Sensory Overload: A Mount Vesuvius of Anxiety
Last updated: February 2021
My wife and I were traveling to Virginia for Labor Day weekend. With her at the wheel, she was able to navigate the rain, traffic, sounds, and lights so I could count down the miles while listening to Pitbull repeatedly scream, "MR. WORLDWIDE!" Besides, that combination of mental effects and anxiety is way too much for my Parkinson's disease (PD) state of being.
On Route 81, which runs parallel to the Shenandoah Mountains, rush hour on Fridays can get dicey. For the most part, we knew it was going to be a long drive in the dark. Hence, my wife chose to battle the road to keep me out of overload status.
Parkinson's and hunger
We started out late, so I was hungry, and I know, like the Snickers commercial implies, I'm an angry bear when I'm hungry. In order to avoid that opportunity for an emotional overload, we stopped to eat as soon as we could.
My Parkinson's disease mind seems to feel every single bit of my depleting food reserves. It isn't pretty. If we're out with other people and they can't make a decision, I'll make it for them or encourage momentum. If this means not doing a group outing, so be it. That said, if we can start the debate earlier, all the better. Things just need to be solved before they're unraveled.
In my PD past, the mix of lights, motion, and hunger hit me really bad when I returned from Iceland last year. It was at this point that I instituted the "it's not you; it's my PD" apology. It generally works, but it's still loathed since it means a part of "Dan" that is no more. Grrr.
Knowing my triggers
There are other things that let me know I'm in danger of a sensory overload. I can feel it when my brain is getting woozy. Sure, I can hit Tylenol, but I know I just need to zone out and forget about it until the meds kick in.
Additionally, the wrong kind of music during this time, anything thumping, has to go. Cue the mellow or mellower music!
Avoiding angry news is also essential, but now, this means being uninformed about everything. Thus, balance is everything.
Learning to let go of control
I've never been a good passenger, but I'm working on it. I am preparing for the day I give up the keys by learning how to be a passenger. However, on that drive when my wife was faced with road construction, a terrible driver swerved in front of her at the last minute. She had to slam on the brakes and my mind went into overload screaming for her to stop.
Granted, she had control of the vehicle, but this other driver appeared, and I thought we were going to slam into him. We didn't, but as we slid closer to him I felt like screaming and vomiting and coming out of my flesh as my wife felt I was criticizing her driving.
With no control of the moment and so many things going on, I had absolutely no control of my future, and it was scary, draining, and explosive all at the same time. Even thinking about it now, a part of me is crawling into the emotions of that moment. This is why I explain and apologize ahead of time while I'm still in control. It's not Dan, it's PD.
Managing my emotions
About a decade ago, I remember working with a little boy (about 6) who was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (an older autism diagnosis - pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified). In looking at my explosive feelings of emotion in those moments, I realized what he was going through.
It seemed that when he got the emotion out, he was able to be himself again. Because he was young, he only knew one way to get out the pain: scream, cry, refuse. Thinking back to his pain puts perspective on my own physical and mental dealings.
Here, I can't take it out on others, though I have. Instead, I need to walk away and chill out or avoid these places altogether. If I'm heading there, I need to give warnings and remove the instigators if possible. Robot voices on a GPS, self-checkout lines, or a phone tree are horrific to me. Really. I'll wait in line before I self-checkout. Besides, the grocery store isn't paying me to work there.
Frustration and anger
My first memory of having an overload was in Cancun. I couldn't snorkel, and I couldn't get the sea scooter to carry me over the waves, much less utilize the fins. There I was, grumbling at how this beach adventure wasn't going my way. The previous day, I couldn't do the BOB scooters either.
That second day my head was thumping, and since I didn't know the local language (my fault), I was finding myself more and more frustrated with the underwater pressure. Would I lose my chance to do this fun adventure or even be alone to surface from the trap I was in? On this second day, I was freaking out double for both days.
I felt the anger and anxiety as I wanted to hurl the contraption. Then I realized I was acting like a spoiled brat. I calmed down, apologized to the woman who ran the tour, and let my wife go by herself on the underwater museum tour the next day.
Be open about your anxiety
Now, I know scuba and snorkeling aren't for Parkinson's me. Sadly, a fair bit of my May 2016 Cancun memories are me dealing with my diagnosis of Parkinson's, which was coming quickly with this symptom and more. That said, there are a lot of good memories, but the memories at sea and in the rickety buses, not so much.
PD anxiety is horrible. Apologize sincerely, often, and upfront. Find your happy place. Tell people about these moments before they happen. Avoid stress if possible. Enjoy life. Become bilingual.
Do you experience issues with spatial awareness?