We have more access to information now than previous generations have ever had—with both historical and new information co-existing, it can be hard to process everything that we are seeing daily, especially when two pieces of information contradict each other.
This information can include new media, news articles, advertisements, new stimuli or environments, a change to physical senses, new facts, or emotion.
When the amount of information you receive is overwhelming, it can make you more anxious and unable to make decisions. This is called ‘information overload’. For those with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, ASD, and sensory processing disorders, the effects of information overload can be long-term, and detrimental to both personal development and mental health.
I have had my fair share of dealing with information overload. As someone who is neurodivergent, I am much more sensitive towards receiving information or processing something than somebody without a mental illness or neurodevelopmental disorder.
Information overload can increase my anxiety—often, I have not finished processing a piece of information before a new one rapidly comes in, leaving me feeling as though I am slow, behind, or ‘missing out’ in some sense.
Information overload can happen in seemingly mundane places. One of the first places I was able to recognise information overload was in a supermarket. The artificial lights, large discount adverts, and trolley noises made me feel overwhelmed. For a long time, I was unable to go into the supermarket unless it was empty.
For a lot of people, information overload is most common at work. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been harder for people to adjust to 5 working days in an office, especially for those who have spent 18 months working from home. The new, consistent stimuli and large workloads have left people overwhelmed, even if they felt comfortable in the same office before.
For some people, this consistent feeling of being overwhelmed deteriorates their mental and emotional health. For people with ADHD, information overload can disrupt their emotional regulation. This can cause them to feel disoriented, both physically and mentally. For people with autism, information overload can lead to meltdowns.
As we continue to gain more access to information, this overload can have disastrous long-term effects without intervention. Denying neurodivergent people safe spaces is cruel and can cause long-term distress on top of the neurodevelopmental conditions that people face.
Unfortunately, the recent COVID-19 pandemic highlights how BAME people have been overwhelmingly disrupted by physical environments. The intersection of the pandemic and protests against police brutality in June 2020 highlights the information overload presented to BAME groups—information that has emotional significance even without an overload.
For BAME adults, mental health issues have been reported more frequently as a result of this overload. For neurodivergent BAME adults, the feeling of sensory or information overload must feel constant amongst political and medical unrest.
Although I am White and cannot fully understand the experiences of neurodivergent BAME people, I can offer recommendations for dealing with overloads. Whether it is sensory or information overload, in both cases the best way to deal with an overload is minimising stimuli.
This can occur through greater accessibility of items such as noise-cancelling headphones and weighted blankets, which reduce distress surrounding noise and touch overloads respectively. Having work environments which are quieter, less busy, and contain more natural light can also reduce distress for both neurotypical and neurodivergent people. When this is not possible, having items and toys which stimulate people are key towards distracting people in stressful environments.
Compassion is also key. Being able to identify your triggers, which information is overwhelming, and when to remove stimuli is important towards adapting your environments. Ensuring your environment is not overwhelming is important and allows you to be more compassionate towards yourself. It also allows you to help others when they are feeling overwhelmed.
It is not an easy process, and it has only been recently that I discovered I am neurodivergent. I still have boundaries to establish for my own sensory processing needs, but being open about when I am overwhelmed opens a new dialogue for others. And hopefully, everyone walks away from that dialogue a little kinder—both to other people and themselves.