PDC Blog

Loud, Hot, and Crowded:
A Music Festival Experience from a Person with Sensory Processing Disorder

Imagine this:  You’re surrounded by more than 10,000 people.   All around you are smells: fried fish, sweet cinnamon donuts, hay on the ground to soak up the mud, and yes, unfortunately, port-a-potties.  Everywhere you look, there is action: people dancing, children running, long lines of vendors selling food and drinks, two big stages with well timed music so that a band is always playing.  As a result, there is always loud music, bass booming that you can feel inside your chest, like an extra heartbeat inside you.

Now imagine you’ve got Sensory Processing Disorder, and you’ll start to get the picture of me at a music festival I went to this August.  Maybe you’ve never heard of Sensory Processing Disorder before, or maybe you’ve heard of it in kids but aren’t quite sure what that looks like in adults.  So let me back up the train and explain that a bit.

Sensory Processing Disorder, while not technically a diagnosis in the DSM-5 (don’t even get me started on my soapbox about that), is a condition that basically means your brain doesn’t respond to sensory input the same way as other people’s.  While the sensory input coming in is the same, the way that your brain is processing it is different. This means that you might be more sensitive to some stimuli than other people, or that you might be less aware of stimuli coming into your brain.  For this, it’s helpful to use the analogy of buckets.  If you have a big bucket, you are going to need a lot of input to feel your best throughout the course of the day, because your sensory threshold is high: you’re going to want to touch things, put things in your mouth, fidget, move your body, get big hugs and squeezes.  Conversely, if you have a small bucket, you have a low threshold for sensory input, which means your bucket is really easily going to overflow.  When this happens, you’re likely to feel overstimulated and overwhelmed.  This can be tricky for people who don’t have sensory processing issues to understand, because they might think, “I get it, the sound at a concert is loud for me too.”  But when  you have Sensory Processing Disorder, if you have small buckets, certain types of stimuli can feel uncomfortable, noxious, and even painful in a way that they don’t to other people.  I’m telling you, there are times where I wish I could crawl out of my own skin because things are so uncomfortable for me in a way I know they aren’t for my friends.  The way my waistbands feels on my body in a way I can’t ever ignore so I am constantly aware of it throughout the course of the day. The way I can become so irritable that I feel like I’m going to explode when I’m walking in from the car carrying 6 bags of stuff.  The way I start to feel almost dizzy and disoriented with the sound of the vacuum. I’m an occupational therapist, so I have a lot of training about sensory processing difficulties, but I also know about it because I have been dealing with it my entire life.

By now it’s probably pretty clear to you that I have a lot of small buckets.  That’s the thing about sensory processing, you can have a small bucket for one sensory system, like sound, but then have a big bucket for another system, like movement.  For example, I love roller coasters and fast moving rides, so I have a fairly big bucket for my vestibular system, which is responsible for my senses of movement and balance.  But many of my other buckets are small, so I get easily overwhelmed by things like touch, overstimulating visual environments, and sound.  What’s also interesting about the nervous system is that on a day to day basis, the size of your buckets can change, so one day your bucket may feel bigger or smaller than the next.  You can imagine how, when faced with day after day of overstimulation, your buckets may seem smaller than usual, so it will take less input for you to start to feel overwhelmed.  

So now, let’s go back to the music festival.  Can you picture me there, with my small buckets, surrounded by noise and people and smells and tastes and sights?  Did I mention it was a three day music festival?  And that the first day it poured the entire day, and the second day it was impossibly hot and humid?  These things only meant that my buckets were filling up even faster.  I would often start out the day feeling like, yeah, I’m okay, I’ve got this.  The beginning of the day was always less crowded at the festival, and I got to ease into it.  The first day, we made the mistake of walking to the festival, thinking it was only a mile and a half, no big deal.  This was, in retrospect, a big mistake.  By the time we got there, not only was I soaking wet inside my raincoat and my poncho (I double layered because my touch sensory system has a very small bucket so I don’t like to be wet), but I already had blisters forming from my rainboots and I was sweating through my clothes.  This was not an ideal way to start the weekend, and the music hadn’t even started yet.  So, what did I do?  I had paid a lot of money for these tickets, not to mention done a ton of planning and logistical stuff to get here (the music festival was on an island). I wasn’t about to just leave.  I’ll admit, sometimes that is a strategy for how to cope when you have small buckets.  But sometimes, leaving isn’t an option, so you have to find other ways to get through it.  So here’s what I did.

