5 Strategies for Coping with Crowds and Recovering from Sensory Overload

I hate crowds. I attended my first and last concert at age sixteen. I spent a combined seven years at universities notorious for their football cultures and never attended a game. Black Friday is my personal hell.

The lack of personal space, the heat, the smells, and most of all, the noise— the whole experience gets my heart racing in the worst ways. Now that my tics have reappeared, I can add tic attacks to my list of potential negative reactions, which already included dizziness, shaking, nausea, hyperventilation, and numbness. 

I’m certainly not alone in this aversion. Sensory overload is linked to a variety of neurodivergent conditions including autism, ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, sensory processing disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Tourette syndrome. As someone diagnosed with both ADHD and a Tourette-related tic disorder, it’s no surprise I’m susceptible.

So what kind of cruel joke is it that I ended up working in the programming and outreach departments of public libraries, a specialization that required me not only to plan and attend large-scale events but to actively participate in them in forward-facing roles?

Somehow, despite my tendency toward sensory overload, I loved the work I was doing. I had two options: adapt or change course. I chose to adapt, and while I’ve since shifted career paths, executing and attending these programs forced me to develop strategies that have made celebrating with a crowd a more tolerable (and often enjoyable!) experience.

Do Your Research

To paraphrase Sun Tzu and Green Day, it helps to know your enemy. In these situations, so much is beyond our control, but we can take some of that power back by creating familiarity.

Have you ever been to the venue before? Visit the site beforehand, if you can, and perform a dry run of the event. Where will you sit? Where are the bathrooms? Are there ways you avoid being close to the stage? If you can’t visit the location in person, you may be able to find a map on the event website or tour the space with Google Maps. You can also reach out to the event organizers. Even if it’s not available publicly, we always have our own diagrams of the setup.

If it’s not specified elsewhere, the event organizers can also help you identify a quiet space on site where you can recover if things get overwhelming. Members of the Inclusive Network, a group that works to make Baton Rouge more disability-friendly, recommended my library add these spaces to some of our larger all-ages programs. It had never occurred to me to have a chill zone, as we called it, but the suggestion was game-changing for me. Just knowing there was a safe space for me to decompress made events less intimidating. Prior to the event, you can contact the organizers to ask about such spaces— they may even create one once the idea has been brought to their attention.

Be Honest About Your Needs

When push comes to shove, I believe event organizers do want to be inclusive. Even if they don’t personally care about our needs, attendance is king, and they don’t want to hurt their statistics by losing potential attendees.

In my experience, lack of accessibility is usually caused by ignorance. Organizers often don’t know what accommodations they are missing. To combat this, I like to reach out to the event planning team in advance and discuss my needs. While it can be exhausting to educate others, the unfortunate reality is that our society isn’t equipped or informed enough that we can assume event staff will be prepared to help us. By being proactive and doing the legwork, we can set ourselves up for success and possibly save someone else the labor in the future.

While contacting organizers is a great start, being honest about your needs goes beyond the people in charge. In large crowds, I’ve found my best allies are my friends and coworkers. By making them aware of how I may react if things get overwhelming, I remove some of the burden from myself. If I do get overloaded, they can act as crowd control and lead me to a quiet space. 

Conversely, leaving them in the dark about the issue often goes poorly. Out of concern, they may ask too many questions or feel a need to enter my personal space. I’ve found it’s much easier to say in advance, “If I get overwhelmed, I may need to run off to this quiet location. I’m probably fine, but it would be helpful if you gave me the space to recover.” If they’re good friends, they’ll understand.

Most importantly, we have to be honest with ourselves. I’m still learning that it’s okay to have limitations. It’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to need a breather. Neither of these things makes me less successful or means my conditions have defeated me. 

For example, I’m still stubborn about allowing my tics to manifest in public spaces. While I would never impose this standard on someone else, I haven’t yet overcome the need to pass for “normal.” This strategy backfires, however, because the tics will always emerge. Fighting them is uncomfortable (even painful sometimes) and causes tic attacks, more violent, prolonged expressions of the urge. By accepting my tics and allowing them to exist throughout the day, I can mostly avoid these painful outbursts.

