Warning: possible minor plot spoilers
I know others have already described it, but since everyone is different, I thought I would have a go at it as well.
For me it’s primarily auditory, though it does lead to a kind of tunnel vision, not an actual blackout.
The way I usually try to describe it is to imagine you just got super hearing and don’t know how to control it yet. In the comics, the heroes/villains usually learn to control it and use it when they want to. When they first get those powers it’s normally very overwhelming and seems to cause agony.
It’s similar to stories where a character gains the ability to hear the thoughts of others and are overwhelmed by it. There are episodes of Buffy and Smallville that come to mind, Perhaps the younger Charles Xavier in Days of Future Past? Even General Zod in the recent Man of Steel movie had an encounter with sensory overload and had to retreat because of it.
I might also compare it to River Tam from Firefly. Her character had operations on her brain that literally forced her to “feel everything” and made it difficult for her to function as herself.
In reality it’s not super hearing or hearing the thoughts of others but instead is a filtering issue. From what I understand a “normal” person actually filters or stops hearing when focusing on a conversation, things fade out of the conscious mind and they will hear what they’re focusing on.
So it might seem like I’m hard of hearing in crowded places, but it’s more that I’m hearing everything else as well, and multiple voices tend to just cancel each other out, including the person I’m trying to listen to. It really depends on proximity and how the sound is traveling in the room. In some areas, sound naturally blends together unless you’re too close. This affects me while watching TV or talking to someone on the phone for example if someone else starts talking at the same time, even if they’re whispering. To a lesser degree I know that can happen to anyone on the phone.
I always refer to it as sensory “bombardment” and it does feel like a kind of pain. It is highly stressful. I’ve learned to simply endure longer and suppress it to some extent over the years. I also get a strange sense of overload with eye contact.
When I was a kid I could never explain why I wanted to go sit in the car after shopping for a long enough period, nor why I didn’t want to go into a crowded noisy restaurant. Like I mentioned before, schools were also a source of overload.
Even today in Comic Cons for example, I’ve found the need to find less crowded areas to retreat to and just sit and relax for a while, focusing on breath, before going back to crowded areas. I do find it difficult to function and think clearly in those situations, I usually compensate by pre-planning or having a notepad with me. I do think of it as “short circuiting” my thoughts but I usually do well enough to pass for normal. I know some use headphones to compensate, but personally with the PTSD issues, shutting off that sense just makes me feel insecure about being able to sense a threat. There are times when I do close my eyes to shut off sensory to focus on listening.
Usually I end up doing a lot of processing after a big event like a Comic Con later in the evening, I feel all the stress that I was suppressing and have to decompress for a while.
Then there’s music, certain styles of verbal music I can’t enjoy at all and find very disruptive, while others I find soothing such as Enya.
There’s several videos on youtube that are meant to simulate sensory overload, I’ll share a few below. Since it’s a diverse spectrum, no one is exactly alike and it does vary. Some get overloaded much more easily than I do and the response is much more severe. I also don’t have any major issue with motor skills.
First up is the Wal-Mart video, probably my favorite. Note that some of these are intentionally LOUD.
It’s not that severe for me, I can still focus and see what I want to look at, but other visual details, especially faces don’t register much. I don’t perceive actual artifacts in my vision, things just stop registering.
Next, the walk on the street.
Brightness is exaggerated for effect, sunglasses work fine in my case. I tend to feel uneasy about crossing busy streets though, like I’m going to miss a key sensory queue due to distraction.
Next is Carly’s perspective, which goes well beyond what I experience.
There are certain circumstances(not dangerous so far) where I “go into my mind” and stop functioning in the physical world, but it’s something I can snap out of and doesn’t compare.
One more, there are other video that have circulated around I could link if there’s interest.
I did have some friends in school, but I don’t need two hands to count them.
Let me make this abundantly clear, many schools ARE sensory overload environments, which leads me to my next post about more cruel punishments and abuse for having overload in schools or institutes.