on my own in being driven to distraction by conflicting noises, rough materials and less than stimulating jobs. It’s not that I don’t want to work; I’ve tried often enough! It’s just that after an hour I literally start to corrode psychologically and it ends up with me in a panic attack, twitching uncontrollably. After one four hour shift at Next when I was twenty I curled up, hugging my knees and rocking from side to side for an hour afterwards because I was so monumentally unstable from the lack of distraction. I can be disproportionately aggressive when there are conflicting noises like the tv/radio on at the same time. When I’m trying to read and study or write essays, I have to compete with my Mum listening to the radio and my Dad watching the T.V with the volume cranked up to almost its maximum level. He doesn’t understand why I get so angry and shout at him for it (after asking politely for it to be turned down and being ignored) but the nails on a chalkboard analogy you used is incredibly appropriate.

    And, like you, when I was underweight these problems lessened. I have two coping strategies when the OCD (going up and down the stairs a certain number of times is my current one), sensory overloads and stimulation issues get too much (well, three I suppose): restricting (haven’t done since I was eighteen to any severe degree), bingeing (which I fight with daily) and overexercising (um…no comment). They’re the only things which seem to calm me down.

    I am in the same boat as you really and wish that I could offer some constructive advice apart from emphasising that our problems are perhaps not as unusual as we think. I don’t know how on earth I’ll ever be able to function in a working environment either. I can just about hold it together at Uni because I am constantly learning and the days are never the same, but put me in an office? I think I’d end up, as you so aptly put it, throwing myself out of a window.

    Hope the Mac&Cheese doesn’t give you too many reprecussions ~ it sounds lovely!


    • themilkfreeway

      Jessica, if I work out a decent way of handling this, you will be the very first person I tell ❤
      This is weird but the IBS isn't giving me any hassle at all this morning! It's so unpredictable. Still, not complaining. Maybe there were so many potential IBS triggers in that dinner that I went straight through IBS and came out the other side 😛

  5. The incidence of AN is higher in individuals with aspergers and on the ASD spectrum, so I actually think numerous people would relate to this.

    I know that I relate to almost all of it… but for me its very connected to the CFS… but then AN, CFS, ASD, OCD and Tourettes are all commonly linked neurologically now so that’s not a huge surprise I guess.

    I don’t have huge amts of energy to write much more other than to say, that I do have many of the same issues that you have…. for me they’re all made a million times worse if I’m tired (which often happens also if one of the symptoms is more severe thus making me more tired).

    Good luck on working through options and answers, that you will do this I am sure of 🙂


  6. Fascinating post Katie – almost all of which I can identify with… I am yet to read Laura’s post.

    I do have many traits on the autism spectrum and it’s something my psychiatrist and I have discussed particularly recently – because it hinders my full recovery. My father and brother also have these traits and might well be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome if they were evaluated. The starvation of anorexia definitely enhanced my traits, however, these traits were present in me pre-anorexia and partly accounted for my ‘demise’ into anorexia – in that I found the social transition from childhood to adolescence (as well as puberty itself) far too distressing. Academically I was very advanced for my age, but socially I was not. Anorexia was a retreat into my own obsessive little world and I actually welcomed the isolation it brought. That’s partly why I stuck in the illness for 30 years…

    The autism spectrum is a huge spectrum and ASDs in girls often express quite differently to the way that they express in girls – in that girls tend to become withdrawn and passive, while boys may be aggressive.

    Thanks for you e-mail Katie – I need to go out now, but I’ll respond to you when I get back home 🙂

  7. Forgive me in advance if this is rambling…I will try to touch on most of what your say in your post:

    When I am undernourished and actively engaged in ED I am more easily able to function as a teacher (although miserable inside). The starvation turns down the noises in my head which then makes it easier to focus on all the sensory overload that is going on in the classroom. In fact my most recent relapse was accelerated when I started student teaching in my graduate program a couple years ago and my mother was in recovery from breast cancer. My coping must have been to tune myself out so that I could even begin to cope with everything else around me.

