Are You Really “Overreacting”?

People react to different amounts of sensory input, but even when it's only a little, it's not made up.

Let me introduce you to my smoke detector

There’s a smoke detector in my living room that some people might be tempted to call “oversensitive.” It doesn’t simply let us know when something is burning, it pretty much lets us know when food is cooking in the kitchen.

For my smoke detector, I’m willing to call this an overreaction, since the purpose of the smoke detector is to let us know when there is danger that a fire might be getting out of hand, but seen in another way, it is also really good at its job.

I’m a bit like that smoke detector. I’ve also been accused of overreacting to plenty of things, like smelling smoke when no one else does. And I’ve talked with lots of people with sensory differences who have had similar experiences.

It is real

When someone “overreacts” to sensory stimulation, they’re not making up what they feel. They are actually picking up on something that’s happening. There is an external stimuli that has been processed by their nervous system that they are reacting to. It’s not imaginary. It’s not make believe. It’s not all in their head. It is a genuine physical experience.

When you react to something that hurts you, do you want to be told that it shouldn’t hurt you? To just ignore it? That you couldn’t possibly smell/feel/hear/etc. something that you do? Or that you’re just making it up? (This is called gaslighting, by the way.) Do you want to be dismissed or ignored?

Or do you at the very least want acknowledgment? Maybe a little sympathy? And preferably some help so that you’re not hurting as much?

My smoke detector is highly sensitive, but it’s not malfunctioning. It doesn’t go off randomly when nothing is cooking, or when the microwave warms something. Yet even from the next room, it picks up on the faintest trace that the stove is in use, even when I don’t smell smoke.

Likewise, some people’s nervous systems need very little input to register what’s going on around them, while some people need a lot more input before they notice things. Neither nervous system is wrong, and they both have their advantages and disadvantages.

But here’s where things get tricky.

Another distinction

There is a big difference between a nervous system that registers even the faintest inputs and a nervous system that is bothered by those same inputs.

Some people notice all those small details that are going on around them but it doesn’t bother them much, and for some people, it bothers them more. Again, neither is right or wrong, it is what it is.

My point is that noticing more does not necessarily mean that you will be bothered by it. Or that it will be always painful.

But you can’t get to the point where it’s less painful until you first acknowledge that the pain is real. That what you, or the person you are thinking about, are feeling or complaining about is a real experience and not an overreaction, attention seeking, or whatever term you’ve learned to use to dismiss someone’s experience.

And, sadly, it might always be painful. Some things no therapy can make better. Some things will always be painful. 

I hope that no one expects to get used to being burned when they put their hand on a hot stove.

And anyway, who decided that screaming when you get burned on a hot stove is an acceptable reaction but walking out of the room when people are talking over each other is an unacceptable reaction?

To some extent, choosing which sensory experiences are “normal” or “acceptable” and which are “oversensitive” or an “overreaction” is a fairly arbitrary decision.

I’ll be writing more about different ways to help the nervous system feel better with a variety of sensory inputs, but this is enough for now.

What do you think about overreacting, or being oversensitive? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Heather Cook is an autistic writer and autism coach. She finds joy in helping neurowonderful adults, teens, and parents find and remove the hidden barriers that are holding them back, so their natural strengths can shine.

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