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February 20, 2024

June 1, 2022

Battling Sensory Overload as a Mom: Drowning Out the Noise Takes More Than Just Earplugs

E:
123
with
Larissa Geleris
Occupational Therapist

What You'll Learn

  • Why Noise Is So Triggering
  • How Auditory Information Works With Our Sensory System
  • The Internal Factors that Play Into Sensory Overload as a Mom
  • How to Manage Situations Where Noise is Particularly Triggering
  • Why It’s Important To Build Regulation Skills

Sensory overload as a mom is difficult to manage. In a house full of chaos and noise, it’s easy to become overstimulated. But why does this happen? What causes it in our bodies? And what can we do to keep calm and drown out the noise? 

To answer these questions, I welcomed occupational therapist Larissa Geleris, WarriorOT, back to the podcast. In episode 73 Larissa shared tips for coping with overstimulation in motherhood. Today she’s back to talk specifically about how noise triggers us and what we can do about it.

Sometimes I Just Can’t Handle the Noise

The Ninja Training Camp in my house often looks (and sounds) like chaos. There are times when I love it—the sounds of the boys giggling and having fun while they run around, climb, and play. 

Other times, though, the noise level starts to get under my skin. It reaches a point where I have to shut it out or run the risk of entering Rage Mom Mode.

The noise level starts to get under my skin.

This sensation is something I often hear from clients as well. The noise can feel smothering, overwhelming, and even painful. It triggers stress, irritation, and Mom Rage

From a therapist standpoint, I understand why this happens—we’re at capacity for dealing with stimulation, due to too many tasks, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and simply a lack of being able to spend time alone to reset. 

But in my conversation with Larissa, I wanted to dive into the OT side of things to understand more of the auditory science behind overstimulation. 

Why Noise Is So Triggering

At the most basic level, noise is triggering because your auditory system is meant to be triggered by it. We receive input from sound, which then triggers a reaction in our bodies.

But sometimes, noises that shouldn’t be threats do trigger us. Noise can be triggering to anyone, but it’s very common for moms to experience sensory overload. Larissa shared that there are a variety of reasons why noise can cause more of a reaction in some people than others. 

There are a handful of auditory disorders that could play a role. Hyperacusis (experiencing sound as extra loud), misophonia (a strong aversion toward certain sounds, often related to anxiety or OCD), and phonophobia (fear of sound) can contribute to being triggered by noise. 

But even in the absence of auditory disorders, our sensory systems can be more primed toward defense as a default response to sound. This can happen because of trauma, neurodivergence, or genetics. 

For many moms, however, the biggest reason why noise is triggering is that our role is to protect our children, and our nervous systems are primed for that. 

Ultimately, when we get triggered by noise it’s because our system is primed toward defense. 

How Auditory Information Works With Our Sensory System

Our auditory systems are just one part of our sensory system. They work closely with two other systems—vestibular and visual. The vestibular system is responsible for sending signals to our muscles to move. The visual system helps us make sense of what we see. 

So, in our sensory system, a visual or auditory cue might cause a reaction in the vestibular system. These three systems work together to give us an understanding of our environment. 

We process auditory through two modes—discriminatory (which lets us tell sounds apart) and evaluative (the protective mode). In evaluative mode, a response is often triggered. We either feel the need to move toward a sound (like when our baby cries) or to move away (like if we hear a car behind us as we’re jogging). 

When our sound input matches what the body is expecting to hear, we can tune sound out more easily—it won’t always trigger a response. But when there is a mismatch, we are more likely to be triggered. 

When there is a mismatch, we are more likely to be triggered.

Ideally, the goal is to be able to adapt but not stay in the dysregulated, triggered state. For example, moving to our baby to soothe them without remaining in a state of anxiety. 

But sometimes our bodies find it harder to regulate, perceiving non-threatening sounds as dangerous and worthy of a response. This puts us into fight-or-flight mode and makes it harder to tune out noise. 

The Internal Factors that Play Into Sensory Overload as a Mom

The noise itself isn’t the only factor at play in overstimulation. While the sound inputs do trigger our defense modes, there are internal factors that make us more primed to react. 

The time of day can impact how moms react to noise. Moms often feel more overstimulated by the evening. All day, they have had to react over and over, dealing with ongoing demands and body responses. 

When that happens, our system thinks that we are in danger mode and stays in a state of muscular tension, which primes us for more defense. This creates a cycle that’s hard to break out of. 

