Why creative people get sensory overwhelm

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

The owls were already out hunting as we emerged from our evening rehearsal. 250 of us, playing and singing spending 3 days in a remote barn in the woods, re-creating some of the most extraordinary music for orchestra and choir ever written: Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder

Gurrelieder includes endless brass instruments; 4 piccolos, which are like laser-drills for the brain; rattling chains to create an underworld armory. It needs a vast choir, soloists, violins (that’s me) as far as the eye can see. It’s huge, romantic and beautiful.

(And yes, it’s the same Schoenberg who found he’d taken romanticism as far as it would go, and catapulted music in a new direction with his 12-tone system). 

It was extraordinary, and wonderful: an experience I’ll probably never get again. 

But it was also BIG. 

It was sooo loud.

So many notes. 


There were moments when I thought, ‘what am I doing?’ And then, I had to run away, and listen to the owls, and just breathe.

There’s a reason why artists and writers go for retreats in the forest; why we crave a dark room, alone, with a solitary candle. 

Creative work (even re-creating) can be so overwhelming, that the everyday world simply becomes too much. 

Our creative nervous system and sensory overwhelm

So many of us who think and work creatively have highly sensitive nervous systems. We literally see more than many people around us. We hear more, notice more. 

It’s one of our super-powers. But we have to notice our own limits. Because sometimes the sheer energy of what we’re doing can create sensory overwhelm that destroys what we’re trying to do. 

Back to September, then. Somehow my senses feel most alive with this gentle between-seasons warmth, the air on my skin feeling different, the sunflowers still glorious but becoming heavy with seeds. 

My brain is also full of dreams and plans: the promise of writing and more head-space now school has gone back, all the opportunities, all my ideas, all my plans. All the people I want to catch up with after the long summer. 

All those wonderful, glorious things are there to be seized! 


If we take it all on, we risk doing nothing. 

Do too much, and we risk pushing our extraordinary, creative, sensitive brains into chaos and sensory overwhelm. 

We know that by Christmas, if not long before, we’ll be craving a dark room and a solitary candle. And wondering what happened to all our dreams. 

So here’s my challenge for me, and for you. 

Dream big, bold, and gloriously this month. 

Feel the world today. Go out and notice every sense you have. List every opportunity you want to pursue. 

Then take ONE dream, plan or opportunity. 

Just one (I know. It hurts, but do it anyway). 

Make space to hear your inner voice

Sit quietly and feel where your inner voice is speaking. Notice where it rises in your body. Observe how it makes your skin prick; your eyes open, your inner energy spark. Listen for its song deep within you. That’s your nervous system humming, gently. 

If you don’t hear it straight away, keep listening. It’s there, deep within you, I promise.

As the pace of life quickens this season, keep noticing that feeling. Keep listening for it. 

When sensory overwhelm strikes, the dreams inside us stop speaking. They find a safe corner to sit quietly, out of harm’s way. 

When that voice has gone silent, you know the world has got too loud. 

Your job is to find the space where they can whisper. 

Those tracks you’re going to complete, and record, even though they take your work in a completely different direction? 

That book you’ll have submitted to a next-level agent? 

The project you’re determined to crowdfund for? 

Know what their voice sounds like. It’s yours. 

But recognise that it can get easily drowned out by everything else. The loud calls from outside and inside that say, but… I’m too busy, too old, too young, too tired, my team are too inexperienced, the calls of jobs that pay the bills today and the things I HAVE TO DO because, life. 

Feel it. Listen to it. Believe in it. And keep believing. 

Need a sounding board to help work it out? I can help


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