Overstimulation happens when your senses are overloaded to the point of discomfort. Examples include loud noises, bright lights, strong smell or taste, etc.
Overstimulation happens to everyone, but those who are highly sensitive are prone to suffering from it on a daily basis, causing them significant distress. High sensitivity can come from many underlying medical conditions or simply be due to the way the person is wired.
Many people — even those who frequently suffer from it — do not understand what overstimulation is, and how detrimental the effects are.
What causes overstimulation?
We have five senses:
If one, a couple, or all, of the senses are faced with too much stimuli, a person becomes overstimulated.
There are two forms of stimuli:
- Internal stimuli: feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations
- External stimuli: people, noises, lights, sound, smell
The issue is determining — how much is “too much“?
The answer is that stimulation levels are different for each person. What’s “too much” for a highly sensitive person may be “just right” or even “not enough” for a less sensitive person.
It’s so important to realize that we all perceive things and experience things differently.
Highly sensitive people process internal/external stimuli more deeply, and have more reactive nervous systems.
The majority (average sensitivity levels) can all agree on what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to the senses — most can agree that they do not want to hear alarms going off as they’re trying to get work done or fall asleep, while most would agree that overhearing chatter around them as they try to relax is fine.
Those who are highly sensitive often do not even realize that their sensory input is completely different than the majority. They may wonder why they deal with more stress than others, or possibly feel that something is “wrong” with them. In reality, there’s nothing “wrong” with them. What’s truly “wrong” is the assumption that we all have identical perceptions.
What are the symptoms of overstimulation?
In babies and children, the most obvious sign of overstimulation is frequent and intense temper-tantrums. The child may begin to cry uncontrollable while unable to determine or express what’s wrong.
- Irritability — adults who suppress their socially unacceptable tantrums will internalize their anger which turns into irritability. They may snap at others over the smallest things, become passive-aggressive, or seem like they are tense and on the edge.
- Exhaustion — too much stimuli causes extra stress on the brain’s cognitive input, causing them to feel mentally exhausted. It becomes too difficult for them to perform even the simplest tasks such as talking to someone or walking around.
- Depression — the combination of irritability and exhaustion leads to both emotional and physical depression. They will often feel lethargic and hopeless.
- Anxiety — extra stress on the brain leads to excessive worrying, restlessness, and the inability to relax.
- Lack of focus — with so much going on, it becomes nearly impossible for the person to focus on one thing. The mind bounces back and forth between so many different thoughts. This is especially obvious in students who struggle with studying.
- Excitability — becoming very excited and hyper very quickly.
- Shut-down — this refers to “freezing up,” becoming quiet or still, feeling a strong urge to close your eyes, cover your ears, wrap clothing or blanket around yourself, or go into fetal position.
- Feeling “off” — if you feel like you are sick even when you actually aren’t, or you have an ill feeling that you are unable to pinpoint where it’s coming from.
Along with that, you may also face headaches, nausea, muscle weakness, rage, rapid heartbeat, and insomnia.
If you frequently experience many of these symptoms, then it’s possible you are a highly sensitive person suffering from constant overstimulation.
If you find that your symptoms disappear or significantly lessen after treating yourself for overstimulation, then you know that there is definitely a connection.
Dangers of overstimulation
Since overstimulation is so poorly understood, many do not realize how dangerous it is if left untreated.
Along with negative symptoms, it can also lead to harmful behavior.
Many cope with overstimulation through self-harm as a way to soothe themselves. Examples range anywhere from blasting music in their headphones extremely loud to banging their head on the wall.
It can also cause them to lash out at loved ones, potentially destroying relationships or making them volatile.
Struggling to keep up or fit in with the majority can lead to long-term psychological damage and low self-esteem.
Treatment & care
The most challenging aspect regarding overstimulation is that most people who suffer from it do not even realize it! This is why education & awareness is so important.
Yes, it is possible to still live a fully-functioning life! However, you should take extra steps to care for your condition.
The best way to combat overstimulation is by reducing internal/external stimuli.
Reducing internal stimuli:
- Meditation: releasing all thoughts to focus on one single thing (ex: your breath, counting numbers, the task you’re doing, etc.)
- Grounding: bringing yourself back to the present moment (ex: touching something, feeling your heartbeat, etc.)
- Breath work: breathing techniques
- Familiarity: doing, saying, hearing, smelling, feeling, something you are familiar with.
- Solving puzzles: forces you to apply focus and shut out distractions.
- Avoid stimulants: such as caffeine.
Reducing external stimuli:
- Having a routine: by limiting travel and sticking to a schedule
- Noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs: for quietness
- Sunglasses or blindfold
- Weighted blanket
- Eating bland food
- Essential oils: to combat a foul-smelling environment
- Spending more time outside in nature: as opposed to cramped buildings or crowded cities.
- Reducing screen-time
- Organizing/cleaning: gives you a sense of control and a less chaotic environment.
- Alone-time: being by yourself allows you to be quiet and work with your own limits instead of trying to keep up with others.
Surviving the real world
The modern world is full of overstimulation with smartphones, TVs, other bright and noisy electronics, and bustling city-living — making it seem nearly impossible for highly sensitive people to thrive.
Here are some tips on how to survive the real-world as a fully-functioning, independent adult:
- Educate yourself: knowledge is empowerment. The more you know, the better you can take care of yourself.
- Check in with yourself: continue to ask yourself about your stimulation levels. It’s so easy to become overstimulated without even realizing it. Do I need to take a break? How are my energy levels? Am I honoring my limitations?
- Choosing the right job/profession: we spend at least 40 hours a week at work, so it’s vital your job has low stimulation. I suggest a career where you can work independently, work with animals or plants, be in a quiet environment, have a predictable routine, and avoid a job with constant new costumers or excessive socializing.
- Tell your friends and family about your sensitivity so that they aren’t pushing you and possibly ruining your relationships. For example if everyone is planning a big road trip, don’t be afraid to pass if you think it will be too stressful for you. Don’t feel like you ever have to make up excuses for anything, be honest and if they care then they’ll understand.
In extreme cases, a person may require professional care in order to cope with overstimulation. Seek professional help when necessary.
What overstimulated people want you to understand…
The hardest part about being prone to overstimulation is trying to keep up with everyone else, and getting judged for not fitting in. Most likely they won’t understand or be aware of the struggles you face. Others may judge you as moody, lazy, snotty, anti-social, weak, or anything else that’s negative. They may be offended by your condition and take it personally.
It’s vital that you set limits and boundaries in order to protect your mental/physical health, and also in order to protect yourself from accidentally hurting others too. Some people are naturally very talkative and touchy, and this can be extremely stressful to deal with.
We want you to understand that we aren’t trying to be rude, it’s nothing personal against you, but we have more limits when it comes to functioning properly. It means a lot to us when you can respect that instead of feeling offended.
If you know someone who is prone to overstimulation, it’s important to let them have their space, rather than pushing them even more. You can still spend time with them, but doing more calming and familiar activities together. Be aware of how much you are talking to a person or how touchy you get — take notice if they seem upset or uncomfortable.
And if you are prone to overstimulation, be sure to not only practice reducing internal/external stimuli, but also be communicative with others about your limits. Let them know about your condition in a calm and logical manner. There is nothing to be ashamed of.