Overstimulation (Examples + FAQ)

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Think about how much access you have to the world, right now. Even if you are sitting in a room, by yourself, you’re probably staring at a screen with access to another screen on your desk or bed. Within seconds, you can use your fingers to click on another screen, watch another video, watch another video, type an email, read a pop-up ad, take a drink of your coffee, hear a notification, and the list goes on and on. If you pick up TikTok, you can watch a person hiking the Alps and switch to a person talking about the severity of systemic racism within milliseconds. No wonder people have been experiencing overstimulation.

But what is overstimulation? Is this a symptom of a disorder that needs immediate attention, or are you just overwhelmed by technology? The answer depends. Neurodivergent people may be more sensitive to the stimuli around them or more vulnerable to overstimulation, but it’s also hard not to be overwhelmed in today’s world. Hopefully, this information about overstimulation will shed some light on what you are experiencing and if you need to take any steps with the help of a mental health professional. 

What Is Overstimulation? 

Overstimulation, also known as sensory overload, occurs when a person experiences too much sensory information for their brain to properly organize. This can lead to confusion, feelings of anxiety, or inappropriate behaviors. A sensory processing disorder is not a standalone diagnosis and is often associated with ADHD or ASD.

Every person is different and experiences overstimulation differently. One person may become overwhelmed by visual information, while others become overwhelmed by a combination of sensory information. At all times, our senses send information to the brain and the brain is expected to respond appropriately. A person who is overstimulated can’t always do this. 

Who Experiences Sensory Overload?

Anyone can experience sensory overload. It’s hard not to when we live in a world that constantly asks for our undivided attention. Notifications, screens, and other elements of technology have been added to what humans experience in the “real world.” Instead of finding a balance, we are expected to live “online” and offline at the same time. No wonder we are overwhelmed!

Children are more likely to experience overstimulation, as their brains are still learning how to organize and respond to sensory information. Overstimulation is also more common in adults with ADHD or ASD. 

What Overstimulation Feels Like

Overstimulation feels uncomfortable, physically or emotionally. Too much noise, too many people, or too many screens may overwhelm you. Feelings of dread may come over you, or you may feel that you are tired and want to go into a dark room until you can “come back to normal.”

Again, everyone feels different. Here’s what happens when some Reddit users feel overstimulated around screaming children: 

  • “I literally have to plug my ears if I'm near a child screaming. It overwhelms me so much and completely ruins whatever mood I was in :/ I get so overstimulated it feels like I'm going to start crying too and want to scream back out something, I absolutely can't stand it.” 
  • “As a human with autism, let me tell you about my absolutely jacked hearing. My noise perception is off the roof. I can hear sounds human beings are not supposed to be able to hear. Like electric frequencies from certain objects the people around the object can't detect. But I can. Certain sounds like high-pitched laughter or screaming not only overwhelm me, they also cause physical damage. It is painful for me to hear a small child or baby scream. The sound is pure torture and also hurts me physically. I also hate the sound carpet in restaurants. But I'm not missing out since the food in these places sucks anyway. But yeah, my autism cranks the noise perception up a ton because my brain doesn't have a filter. I was literally born without a sensory filter. It sucks. But I'm managing and avoiding human interaction wherever possible. Humans suck.” 
  • “My blood pressure goes up and it's a tension that I normally don't experience lol! I think it is my blood pressure too. Like 'wow, I get why people want a hard drink' kind of feeling. Even as a teenager, babysitting was always exhausting for me and now I find it tiring just to be in the room with kids.” 

If you start to notice yourself feeling overstimulated, take note of your emotions. The more you do this, the more you will be in tune with how to prevent overstimulation and how to cope if you do start feeling discomfort. 

Does Overstimulation Cause Anxiety? 

Overstimulation and anxiety are closely related to each other. Anxiety can cause overstimulation and vice versa. We might feel “anxious” in response to sensory information. As little as three dots on our phone screens can let our brains know we are “stressed.” Our brains send out various neurotransmitters as a response to that stress, and our whole body undergoes a change. This change may make us more sensitive to sensory information. 

Stress management is so important for reducing our risk of overstimulation and other physical or emotional symptoms that cause us discomfort. If you are experiencing a lot of stress in your life, take some time and find coping strategies for that stress. More sleep, boundary-setting, and establishing a routine can all help reduce stress and prepare our bodies and minds better for sensory information. 

How To Cope With Overstimulation

Practice mindfulness. If you are not telling your mind to pay attention to one or two things, it will try to process everything at once. You can train your mind to stay focused through the practice of mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is a simple practice. All it requires is that you pay attention without judgment. As you pay attention to the present moment, you can better organize information in your mind and move forward with clear thoughts. Try it out by just sitting, eyes closed, and noticing how you feel in your body. How fast are you breathing? What parts of your body are making contact with other things? Do you feel okay emotionally and physically? After about 10 minutes of sitting and practicing mindfulness, you will likely find yourself feeling calmer and ready to take on the world around you. 

Put down the phone. Until we think about how much sensory information we are taking in, we may not realize how close we are pushing ourselves to overstimulation. Think about how much information you are consuming in this scenario: you are getting ready to go to a party, so you play music as you order a rideshare and have a few drinks. When the car arrives, you scroll through TikTok, Tinder, and Instagram, headphones in your ears. The rideshare also has a screen with trivia in front of your face. There is little time for your brain to process what you saw in the car before you enter a party of 100 people! 

You can eliminate stimulation by cutting your screen time. “Mindless” scrolling is never mindless. Your senses are still working hard as you scroll through multiple apps. Before a stimulating event, put down your phone and take a few deep breaths. 

Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone gets overstimulated. We all have different thresholds for how much we can “take” at a time. If you find yourself feeling discomfort, don’t be embarrassed. Take a moment to excuse yourself and practice mindfulness. Put down the phone, put down the alcohol, and find a place where you can sit and return to the present moment. After a few minutes, you will likely feel better. If the environment is wildly overstimulating, excuse yourself and go home. Do what feels best for your body. 

If you think overstimulation is a sign of more serious sensory processing disorders, reach out to a mental health professional. They can offer coping strategies for times when you experience overstimulation or explore your symptoms further. 

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, October). Overstimulation (Examples + FAQ). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/overstimulation-examples-faq/.

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