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Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the moment? It can happen when your five senses - hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch - simply take in more information than your brain can process. Learn how to untangle that mental knot with the help of psychologist Grace Tworek.

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How to Dial Down Sensory Overload with Grace Tworek, PsyD

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Hey there, and welcome to another Health Essentials Podcast. I'm John Horton, your host. Today, we're going to talk about what happens when your five senses, hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch, start taking in far more information than your brain can process. You've no doubt experienced what's called sensory overload. This mental meltdown can be almost paralyzing when it hits, it can turn you into the human equivalent of a blue-screened computer. So, how can you reboot when that happens? That's what we're going to find out today from psychologist Grace Tworek. Dr. Tworek is one of the many experts at Cleveland Clinic who pop into our weekly podcast to help you gain a better understanding of your health. Now, let's start running some diagnostics on that head of yours and find out what's going on.

Dr. Tworek, always fabulous to get a few minutes with you. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Grace Tworek: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so glad to be here in this new kind of format. It's very exciting.

John Horton: It's a lot of fun. And I got to say, I always enjoy talking with you. And it seems like, every time we talk, the focus is on this powerful connection between the mind and the body, and basically, how a mental hiccup can be so overwhelming for people.

Dr. Grace Tworek: Absolutely, and I think this is a really timely topic, too, as we head into the holidays, because sometimes, those things can sneak up on us when we're looking forward to something or excited about it, it can start to feel overwhelming and we might even be confused as to why.

John Horton: Well, and that's a perfect intro for what we're talking about today, which is sensory overload. Let's just start with a basic explanation of what sensory overload is and what can trigger it.

Dr. Grace Tworek: A good way to explain sensory overload can really be when any of our senses, sight, sound, taste, smell, all of them start to feel overwhelming and kind of trigger a physiological response. That response can feel different for different people, but some examples might be sweating, trembling, when you can start to feel the heat rise to your cheeks, those feelings of overwhelm where the alarm system is going off in our body, and this can be triggered by lots of different sensations, and it's really that sympathetic nervous system kind of letting us know something is up.

John Horton: Well, it's interesting you said your body, because I think you think of sensory overload and you just think it's like your head gets, you just get confused, but you're saying there's actually just a physical response that you can get, too.

Dr. Grace Tworek: It can be confusing to put the two together. Sometimes two, right? Because we might not be certain what's setting off the sensory overload, and it could be something that we're hearing or seeing or just a way that we feel, like for some people feeling crowded, or in a crowded room, or in a place where they feel like they can't quite get out. And our body responds to that, and one of the side effects of our body responding is then our mind can start going as well, almost like it's on a hamster wheel, and it's just running away with whatever we're experiencing.

John Horton: I always think of it just that there's so much happening, it's like a traffic jam in your head. And is that what's going on, there's just so much coming from in different directions that you just don't know how to handle it all?

Dr. Grace Tworek: Yes, it's like there is a tunnel for input and there is so much coming in that we're experiencing a traffic jam. We're kind of like the bottleneck. If you think about attributing it to a traffic jam, the same kind of thing happening with all the different sensory input that our body is getting.

John Horton: Now, this can happen to anybody, right?

Dr. Grace Tworek: It certainly can happen to anybody. There are also certain people that might be more susceptible to experiencing this kind of experience of sensory overload. And what I mean by that is, particularly children can experience this a little bit more often because they may not have the same methods of communication that an adult might have to explain what is going on and what they're experiencing. Also, some children who experience autism spectrum disorder can be more sensitive to certain stimuli. So, for example, wearing clothing can feel very overwhelming, like long sleeved shirts to some children. Because all of those different sensations that they're experiencing on their skin can feel like a lot and can feel like overload. The same thing can happen to adults, maybe they've experienced something traumatic in their past and there may be a sound, a smell or a memory that's coming back and causing some of these sensations to feel as if they're overflowing.

John Horton: Now, is there a pattern to where sensory overload starts to hit you? Does it kind of start in one aspect and then flow through, or can it hit any which way?

Dr. Grace Tworek: It can hit differently for different people and we can start to establish patterns with different people by determining if there is a certain sensation that seems to trigger a sense or a feeling of overwhelm or overload. What I mean by that is, we might be able to break down if there's a certain triggering location, sound for a certain individual that causes all of these symptoms I talked about to be triggered, and it almost feels like, the ball starts rolling and it's a snowball effect, and it grows and becomes overwhelming. So, if we can determine what those specific triggers are, that can be really helpful for us to determine, kind of a game plan for how we can interact in this scenario without it feeling so overwhelming.

John Horton: Can you go over some of the symptoms? I know we touched on them a little bit, but I mean the first one that comes to mind is just sweating. You get in some of those situations and you just, like you said, you get a little flush, you actually start sweating a bit. What other sort of symptoms could you have?

