The first time I went into sensory overload while at college was during a Kabbalat Shabbat service. The just concluded school week had been stressful, and I probably hadn’t eaten enough that day, so perhaps it is not surprising that I went into a sensory attack that evening, while surrounded by about twenty people singing and chanting. There was, however, something about experiencing a sensory attack during prayer that made it poignant.
While I don’t have a formal diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, I have been diagnosed with a mild form of the neurological processing disorder Developmental Dyspraxia. Because my diagnosis is so mild, and because I was diagnosed so young, generally, the only noticeable effects are on my coordination, particularly my handwriting, and only then to a slight degree. Sensory processing issues, however, do tend to come with Dyspraxia, and when I am stressed or have a low blood sugar level, I can sometimes also go into a mild sensory overload. When this occurs, my brain cannot filter out certain stimuli—especially auditory sensations—and everything I perceive blends into an overwhelming, loud chaos. For instance, I once experienced a sensory attack in a restaurant, and every background noise was dragged to the forefront. I heard the person with whom I was eating talking, but I also heard in equal degree the clinking of silverware on plates, shoes on the restaurant’s tile floor, and all the people talking around us. My brain could not focus on the conversation I wanted to hold. I was in the midst of cacophony.
When this happens, I generally play “Für Elise” on my iPod, which inexplicably relaxes me and puts every noise back at its proper sensory level. Afterward, I am left in a state of absolute, almost other-worldly, calm. I have always attributed this to the stark contrast between how chaotically I perceive things while in overload and how comparatively quiet my world seems afterward. Whatever the reason, while sensory attacks themselves are stressful and sometimes frightening, the few moments immediately after, before the realities of my life reenter my brain, are some of my most relaxing.
Interestingly, while the beginning of the Kabbalat Shabbat service put me into a sensory overload for a few moments, Lecha Dodi also played the role of “Für Elise” and reeled me back to a grounded reality. It left me with that sense of palpable calmness. For the first time in a while, I was not thinking about school’s stressors. Though those around me were singing, and though I was singing, the inside of my mind was, for once, quiet. When I returned the next week, singing the liturgy with the rest of my minyan instantly put me into my post-sensory-overload sense of calm without putting me into sensory overload. The same thing happened the week after, and has happened all Friday evenings since. Every week, the act of singing the words that translate as “Let ’s go, my beloved, to meet the bride,in the presence of Shabbat we’ll honor her” brings my mind to the same sense of calm that I experience after the chaos of a sensory attack. Things are quiet, and the noise of my mind seems to slip to its proper perspective.
It seems apropos that this should happen specifically during the prayer dedicated to welcoming Shabbat. Even without a literal sensory overload, life, and college life in particular, is stressful. Our minds are stuffed with so many thoughts and tasks to be accomplished that it can be difficult to put them into perspective, to know which to focus on and when. Chaos can ensue. On Shabbat, however, we separate the seemingly important from the actually important and most essentially, we rest. All of our worldly demands place themselves back into proper perspective. We have time to unwind, to be spiritual, to be with friends and family, to be holy. The cacophonous voices of our to-do lists fade, and in our minds there is at last a profound and content, if temporary, silence. Sometimes, I think, this is exactly what we need to resolve the literal or figurative sensory overloads of our day-to-day lives.
Dani Plung is a student at the University of Chicago.