On the rainy day, I got extra paper towels whenever I could to try to dry my hands whenever possible.  I opened the vents in my raincoat so that I wouldn’t overheat under my raincoat and my poncho, because I know that when I get hot it makes all my other buckets overflow more easily.  On the really hot day, I got a free paper fan that was being given out as a promotional item, and man did I use it!  I ended up going back and getting one the next day because it was such a helpful tool for me (and I saved them for future use too!).  I was very intentional in choosing clothing that would dry relatively quickly. The first day, I wore leggings with a seamless waistband, but even by the end of the day those were getting to me. So on the next two days I wore looser fitting shorts that didn’t have a tight waistband, knowing that as the day went on that was harder to cope with.  I also got a free hat as a giveaway on the rainy day, which I used to keep the rain off of my face, which helped me have a little less stimulation.  These were all things I did to help my tactile (touch) system.  

I saw a ton of people wearing ear plugs and a few wearing noise canceling headphones, which are great tools, but I chose to be intentional about where I stood. If a band I really liked was playing, I would stand closer to the front, but if it wasn’t, I was intentional about standing further back to be a bit further away from the noise and the booming bass.  When the noise got too much for me, I strategically planned bathroom breaks or trips to the food vendors to get even further away.  I also found that during moments of overstimulation, if I started to feel disoriented, it helped me to be touching the person I was with.  Holding their hand, putting my hand in their coat pocket, or leaning against them slightly were all grounding for me.  I also chose to wear a venue-approved backpack to the show, because I know that pulling down on the straps gives me some good heavy work input when I am standing still. This helped improve my sense of proprioception, or body awareness.  I also chewed on ice cubes whenever I was done with a drink. Since the jaw is the strongest source of proprioception in your body, chewing things can be really calming for your nervous system.

As the days went on, I found that my buckets were filling up faster, so I used more preventative strategies.  On the third day, we found Adirondack chairs to sit in, and basically camped out there.  Not only were those way further from the loud music, but they were also partially in the shade which really helped.  If I wanted to go see a band up close, I could go for a brief period and come back. When I got back to where we were staying at the end of the night, I was very intentional about limiting my stimulation.  I found a quiet spot, cozied up, and read a book, and this helped me decompress and get ready to do it all over again the next day.

The thing about Sensory Processing Disorder is that you can’t see that someone has it; I’m sure I looked just like every other festival goer that weekend.  But I’ve known since I was fifteen that I have these issues, so I came prepared.  I’m not going to lie, there were moments during the festival where my buckets were overflowing, but I used my tools and even came up with some new ones in the moment.  Doing this, I was able to stick it out through the whole festival and sing my little heart out.  Armed with these tools, I’m ready for the next festival that comes my way, and I can’t wait. 

Katelyn’s Concert Survival Toolbox:

  • Loose fitting clothing
  • Layers to be able to take off or add on clothing as needed
  • An extra option of dry clothing for rain
  • Backpack for heavy work input
  • Ear plugs or noise canceling headphones
  • Scope out if the concert has a quiet area, which many do for children or others who may need them
  • Take breaks to get food or use the bathroom
  • Be mindful of where you stand.  Even turning your body away from the music can give you a bit of a reprieve from the noise. 
  • Bring a chair or blanket to sit on when possible
  • If you’re sensitive to smells, consider wearing a mask (thank you, Covid) to lessen the olfactory input
  • Chew gum or chomp on ice cubes for heavy work input to your mouth
  • Try to limit stimulation prior to and after the event to help your nervous system reset
  • Explain to your family or friends what this experience might be like for you and how to support you 
  • Use a paper or small electronic fan to prevent you from feeling overheated if you are sensitive to temperature
  • Wear a baseball hat if it’s raining to keep the water off your face
  • Remember that you are there to have fun, and do what you need to do to make that happen for yourself!