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Visual Overload… a Terrifying Syndrome

I have an unnamed…condition…quirk?..that has to do with having highly attuned senses in general, and specifically includes a visual overload problem. It doesn’t rise to the level of my being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) (click preceding link for a quick online test to see if you’re an HSP) or having a Sensory Processing Disorder. So…I call it Idiopathic Iatrogenic Visual Overload Sensitivity Syndrome (just so you all can recall it quickly). Not to be dramatic, but it can be debilitating and even terrifying. OK, maybe a little dramatic. I claim Author’s License.

Wisely, I included the addition of the word “syndrome” so it will more readily qualify for research funding, and eventually, of course, Medicare reimbursement. I’m pretty sure it only affects intelligent, empathetic, sensitive people who drink too much coffee. That’s my hypothesis, at any rate. Just giving the researchers a head start.

Have you ever “not seen” a stop sign while driving? It’s similar, in that it’s not a vision problem, it’s a processing problem.

What it’s Like

Here’s how it is for me- on my first day of clinic as a student nurse, my instructor sent me to get a pull sheet. Eager to please, I rushed to the supply room, lifted the cover of the linen cart and saw…white, white, and more white. Not pull sheets, not top or bottom sheets, not pillowcases. (Did I mention I didn’t exactly know what a pull sheet was, which added to my distress). When I’m visually confronted with many objects, and I’m stressed, sometimes I can’t “see” just one object.

It can happen to me standing in the canned food aisle of the supermarket searching for a can of corn. Sometimes for the life of me, I can’t see the corn. Right in front of me. Amidst all the other shiny tin cans. And then we have to eat green beans. Which, yes, kids find terrifying.

visual overload, nursing

“Which hemostats, Dr.?” Hand me the silver ones!!! This tray is a nightmare for someone with visual overload.

Other times I’ve looked for a tube of  (Bobbie Brown, personal endorsement intended) mascara in my make-up drawer, only to find in frustration that it’s missing (maybe the housekeeper stole it?). This requires me to shut the drawer, open it, look again, and voila! now it’s there! I could go on and on with examples.

One more- A nurse fashionista (I know, those two words rarely appear together) friend of mine shops at consignment and thrift stores, and she finds the best articles of clothing. She has an amazing, eclectic wardrobe! In those same places, my eyes glaze over. All I see is are fatiguing jumbles of used apparel, and I can’t recognize the gem amidst the junk. Or differentiate the relevant from the non-relevant. So I’m resigned to shopping at Nordstrom’s, where it’s all good. And orderly.

I have a hyperacute sense of smell, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Read my story about how my sense of smell led to an amazing discovery with a patient (but only if you’re not easily shocked!).

visual overload, nurse

Why I love Benefit mascara: A non-essential graphic

Smells strongly affect my mood and memories. When I was pregnant, my brain somehow associated morning sickness with Safeway brand Truly Fine bar soap and to this day (decades later), I feel queasy if I smell that soap, or write about it, or talk about it. Pass the emesis basin, please.

There is, of course, an upside to having exquisitely sensitive senses. It’s in deeply enjoying all things sensual, such as crisply clean, fresh smelling sheets, the wafting aroma of coffee, the feeling of silk next to my skin, the smell of the ocean.

I can’t walk by a rosemary or lavender bush without picking a leaf or needles, crushing and smelling them…walking another block and lifting my fingertips to my nose again. I love scented candles, the aroma of sauteed garlic, and a plush, pillowed bed.


Sunglasses are an absolute must for me. Bright sunlight fatigues me, while gray, overcast skies energize me.

Stress reduction helps, since panicking or anxiety makes visual overload worse. Return performance situations, like ACLS, are something I can prepare for, and then I am free to excel. Learning the contents of the crash cart well, when it’s quiet, before I’m thrust into a code situation, is extremely helpful.

Environment. My husband likes to blare the TV 24/7, and he can’t pass a light switch without flicking it on. He also always answers the phone when it rings. (Is that a diagnosable trifecta?) I find these behaviors odd, not to mention an assault on my senses. I counter with dim lights, flickering candles, and unplugged phones.

Evidently another way to control sensory overload at home is through order or reducing the sense of clutter (so I’ve heard). I haven’t tested the clutter reduction theory yet, but I’ll let you know how that works.


I wear my sunglasses at night…

I ask for help in finding what I’m looking for. At the supply cart, in the grocery store. Recently at work, I stuck teeny tiny colorful flashing lights on the supply cart where some new patient care items were stocked, and told staff to look for the flashing lights. So I drag others into my sensory world.

Color identification helps. I have a better chance of finding the canned corn if I know the can has a yellow label with green writing. I highlight my reading and study notes with multi-colored highlighters. Never mind that I don’t remember the meaning of the blue highlights. I know that atropine is in a purple box. I like when shower heads have a red and blue marker for hot and cold (well, not aesthetically. But functionally).

 And now, a moment of self-reflection: It’s funny, because I didn’t even recognize this quirk of mine until a few years ago. Maybe it’s because quirks you live with are normal to you? It’s like when I was in the third grade, and got my first pair of glasses. Riding home in the back seat, I was astonished to see that tree tops had leaves, and not just green blur! 

Have you experienced visual overload or a similar condition? Do you have any helps to share? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time friend,


Nurse Beth


About Beth Hawkes (146 Articles)
Nice to meet you! I'm a Nursing Professional Development Specialist in acute care, a writer, speaker and career columnist.

3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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