Saturday, September 14, 2019

Sensory overload

I’ve posted a few times before on introversion. Once again, last week we had a two-day leadership conference, which is always an intense experience. This time, the organizers kindly provided a quiet room for people to retreat to, to recharge during breaks, for which I’m thankful.

And, to be clear, these are fabulous events, a great opportunity to hear what’s going on outside our usual working horizons and to meet up with colleagues we don’t often get to see in person. But, unavoidably, they are very taxing on people who find crowds to be draining.

This time, I thought I’d talk a bit more specifically about what “draining” means in terms of sensory overload, and try to convey a sense of how it feels.

When I’ve been immersed for too long in a roomful of people, it gets tiring.

OK, that doesn’t sound too bad. You can fight off fatigue, can’t you? Well, yes, up to a point. But things quickly start to go downhill from there. Here are some of the less obvious sensations that I’m all too familiar with:

Regardless of general fatigue, when the noise level rises beyond a certain point I can’t make out speech any longer. I can hear people speaking across or along the table, but their words are nothing more than a mush of sound. More bizarrely, if someone is speaking nearby the syllables might be perfectly audible but they become incomprehensible. The closest analogy I can suggest is that it’s as if they’ve suddenly slipped into speaking a different language. As you can imagine, this makes dinner conversation in a noisy room impossible.

Moving around a crowded room becomes difficult. It’s as if my vision has narrowed down, I can’t pick out obstacles, and I feel off-balance. I have to plan out even the simplest movements like standing up or weaving between people and tables because I feel impossibly clumsy, as if my body and limbs have invisible extensions making them twice their normal size. I have to focus on the floor at my feet because otherwise I’m in serious danger of bumping into things.

Taking this further, the tunnel vision can get so bad that I don’t notice people moving nearby. So people seem to materialize in my path without warning. It feels a bit like I’m living in a time-lapse video where everything is disjointed and jerky. In extreme situations, I get frozen in place, trapped and unable to move.

Crowds are inherently stressful for an extreme introvert, but in everyday life I’ve learned to manage. But when my energy has been drained by too much exposure, the fight or flight response kicks in big time because everything now feels like a threat. Simply entering a room full of people, it feels like I’m fighting my way through a physical but invisible barrier, the urge to flee is so strong.

In a similar way, there seems to be an impenetrable barrier around other individuals. This makes it impossible to approach and talk to anyone, unless I happen to have a specific reason to do so ... I need to talk to you/ask you about X. This means that small talk is out of the question.

So, when I seem withdrawn and distant in the middle of a crowd I’m not trying to be rude, I’m just overloaded.


  1. Hi Ian - how very interesting ... another aspect of a person's life I hadn't thought about in such detail.

    I know I struggle to hear in a crowded space ... but hadn't thought about the other aspects ... something to consider when dealing with people in situations where there's a lot of noise.

    Thanks for this - really eye-opening ... cheers Hilary

  2. I understand. I don't experience the vision issues, but in a crowd, words blur into nonsense. It's like a loud, uneven drone.

  3. Hilary, the "lot of noise" is only a part of it. The other symptoms kick in from "person overload" regardless of noise levels.

    Alex, that sounds like it.

  4. I'm going to share this article with my son. I believe he endures this as well. My daughters are also introverts, but I'm not sure if they feel this. I'll have to ask them! Thanks for breaking it down for simple understand.

    I used to think I was an introvert, maybe I am to a certain degree

  5. Elizabeth, glad it was easy to understand. Just to be clear, though, most of these sensations only kick in once I've been over-exposed to other people and my coping reserves are drained. In small doses it's not a problem.

  6. Thanks for explaining this. As an unmitigated extrovert, being around a lot of people tends to energize me, so it's very interesting to learn about the opposite effect the same environment can have on more introverted people. The closest I ever come to experiencing anything similar to what you're describing is if music (or the television) is playing non-stop (especially if it's too loud) all day long. By the end of the day, I feel like screaming.

  7. Susan, I suspect anyone would reach that point if they are exposed too long to whatever drains rather than energizes them.

  8. Interesting post, Ian. I wonder if age comes into play? Recently, after a taxing week at work, I realized I was being really short with my husband and a family friend who had stopped by. I did a little introspection, and decided that there'd been too much noise, stress, general commotion--and way too many people to deal with that day. I needed distance and solitude to decompress. I never was that way before.


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