Bring Your Tools With You

It may sound lame, but I sometimes imagine myself as a superhero to calm my anxiety in these situations. (You can laugh, but if it’s good enough for Ryan Reynolds, who am I to knock it?) And like one of my favorite superheroes, I’d be lost without my utility belt.

While I don’t literally wear a belt, I do have a collection of gadgets and items that help me manage stress— and they do absolutely no good sitting on my living room table. 

Here’s what’s in my kit:

  • Earbuds. I bring these because the deep bass of concerts and fireworks fills my chest with an unnerving sensation of heaviness. Some people may prefer earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, but the overall effect is the same. By simply popping in earbuds, I can block out a lot of the sound without completely cutting off my ability to hear. It’s effective, inexpensive, and inconspicuous.
  • My wedding ring. Wearing my wedding ring (which I don’t do most days) is a little more unorthodox as a coping strategy, but the principle behind it can be applied to almost any object of personal significance. I focus on it when things become overwhelming. It grounds me and provides me with a sense of safety.
  • A fidget toy. I have a bad habit of clawing at my arm when I get overly anxious, sometimes to the point of bleeding. Obviously, this isn’t a healthy strategy for managing stress, so I’ve found other things to do with my hands. One of the most portable alternatives is playing with a fidget toy. While stress balls and fidget spinners may be most popular, my personal favorite is a Tangle I received as a library promotional item.
  • Medication. Although we’re still fighting the stigma surrounding anti-anxiety medication, Xanax was immensely helpful to me personally. Taking a pill before a potentially triggering event was a surprisingly effective preventative measure. I no longer have that prescription, but if you’ve been prescribed something that works for you, don’t let anyone’s negativity keep you from taking it. 

Your tool kit may look completely different, and that’s okay. The important thing is that you identify what’s effective for YOU and pack accordingly. 

Make an Escape Plan

Even the best-prepared superheroes have to retreat sometimes, and it’s better to have your escape route planned in advance than to be forced to wing it.

An escape route can take many forms. If you’re not comfortable telling friends or colleagues why you need to leave an event early, it may be an excuse you’ve fabricated to slip out quietly. Sometimes it’s sitting near the door and literally knowing where the exits are.

For me, it’s most often making sure I have the money available to use a ridesharing app. As someone who doesn’t drive, it’s common for me to end up in situations where I feel stranded. In most cases, I could ask a friend for a ride, but who wants to end their friends’ fun early? Calculating a rideshare fee into the cost of attending an event gives me a sense of control over my situation and prevents me from feeling guilt over the expense in the heat of the moment.

Of course, just because you have an escape plan, you don’t have to use it. The simple knowledge that you can leave can itself be effective in reducing anxiety.

Plan Your Day Accordingly

All this planning and anticipation requires a lot of energy! You’ll need time to prepare yourself beforehand as well as time to recover after, so it’s important to plan the rest of your day (or week) with those needs in mind.

Know your limitations. Do you tend to feel exhausted after exposure to intense sensory stimuli? If you do, it’s probably not the best idea to agree to go dancing after the concert. Does meditating help you relax before a big event? Maybe you shouldn’t fill your morning free time with appointments.

I struggled to make this time for myself while working. I found myself rushing between committee meetings and open houses and festivals and movie nights with no time to breathe in between. And you know what? It burned me out. 

Forcing yourself to say yes to every invitation doesn’t make you a better employee or friend; it wears you down. In these situations, quality is preferable to quantity, so when you have a big event to attend, make sure you budget time for preparation and recuperation— it will allow you to do more in the long run.

Seven years ago, I was lucky if I could get through a trip to the grocery store without a panic attack. Tomorrow, I’m voluntarily attending my city’s Pride Fest— and I’m actually looking forward to it! I may never love crowds and commotion, but by applying these strategies, I’ve learned my sensitivities don’t have to hold me back. 

Share your favorite tools and tips for managing sensory overload in the comments!


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