Dr. Grace Tworek: There's lots of different symptoms that might occur. These can be feeling cognitively overwhelmed, like we talked about. Like, a traffic jam is happening, or a hamster wheel is going, and these thoughts are just racing. Sometimes, people experience tightness in their chest. It feels a little bit more difficult to breathe. They might feel trapped, shaky, even dizziness, sweating, all of these sorts of things are kind of a good short-term indicator that stress response is kicking in. That sympathetic nervous system has been triggered, and this can impact actually quite a few different systems within our body. We might start to experience nausea as well. We might start to just feel as if we need to escape from whatever is causing these symptoms.

John Horton: Well, and that leads us into the next question, which is, how can you break that spell of sensory overload when it hits?

Dr. Grace Tworek: Absolutely. When it hits, there's obviously quite a few exercises that we can use, but in a really good caveat that I always like to present is, while there are things we can do in the moment to reduce that experience and slow everything down, it's actually really helpful if we practice these outside of the context of feeling overwhelmed as well. It's almost like we're building up a resilience to overwhelm. And some of these different strategies, while they might seem pretty simple, it's about how often we practice them. So, not necessarily how complex they are, but how consistently we engage in them. These can be deep breathing exercises, meditation, guided imagery, and there's lots of different places that we can find these things. We can find wonderful meditations on YouTube, different applications, but lots of different breathing exercises that we can do by ourselves in the moment and practice pretty regularly throughout the day.

John Horton: Can you walk us through one, you start feeling that traffic jam starting to go and you're like, oh, I'm getting that overload feeling. What can you do right then in that moment?

Dr. Grace Tworek: Sure. Right then and there, one of my absolute favorite exercise is what we call serial three breathing or three-three-three breathing. And all we do is, we use the number three in three sets, hence serial threes, to guide our breathing and slow the breath down. So, we breathe in through our nose.

John Horton: Hey, I'll do it with you. Deep breath in?

Dr. Grace Tworek: In through the nose, two, three, hold, two, three, and out through the mouth. Two, three. We'll do it again, in, two, three, hold, two, three and out through the mouth. Two, three. And a nice thing about this exercise is we're targeting two different things. Physiologically, we are slowing down that breath. We're going at a rate of about nine seconds for a full breath. But then also, we are focusing our mind in on the counting. So, our brain and our body are coming together to focus in on one exercise that we're doing, which can be really helpful if our mind is racing and if our body's feeling overwhelmed. So, we're taking both of these systems, we're focusing them in on one exercise that's relatively easy, but requires focus of the brain and the body.

John Horton: And I take it that's the key there, is that you're taking, or something, there's so much going on and so much confusion, you're just trying to focus on one thing. And I take it that just kind of clears everything away. It's like a little temporary, a little reboot that goes on.

Dr. Grace Tworek: And by slowing down the breath, we're also taking a nice deep oxygen rich filled breath, which will slow down that heart rate. And a lot of those symptoms that come along with the overwhelm will start to back away slowly as well, which can give our body a little bit of a break, and then our brain a chance to reset and reevaluate the situation.

John Horton: Well, as always, whenever I talk with you, I always feel better afterward. So, is there anything else you'd like to add, or anything that we kind of missed during our discussion?

Dr. Grace Tworek: I don't think there's anything that we missed, but all I can say is practice, practice, practice is key. There might be times when using an exercise like this doesn't feel super effective in the moment, that's totally normal. That will be like us going to one basketball practice and then wondering why we are not in the NBA, championships, right? We've got to practice and we have to give our body that opportunity to fine-tune some of these skills. So, that's totally normal, but the more we practice, the better we get and the more effective it feels in the face of overwhelm and overstimulation.

John Horton: And with the idea of that, how often should you do it? Is it just something you should try occasionally during the day, like when you're at work and you start feeling things kind of getting a little hectic, or you're in traffic, you're at the store, how often should you do it?

Dr. Grace Tworek: Every day, is a great rule of thumb. I know that sounds like a lot, but we don't need a whole lot. Slipping in a few moments here and there and at different times can be really helpful for your body as well because we're teaching our body, hey, it's OK to relax. We just pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store. It's also OK to relax when we're about to head to bed or when we're popping into the shower. We're teaching our body how to relax in lots of different scenarios. So, just a few minutes to focus on an exercise, allow your body to relax and have a lot of really wonderful long-term benefits.

John Horton: Yeah, that sounds great, Dr. Tworek. Hey, thank you so much for joining us today, and looking forward to having you back on.

Dr. Grace Tworek: Thank you so much. I'm so glad to be here.

John Horton: The next time you're beginning to feel overwhelmed, try some of the tips suggested by Dr. Tworek to regain control. Some simple coping mechanisms may be all you need to avoid a mental blue screen. Till next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials. Brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, or visit ClevelandClinic.org/HEpodcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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