    Overstimulated versus under stimulated. A very difficult balance. I find that when I don’t have enough going on around me the noise in my head tends to get louder and I get sucked into the vortex of myself. On the other hand I get very annoyed by too much stimulation. Or at least stimulation I don’t have control over. Music coming from other apartments, the feeling of clothing on my body (“easily” controlled by ED), kids making odd noises in the classroom. I do find though that being stimulated on many leaves via things i can control or “soft” stimuli like soft music, scented candles, low light, and meditative things like water gardens helps to quiet the noise, especially right now as I am refeeding and dealing with the intense stimulation of that.

    My studying concentration was always pretty good when ED was active. I could sit and study and do well in school. Right now when I SHOULD be studying for the MCAT (med school admissions test)? Studying is impossible.

    And lastly for the relationship between preexisting physical/mental problems with ED. I have had OCD since I was 8. It isn’t as much of an issue anymore as I have learned how to cope with those counting urges and doing things many times until I got the right number, as that is the form mine always took. I still get the urges occasionally, but I am able to tell them to shut up and if that “bad” thing is going to happen, then well I guess it will just have to happen. Guess what? It never has. Nevermind that I never figured out what that “bad” thing was.

    Stomach problems. I’ve had stomach discomfort since I was a child and have had increased food intolerance, heartburn, delayed gastric emptying, and IBS as a result of the years of anorexia. I have realized in recent months that my behavior in not eating was a way to control all those symptoms. If I didn’t eat the symptoms didn’t happen. Many of the women I have spoken with recently regarding their ED’s have told me about digestive problems that preceded the illness. This is fascinating to me. I really hope research is being done in this area. There has to be a relationship between digestive issues and ED development.

    Phew, long reply. As always awesome post Katie!

  8. Pingback: I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo « Totally Detached

  9. I follow your blog and every now and again I have little epiphanies from your entries. The understimulation is exactly the concept I was trying to articulate to the psychiatrist recently. I already know I can’t deal with overload (I understand the material on the skin touchy thing. I almost throw tantrums over it. Ripping my clothes off. Crying. It’s not pretty).

    I’m really fascinated by the understimulation though. I was talking about this recently as I’m just coming off a sneaky little psychotic epsisode. I was trying to explain to ppl that I thought it stemmed from the problems I was having with lectures. I was able to engage well with lab classes as I was required to actively ‘do’ stuff. But lectures, where I was sitting there passively? Forget it. Psychologically uncomfortable is exactly the descriptor. It got progressively worse over several weeks as I seemed to retreat from what was going on outside and got caught up with the inside and ta dah I became psychotic. In hindsight, the earlier psychotic experiences seemed to plug the cognitive gap almost. Not a perfect analogy, but the voices provided extra stimulation where the lecturer wasn’t quite enough. I probably won’t tell my lecturers that bless em.

    A lot of this is with the benefit of hindsight. Well, I experienced something similar to what you described. I later experienced psychosis. It’s just my inferrence that connects the two. I could be completely wrong.

    Thankyou for writing this. Saturday night revelations are the best.

  10. I’m one of those people who truly beleives nutrition and deficiencies help everything, but most people tell me to shush (mainly my family).
    I’m glad you tried and liked that macaroni recipe, I will actually try one day making the proper recipe maybe… I hope you didn’t suffer too much today from it.
    Also woo on the assignment, good luck on the last two questions, I still have not done my essay.

  11. I definitely can relate to this post, but it seems like I might function a bit in the reverse! I can multitask quite well most of the time, but I guess it depends on what I’m doing and what is serving as the “background noise.” Sometimes, I can just hear quiet around me and it makes me want to jump out of my skin. But the same thing is apt to happen when it’s too chaotic… and it’s completely unpredictable as to when I will have which reaction, which just makes it worse.

    This also struck me:
    I couldn’t walk anywhere without counting my steps. When I was a kid I counted the number of groups of three letters in words for a period of six months or so, which was highly irritating.

    That happens to me a lot — I walk while counting my steps without even realizing I’m doing it. It’s not irritating, per se, since it isn’t like I think that something awful will happen if I don’t do it, and if I lose count, I have to go back to my starting point and start all over again, but still. I don’t like numbers! And counting the number of groups of three letters, or some variation thereof, is also something I did as a kid. I still do it sometimes, again without realizing or intending to. And that IS annoying.

    Obviously, me and my poor solution-finding skills haven’t found one yet!… But if / when I do, you will be the first to know. 🙂

    ❤ ❤

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