Shaking . Turning Red . Sweating . Covering Ears . Struggling to Breathe . Yelling . Running Away . Hitting or Throwing Things . Complaining . Hiding . Shutting Down . Angry . Anxious . Overwhelmed . Stubborn . Controlling . Overly Excited
This is what others see. It's hard to make sense of it. They may not understand. In fact, you may not understand. What is overstimulation anyways? And why does it happen? These, and others, are questions I'll answer today. Let's start.
What is overstimulation & why does it happen?
Overstimulation, or sensory overload, is when our senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and movement) take in too much information and it overloads or overwhelms our nervous system and brain. It happens when the sensory input in our environment is too much or too harsh for our senses.
Sensory sensitivity is unique to each person. There are varying degrees from the ability to handle and process an abundance of sensory stimulation (even needing more sensory input) to the ability to handle and process very little sensory stimulation. And to take it a step further, your senses are not lumped into one basket, you can have differing degrees of sensitivity among your senses. For instance, you may have very sensitive hearing, but enjoy strongly flavored food, or you may be sensitive to light, but need a lot of movement in your body.
We are constantly taking in information from the environment through our senses. This is how we engage with, interact in, and understand the world around us. Some environments provide loads of information and some of the information is rather harsh (loud music/noise, bright lights, rough fabrics, strong smells, etc). Without giving our brain and nervous system time to catch up, process, or even take a break from the sensory stimulation, we send it into a state of overdrive (ie- overstimulation / overload).
Anyone can experience overstimulation from time to time, but if you have a sensory processing disorder, ADHD, are Autistic, or a Highly Sensitive Person, you are familiar with this and likely experience it often.
Overstimulation is when your senses have taken in too much information and your brain and body have become overwhelmed and unable to process it.
What does overstimulation feel like?
This question is a bit harder to answer, as it's different for everyone. I often experience overstimulation as anxiety, irritability, and physical discomfort. You might notice feelings of activation in your body similar to a state of stress, anxiety, anger, or excitement. This is why it can be hard to identify overstimulation and seek the right treatment or use the right skills. We'll talk more about that with the next question. Here is a list of how overstimulation may show up.
Increased heart rate
Fixation on the sound, taste, sight, etc causing the overstimulation
Breathing becomes more shallow or constricted
Exhaustion or feeling drained
Headache, stomach ache, eye strain, or other body pains
Urge to close eyes or ears
Urge to get away or hide
Thinking becomes stuck or blank
Urge to yell or throw or hit something
Shaking or trembling
Rocking, pacing, swaying, or other movement that feels comforting
"Buzzing" throughout the body
Not wanting to be touched
Emotions become numb and shut down
Just wanting to get out of the environment!!
(and many, many more)
What can you do about it?
Okay, here's another tricky one to answer because of the differences in each of us. Finding what works to prevent overstimulation or cope with it once it's happening is, again, unique to each person. The first step for anyone, though, is understanding which of your senses are sensitive and how sensitive they are. This will include figuring out what triggers the feelings of overstimulation for you and what overstimulation actually does feel like.
I've found the most common mislabeling of overstimulation is to call it anxiety. Many people (me included) will feel anxious in an environment and wonder what they are afraid of or will start avoiding those situations and environments for fear of more anxiety or even panic attacks. There are certainly some overlaps between overstimulation and anxiety, but, at least from my perspective and understanding, they are contributed to and brought on by different things. One (anxiety) activates the threat system in our body saying, "there is a threat, run or fight!" and the other (overstimulation) says, "your brain can't process all this information, your nervous system is over capacity, and we are going offline".
That was a side note, and bit of a ramble... so back to the question at hand. What can you do about overstimulation? Here are some tips. Try them out, see which work for you and when they work best.
Wear noise cancelling headphones or earplugs
If you can, avoid environments which are "too much"
Take breaks outside or in a bathroom
Close your eyes or ears and breathe
Carry something comforting to fidget with or look at
Wear or carry essential oils or other enjoyable/calming scents
Plan ahead for overstimulating experiences
Seek professional support, like through therapy
Connect with others who have similar experiences with overstimulation
Create a "safe space" in your home with comfort objects and a soothing environment
Take your time transitioning from one activity or environment to the next
Give yourself time to process your experiences through thinking, journaling, meditating, or talking
Use progressive muscle relaxation
Practice breathing techniques that calm your body
Step away when you notice overstimulation rising
Move your body to release the built up energy and emotions
Practice daily self-care to maintain lower stress levels
Have a regular meditation practice
Create routines and schedules that are good for you
Stay hydrated and fed
Get a big hug from a loved-one
Spend time in nature
Spend time with pets and other animals
And the list can go on and on
Overstimulation is difficult to deal with. It's uncomfortable to experience and it's hard to avoid. We live in a society that, 1) doesn't understand sensory sensitivity, 2) doesn't provide accommodations to cope with the stimulation, and 3) is entirely oversaturated with sensory input. I've found that it take a lot of time and effort to understand sensory triggers, to learn how overstimulation shows up, and to find the coping skills to relieve the overwhelm for each unique environment and situation.
If you've read this far, woohoo! You are on the path to learning about yourself and finding ways to help yourself. You are strong and doing great work! Oh, and to answer your question... You Are Not Crazy!