Sensory Loading Strategies When you can’t Influence the Setting

Pastor Don: His poor eyesight does not take away from his clear vision

I have recently emerged from several weeks of low energy. I say emerge because it has been like emerging from a tunnel, into a narrow canyon and then on to… a gradual awareness of a bigger and vibrant world.

With my increased level of energy I can count on a greater number of activities to go well without putting me into sensory overload or what I also refer to as entering the ‘red’ zone.

When I woke up I was reasonably assured that the day would flow well.

This being Sunday morning I was looking forward to a time of worship. I had done the needed tasks before heading into town. I had opened up the chicken coop, filled the feeder and collected a few eggs. Before going in for breakfast I cleared the 15 cm of snow that had fallen on the driveway and walkway overnight. (One day too early to call it an April Fool’s snowfall)

The worship service began with the usual announcements and introductions followed by an opening song. Following the official greeting congregants are invited to greet each other (with a holy kiss?). People left their chairs and extend greetings to each other into what quickly became a chaos of chatter and people mingling. A clear contrast to the meditative tone just moments earlier.

Today I managed the greeting chaos surprisingly well given that I usually exit the sanctuary just before this part of the liturgy. I do best to avoid the randomness, the ‘messiness ‘ of the moment, the quick greeting of a half dozen or more people. Having half a dozen social encounters compressed into a 30 to 60 second block of time usually triggers neurologically fatigue. That invariably results in a significant drain on my energy level.

Today, after the chaotic greetings two people entered and eventually managed to be suitably seated in front of me. The handicapped person was being helped by a PSW (personal support worker). I couldn’t help but notice the challenge of getting the person seated aided by the gentle patience and care shown by the PSW.

During the next hymn I found myself experiencing sensory overload. The emotion centre of my brain could not handle the combination of three sensory events in close succession. The loss evident with the handicapped person and the heartfelt care being given by the PSW. The chaotic greetings with its social demands. The music and the lyrics of the song chosen to fit the the lenten season.

By themselves anyone of these elements might have been manageable. When the different sensory events occur in rapid succession the compounding effect put me into sensory overload.

While my recovery from these activities could be relatively quick, having the events happen back to back left me no opportunity for even a brief respite before the next sensory event.

When this happens I am in the habit of leaving the area and going for a short walk. I am usually able to join in again within 5 to 10 minutes.

Can it be different?

I heard recently of a grocery store that offers customers a low sensory shopping experience. The low sensory hour of grocery shopping includes adjustments such as low lighting, no PA announcements, no music and no shopping cart returns.

Could one make worship a low sensory experience? Where would one begin?

One would not want to exclude handicapped people. Being able bodied should not be a prerequisite for being a part of the community. While seeing the loss of potential opportunity in a disabled person is emotionally taxing, seeing the heartfelt care being shown is also emotionally taxing, albeit a positive emotional experience… nevertheless adding significantly to my sensory loading.

While live music and the accompanying lyrics can contribute to emotional loading its untenable to have that eliminated from the liturgy. I find the lenten lyrics along with the music in minor key a combination that hits a bit harder. However, imagine a worship service with the lyrics redacted and no music or singing. That would take the soul out of worship.

Situations and actions which touch the heart has a way of overloading my emotional center.

It is clear that the sensory experiences are an integral part of a worship liturgy. My ongoing challenge is to develop strategies for navigating that hour and a half each Sunday morning.


  1. Arrive refreshed. If possible void sensory loading activities the day before.
  2. Be mindful of which parts of the liturgy present challenges.
  3. Participate in the difficult parts of the liturgy briefly. Over time increase the length of participation. Total avoidance can increase the risk of developing ‘super sensitivity’.
  4. Choose seating that lessens the sensory impact. Choose seating that allows for an inconspicuous exit.
  5. Find space to move around as restlessness is an early signal that I’m approaching sensory overload.

Changes would be unreasonable

At one time I thought it was reasonable for me to request a change. If the worship community would agree to remove the chaotic activity of people doing the 30 to 60 seconds of greeting that would eliminate one problem area for me. Well, one morning a guest minister missed that part of the liturgy. I was relieved while many people were annoyed.

The worship liturgy follows its own course. It’s not reasonable for me to request changes in the liturgy to meet my needs.

Over time I hope my strategies will minimize my sensory loading. I need to accept my own accommodations to properly manage my sensory loading. That will likely mean choosing to limit my participation at times.

How about you?

I would love to hear what strategies others use to manage their sensory loading whether it’s at a structured event or in a casual setting.

Author: Jasper Hoogendam

After 36 years as an educator my career ended due to a TBI. Renewable energy as part of 'walking lightly on this earth' has been and continues to be my interest since my teen years. Since early 2015 I have been learning to live with ABI (Acquire Brain Injury). I don't want to let my ABI limit the goals I set for myself. I'm living with a different brain, not a lesser brain. In sharing my day to day successes and struggles, I am better able to understand how my life had changed and begin to accept the change. In sharing my experiences I'm hearing from caregivers and fellow ABI's. I'm encouraged when my experiences are helping others understand some of the complexity of living with ABI.

One thought on “Sensory Loading Strategies When you can’t Influence the Setting”

  1. Although I don’t undergo sensory overload to the same degree (Not even close), there are times when our own house can be a clinking clattering commotion and I feel the need to leave for a bit. I smirk when I think of some relatives that smoke. They have an out to visit with Virginia Slim on the deck!
    Our church culture is off the charts most Sundays concerning sensory levels. We do the meet and greet thing at one point…sometimes twice if one minister forgets that another one already got us up and moving around. Many changes would need to be in place to make our service sensory safe. Tough calls.
    I also think of a relative who attends a Quaker church. Odd. Not much quaking going on when I visited. 95% of the meeting is sitting in silence. I enjoyed my visit there.
    Now, the grocery store deserves a gold star for considering those who have sensory sensitivities.
    Thanks for sharing more of your journey with ABI.
    Blessings Jasper!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s