A reader asked this question about Passover:
How do you deal with sensory overload in a situation where you can’t leave?
Based on context, I think you’re probably asking about being overloaded at a large noisy seder.
There might be more options for leaving and taking a break than you might realize. I’m going to discuss those, then some thoughts on how to deal with it if leaving isn’t an option.
Some options for taking breaks:
Helping in the kitchen
- At seders, there are often (not always) things going on in the kitchen that people would welcome help with
- If you find doing stuff in the kitchen less overloading than being at the table, excusing yourself to go help might be a socially acceptable way to take a break
- Some examples of things people might welcome help with:
- Cutting vegetables
- Serving soup
- Bringing out other things
- Washing dishes
Playing with the kids:
- At a lot of seders, there are little kids who kind of run in and out
- If these are kids you know, or they’re related to you, it may be socially acceptable for you to take breaks and play with the kids
- This depends on the culture of your family or community; it’s fairly common for it to be socially acceptable, but it’s not universal
Pretending you have to go to the bathroom:
- At a long seder, most people will excuse themselves to use the bathroom at least once
- If you take a break for about that amount of time, that’s what people will assume you were doing
- (You can also actually go to the bathroom even if you don’t need to use it – bathrooms can sometimes be a good place to take a break from sensory overload since people will usually leave you alone for a few minutes if you’re in the bathroom)
Options if you can’t take breaks or taking breaks doesn’t help enough:
- Sometimes sensory overload is caused as much by disorientation as by sensations
- One way to become more oriented is to think through in advance what’s likely to happen
- If you feel like stuff is more predictable, it’s likely to be less overwhelming and sensory stuff might be easier to manage
- If this is a seder you’ve been to before, it might help think about what usually happens. Who will be there? How do they usually act? Who will ask the four questions?
- It also might be a good idea to look through the hagaddah. Here’s one online.
- If you’re feeling overloaded during the seder, it’s worth considering the possibility that you have become disoriented
- If you look through the haggadah, figure out where you are in the seder, and how much is left, it might help you to become more oriented and less overloaded
- It may also help to use a visual schedule, which shows you at a glance what to expect and in what order. Here’s one you can print, organized by cup.
Using solid objects to ground yourself:
- If you’ve become really overloaded or disoriented, sometimes grabbing hold of something solid can help a lot
- If you’re at a seder, the most readily available solid thing is likely to be the table
- If there’s someone present you trust who is ok with it, holding someone’s hand can help a lot too in ramping down overload
Sit in a less overloading place in the room:
- Sitting on the edge of the room is likely to be less overloading than sitting in the middle
- Sitting on the end or near the end of a table is likely to be less overloading than sitting between several people
- Sitting near the door is likely to be less overloading (especially if you get overloaded from feeling trapped)
- If there are florescent lights in the room, it helps to pay attention to whether one of them is flickering
- If you’re already overwhelmed going into the room, you might not notice right away, even though it will bother you later. If flickering lights bother you, it’s worth making a point of checking to see if the light is flickering when you decide where to sit
- If the room is likely to be very loud, you might be more comfortable if you use ear plugs. You can get disposable ones for cheap at a pharmacy
- Some people can stop overload by moving in certain ways
- Most people can at least mitigate it a little
- Rocking back and forth can help a lot (and it’s not that weird in a lot of Jewish settings, particularly if there are a lot of religious people present.)
- If you have stim toys that usually work for you, it might be a good idea to bring them
- If you’re worried about stigma, it might work better to use different things
- (That said, if a room is crowded and noisy and overloading, it’s very likely that no one is actually looking at you)
- If you wear rings or bracelets, you can play with them
- You can also play with the silverware if the seder isn’t extremely formal. You probably won’t be the only one.
- You can also stim with the haggadah. (by holding it in your hands, flipping the pages, looking through it, or even reading it.)
- If you have a water bottle with a stem you can chew the stem
- (You can also eat stuff as a way of getting to chew to reduce overload. If you do that with stuff like celery rather than stuff like chicken it’s less likely to make you uncomfortably full)
- You might be able to bring seder-themed stim toys to use, particularly if you bring enough to share. (For instance, if you bring out plastic frogs for the ten plagues, probably no one will think twice about you continuing to play with them)
Participating actively also might help to handle overload:
- Sometimes it can be less overloading to participate in something than to be passively present while something is happening
- This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for a lot of people
- For instance, if people are singing loud songs and it’s overloading, you might be more physically comfortable if you sing the songs too
- (This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for some people)
- If it’s a big seder and people are going on and on and you’re overloaded, ignoring what’s going on and reading the haggadah might work. (In that setting, you’re probably not going to be the only one doing that.)
- Asking questions and arguing might be less overloading than being in the room while other people are doing that
Talking to people might also be an option:
- If social anxiety is contributing to overload, having successful conversations might help
- Here’s a post about how to have conversations at family gatherings (which is broadly applicable for other settings too)
- Here’s a post about how to deal with people who pick fights (post was written for someone who asked about Christmas; it’s also applicable to any holiday gathering)
- If you’re a student and you’re going to a communal seder at a college, this post on identifying common interests among students might help
Short version: Passover seders can be really overloading. Scroll up for some ideas about how to deal with that.