Sensory Overload and My Bipolar Brain

Marissa Newby
Our brains are all uniqueDavid Cassolato

Why do certain sounds make your brain itch?

Sensory processing issues and bipolar disorder are not new territories. I have been diagnosed with bipolar II for 15 years. Some days are easier than others, but one of the constants is how irritable I become about specific noises. Imagine eating dinner and you can hear someone next to you chewing.

Most neurotypical folks would maybe think “bad manners” and move on. My bipolar brain, however, hyper focuses on the sound with such precision that it becomes the only sound I can hear. The rest of the conversation is a backdrop. I am unable to manifest any patience for this sound and become almost immediately irritable.

Similar sounds have the same outcome. Smacking your lips while chewing your gum, swallowing your drink audibly, dragging your utensil across your teeth all result in the same level of overt frustration for me. You might assume, at face value, that I’m just rude when I leave the table or try to over-talk the sound.

My wife recently figured me out, when I eat quickly and get up to do the dishes before everyone else is done it is often to avoid hearing the person next to me chewing and smacking their lips. “Why can’t you just sit down and enjoy a meal?” Because eating with other people makes me unfriendly.

The Science of Sensory Processing Issues

The body of evidence is not large, but it is growing as researchers try to solve some of the mysteries surrounding psychiatric disturbances and basic function.

A study in 2018 focuses on brain imaging and spectrometry testing to try and solve the puzzle. According to the findings “abnormal bioenergetics may underlie functional differences in brain activity and, taken together with the EEG findings suggest that disrupted brain function in bipolar disorder may occur on a more fundamental level than previously thought, impairing both sensory processing and perception”.

Interestingly, the mood states of study participants were tracked and the outcomes might surprise you. Between the 3 studies states — depressed, manic and euthymic — there were no functional differences for bipolar patients compared to neurotypical control groups. Although when the bipolar subjects reported being euthymic (without mood disturbance), the results were closer to neurotypical subjects.

People with bipolar fundamentally have impaired states of perception and processing. The degree to which the impairment creates a noticeable change in mood or sensory outcome depends largely on the individual, rather than the state they are in.

People living with bipolar are often categorized by what mood they are in at the time, rather than people being able to holistically see the personhood of the disease. A fact that is really disheartening for me. We aren’t just “manic-depressive”. The conditions of understanding have changed and, as it turns out, we have a wide spectrum of feelings we are capable of, just like everyone else.

Areas of the Brain and How They Work In Sensory Regulation

Six areas of interest in the brain were identified in the study that was conducted with different stimuli. The results were enlightening. In the visual areas of the brain (the occipital lobe) for both depressed and manic states showed decreased activity.

The thalamus, responsible for most of the sensory feedback and where our brain starts the processing of external stimuli, was functionally impaired in both lobes for depressed and manic participants, but only reflected single lobe impairment for bipolar patients in a euthymic state. The cerebellar vermis, responsible for the regulation of heart rate and breathing, showed impaired functionality in depressed and manic patients.

This might explain why my heart races and I receive what normal people would consider “fight or flight” signals when I am overstimulated. The striatum and hippocampus, responsible for involuntary movement and memory retention, both showed impaired function for manic patients only.

The right supramarginal gyrus, responsible for how we perceive the space were are in and move around in it (think depth perception but for your entire body), has decreased functionality for manic patients. Finally, the left posterior forceps which is white matter that serves as connective tissue between the occipital lobes are impaired in manic patients.

How Does This Translate For Those of Us Who Have Bipolar Disorder?

I feel overwhelmed, which might be where my frustration is rooted. Feeling overwhelmed and being unable to process through what is happening around me is disorienting and, sometimes, a bit scary. I lose track of conversations in areas where there is a lot of external stimuli.

Being unable to connect to my loved ones when something is externally aggravating me is disheartening. I don’t want to seem like a jerk, but sometimes I simply shut down in conversation when I no longer have anything pleasant to say. This often results in me seeming standoffish or uninterested. I am very interested, I am just trying to save them the heartache of me outwardly expressing frustration that seems out of context for whatever day-to-day conversation we are having.

I try to focus on one thing to decompress my brain’s response to a stimulus that I find irritating. Maybe it is some form of object-based meditation or grounding. This often results in me staring at something for long periods of time or fidgeting with wrappers or silverware. I can feel my body getting amped up, my heart rate increases which for most translates as the body is in alarm mode.

Something is nearby that doesn’t feel comfortable. The biggest hurdle for me is staying silent about whatever might be bothering me. I have to remind myself not to be rude and say something or ask for the behavior to change. It is a behavior that is harmless and not ill-intended. The way I adapt to those behaviors is unique because of my disorder, so therefore I need to ensure I don’t project those very personal and specific issues onto others or demand changes to suit my perceived preferences.

Buffering the outside world can be challenging for those of us with disordered brains. The world just wasn’t built for us in some ways. People aren’t trained to calibrate their conversations and mannerisms around someone else’s mental oddities. Recognizing when situations are unsafe or uncomfortable is critical for people living with bipolar. Understanding what your triggers are and learning how to better manage your responses is key.

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Marissa, a graduate safety practitioner and paramedic, has been writing and editing fiction and non-fiction work for 15 years. She delivers researched and sourced news concerning world events, public health, public safety and emergency management.


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