Handling Being Overstimulated

What is overstimulation? 

Overstimulation is the experience of feeling overwhelmed by too much sensory input in your environment. It’s essentially your body’s way of alerting you that it has reached its limit. It can feel extremely uncomfortable and even alarming if you’re unsure of what’s happening to you.  

Who does it happen to? 

Those who are most likely to experience overstimulation on a regular basis include but are not limited to those with anxiety and/or depression, those who have experienced trauma, and those who are neurodivergent (especially those with ASD and ADHD).  

What does it look like? 

Overstimulation often presents as an emotional reaction. It can look like quick anger, an anxiety attack, tearfulness, and/ or inability to focus. For those who are around someone who is overstimulated, they may interpret this reaction as rude, immature, and/or selfish. Due to this, it’s important to communicate what’s going on to others around you.  

What causes it? 

Many things can cause overstimulation, and it’s often a combination of stimulating factors. Here are a few examples: Loud sounds, strong smells, bright lighting, stress/too many demands, social media, time urgency, coffee/stimulants, social events, crowds, and a lack of sleep.  

How is it different from being overwhelmed? 

Overstimulation and overwhelm are similar experiences that often occur simultaneously. Generally, overstimulation is a sudden sensory overload. If you’re feeling overstimulated in the environment that you’re in and you remove yourself from that space, you’re likely to feel a sense of relief. Overwhelm is more of a state of mind, so removing yourself from the environment probably isn’t going to do much. You’re more likely to find relief from making a to-do list to get organized or taking something unimportant off your plate.  

How do I manage it?  

Becoming aware of when you’re feeling overstimulated is the first step. Once you’ve identified that you’re overstimulated, consider trying the STOP skill:  

S – Stop what you’re doing 

  • If you are able, temporarily remove yourself from the stimulating environment for a break. Sometimes a quick trip to the bathroom is all you need.  

T – Take a breath  

  • Or a few breaths!  

O – Observe your experience  

  • Ask yourself what you and your body need.   

P – Proceed mindfully 

  • Consider engaging in some kind of grounding activity for self-soothing. Here are some ideas:  
  • Listening to music 
  • Taking a shower  
  • Putting on more comfortable clothes 
  • Taking a nap  
  • Easy movement (tapping, rocking, etc.) 
  • Asking someone for help  
  • Writing out a brain dump of your stress (extra points if you cross off the things that are out of your control and circle one action step you’re going to take!)
     

Feeling overstimulated is a normal human experience. It’s not helpful to judge yourself, neglect your needs, or expect perfection from yourself. Give yourself grace, not only because that’s the energy you likely need when overstimulated, but because you are acceptable as you are and worthy of compassion!  

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