Transition times are also often triggering for moms—we’re dealing with a lot of sounds and attempting multiple tasks, making it harder to stay regulated. 

Stress due to time crunches or worries can also make us more primed for defense mode. As Larissa pointed out, when we’re stressed, we’re already halfway to fight-or-flight mode. Sound input can easily push us all the way there.

When we’re stressed, we’re already halfway to fight-or-flight mode.

Certain days of the week can also be triggering. Weekends, when the routine is different, are often stressful for some moms. Other moms might find themselves experiencing sensory overload more on Thursday or Friday after a tiring week. 

Everybody’s defense mode is different, so it’s important to pay attention to your own triggers. (For me, bathtime is a big trigger. The noise and echoing at the end of the day is overwhelming, so I usually wear earplugs to help manage the sensory overload). 

As you go through your day, notice your own moments of stress and overstimulation. When do you feel most prone to sensory overload? Is there a time of day or a day of the week that is particularly hard? 

The more that we understand our own triggers, the better we can manage our responses. 

How to Manage Situations Where Noise is Particularly Triggering

Once we start to notice our triggers, we can work to build resilience toward the noises that bother us the most. 

One of the first steps is to start taking notice of our entire sensory system in those moments. There are likely also visual and vestibular inputs contributing to the stress—like balls flying through the air, constant picking up and putting down the baby, or clutter and mess around us. 

As we take note of all of the cues, we can start to pick them apart. Larissa recommends grounding yourself when you start to feel overstimulated. Try identifying:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can touch
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • And 1 thing you can taste

This can help you make sense of what’s happening around you and calm your senses. 

Larissa also recommends acknowledging and validating your feelings. Being aware of your triggers, piercing through them, and finding some order in the chaos, can go a long way in helping us stay regulated.

Being aware of your triggers can go a long way in helping us stay regulated.

Giving your body stability can also help manage overstimulation. Larissa likes to sit down on the floor with her back against the wall when she finds herself experiencing sensory overload. By stabilizing the vestibular system, you can reduce some of the defense response. 

We can also try to reduce low-frequency sounds (like the air conditioner or the stove vent) and high-frequency sounds (like loud toys) when we start to feel overwhelmed. Low-frequency sounds tell our bodies that a threat is nearby—pushing us to move away from them, while high-frequency sounds send distress signals that draw us to move toward them. Those sounds can be particularly triggering. 

Mid-range frequency sounds like human voices or white noise can be soothing, drawing us in for connection. Since different people have different perceptions, however, it’s important to explore sounds and discover what feels soothing to us. Then, we can consider implementing them in certain situations, like when we’re working or resting. 

Why It’s Important To Build Regulation Skills

Larissa believes that it’s very important to build skills to help manage ourselves as we move into overstimulation. 

We can teach our kids some skills to help—such as taking turns or holding onto a thought when talking so they aren’t all trying to speak at once—but our focus should be on our own regulation. 

We can teach our kids some skills to help, but our focus should be on our own regulation.

But because there are so many noises that we can’t control, we need to develop the skills within ourselves. 

Larissa also explained that tools like noise-cancelling earplugs are fine when used judiciously. But when we remove a sensation we become more sensitive to it. That means that if we use earplugs regularly, we’re going to need to continue to use them. She recommends using them sparingly for particularly difficult times. 

Other ways to build regulation skills include progressive muscle relaxation, breath work, stretching, yoga, or going for a walk. If you can, build time in your schedule to do some of these before you enter into predictably stressful times. 

As Larissa said, we can’t eliminate noise. Children are going to be noisy—and they should be! But we can manage ourselves and give ourselves more capacity to deal with it. Most importantly, we can take care of ourselves in the chaos, and be forgiving toward our own sensitivities. 

We’re all going to lose our cool sometimes. But with the right tools for repair, we can preserve the bond with our children and model lifelong skills for resolving conflict. Register for our FREE masterclass and learn our 3-step method for repair!

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Tags:

Sensory overload as a mom

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Larissa Geleris
Occupational Therapist

Larissa Geleris, MS, OTR/L is an occupational therapist and a mother of two. She has extensive training and clinical experience in the identification and treatment of sensory processing disorder. After becoming a mother, she realized how truly overstimulating parenthood could be, and started applying her clinical knowledge to her personal roles. Larissa's latest passion is creating online resources to support all parents in understanding their own sensory triggers and validate their sensory experiences within the role of parenthood.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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