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Stress and Sensory Overload

by Greg Baker  
4/21/2010 / Christian Living


Stress, as most know, is a combination of mental and physical fatigue. I pastor a Church and deal with it both personally and in counseling. I even wrote a short booklet on it. Your mind and body are connected. Worry, fear, anxiety, and such things add to the body's stress as well. A body that is rundown, exhausted, or sick can impact your mental state as well. Stress is unavoidable. It is part of life. We feel it any time there is pressure--pressure to perform, pressure to be somewhere, pressure to do something, pressure to be something. All of this is stress.

Stress can compound itself when our bodies can't handle well the input that we receive through our senses. We have the basic five: smell, touch, taste, hear, and sight. When we deluge these senses with outside stimuli it then impacts both our bodies and our mental stability.

We've all watched movies or read articles about a form of torture that involves sensory overload or even sensory deprivation. Ever felt chills when someone raked their fingers down a chalkboard? Ever had multiple people talking to you at once and shouted for everyone to be quiet?

Of all the sense, our hearing is the one that is most susceptible to sensory overload. There are more nerve endings that gather in or near the ears than anywhere else in the body. So when we talk of sensory overload, the first and most important one that must be dealt with is that which we hear. The second one, and one with significantly less impact, is our sight.

These two, more than the others, impact our stress levels. They focus the mind on it so that we can't tune things out, or set them aside, or let it pass. The intense focus on something that stabs at our senses will add to our levels of stress.

We live in a society where noise and images are the primary means of gaining attention. You drive down the street and see billboards and signs. You watch TV and have images flashing rapidly at you with the often overwhelming number of sounds and noises. Movies can be stressful for people. They give children nightmares, they can cause sleep deprivation. I go into people's houses and notice that the TV is on and no one is watching. They don't even realize that the images and noise is constantly on. You can say that their senses have been overwhelmed.

I've even found a correlation between children diagnosed with ADD and their environment at home. When the house is loud, noisy, and generally in a clamor, children can't seem to absorb it well and often end up with attention spans much less than other children. It is a form of stress. I've observed teenagers that have to have music playing all the time, even when they go to sleep, tend to be more nervous and stressful than others. The constant input of sound and sight can be overwhelming.

Many of the techniques for reducing stress such as meditation, yoga, and so forth all put you in an environment or state of mind that is sensory deprived. They seek to quiet your mind and feelings, get you away from the noise and sights. For me, I simply go somewhere quiet and read a book. No matter what goes on in the book, I am in a state where I'm not dealing with so many sights and sounds.

I worry about people who are unable to enjoy quietness. People who have to have music playing, have to have noise and sounds around them constantly usually are more uptight, more nervous, and more stressed. Learn to enjoy a time of quietness, of peace, where there are no or few noise. If you must have music, have something very soft with no rock beat, something gentle.

And you can't discount a person's emotional state. The more sensitive our emotions, the more impact sensory input can affect it. A parent who had a bad day at work and comes home to loud and rambunctious children will quickly grow stressed with the noise and often react improperly. A wife having a bad marriage will find herself unable to deal with the pressures of her job, especially if she works in a loud environment.

I've had many people say that watching TV actually calms them. But my personal observations on the issue are that TV is only a temporary and often inadequate solution. Too many things are thrown at your ears and eyes for your brain to process well. It doesn't reduce your stress so much as it hides it for a bit.

Another solution people turn to is music. But overwhelmingly loud music isn't stress relief, it is hiding. Personal observation and years of counseling have convinced me that the best music is soft background music. Something that eases the senses and emotions not overwhelms them. Think about it, people who listen to such loud music, do they even look relaxed?

SUGGESTIONS

1. Reduce stress by finding somewhere each day where you can be in an environment of calm and peace.

2. Before entering a loud environment, make sure that your emotions are not overly sensitive.

3. Meditate on something pleasant. I usually meditate on my God, my Saviour, and the Bible. I find great peace and comfort from this. I shut out almost all sensory input and just think. It provides great strength for the day. Prayer is a wonderful tool that I use to reduce stress and prepare for the day.

4. Use your imagination more than sensory input to stimulate your mind. We watch way too much TV and don't read enough. Write, read, or think, but don't let the world feed you your thoughts with sounds and images all the time.

5. Make your home a castle of peace. I see to it that the home is a place where we can find peace and calm. The more chaotic your house is with TV, yelling, arguing, fighting, negative sights, and tense emotions the more stressful everyone is going to be. There is an incredibly strong correlation between this and a child with ADD.

Stress is unhealthy. Although we can never rid ourselves completely of it, we can do a lot to control it.

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