Overstimulation is a widespread struggle, but many people don’t even know they are experiencing it. It is a sensory processing difficulty that causes our brains to feel overloaded or “overstimulated”. Too much stimulus or mental arousal triggers the brain, and it can’t process them all, leaving us craving escapism or suffering from mental paralysis.
We may write off this discomfort or try to ignore it. Unfortunately, we cannot find a solution when we ignore the problem. Once we recognize overstimulation symptoms, we can pick the solution that works best for us.
Continue reading to learn all about overstimulation and encourage you to take the first step toward overcoming it, in surprising ways that may feel difficult to start with (over even counterproductive) but it takes a little work!
The 5 common symptoms of overstimulation
If you’re wondering what overstimulation feels like, to check and validate your overstimulated symptoms, read on to discover how it can also present itself as anxiety, fatigue/tiredness, decreased focus and disruptive sleep. The signs of overstimulation in adults does differ slightly to adolescents but these are the most commonly occurring ones.
1. Increased anxiety
One of the most prevalent effects of overstimulation is overstimulation anxiety. When we experience excessive input, we begin to feel on edge. Constant stimulation sends our brains spiraling into reaction mode. Unfortunately, these reactions are automatic, and we cannot control them.
We may experience racing thoughts, excessive worries, or fear. Increased circulation of cortisol will cause many of these reactions. It is supposed to regulate the body’s stress response, but it can be detrimental when there is no real threat.
Fight or flight mode can kick in even when the threat is only perceived. Too much input can trick our brains into feeling like we are under attack, and our bodies will respond accordingly. However, such responses can make it difficult to relax and recover from stress.
Further reading: What is a Stress Bucket? And How You Can Use It in 2022
Overstimulation anxiety can present in many ways. We may struggle to unwind after overstimulation and feel discomfort for the rest of the day. We may also crash quickly and need a nap to recover.
2. Mental fatigue / tiredness
Overstimulation is also exhausting. It can make us restless and disrupt our sleep patterns. When our nervous system is overworked, we can experience overstimulation symptoms like mental and physical fatigue.
When we experience mental fatigue, we may become more irritable than usual or cry more easily. Our brains cannot tolerate many situations, and we cannot think rationally.
For example, we may snap at someone for snoring too loudly down the hall, even though it never used to bother us. We may also cry while discussing a stressful situation with a friend, even if we would not typically cry in public.
3. Physical fatigue / tiredness
Like mental fatigue, physical fatigue is the result of an overworked nervous system. Even if we sleep as many hours as we always have, our bodies can begin to feel drained.
We may experience physical fatigue, such as heavy limbs or joint pain. Anxiety can cause tension within muscles, leading to pain and stiffness.
Fatigue is also one of the most common symptoms of overstimulation. Although most people focus on the restlessness associated with ADHD, there is another side that many onlookers do not see.
After days filled with constant movement and nights of intermittent sleep, many people with overstimulation ADHD feel physically exhausted and have been commonly known to be prescribed Adderall
4. Decreased focus and concentration
Many people who have been overstimulated report zoning out or daydreaming. When our brains are overloaded, it can be difficult to focus on the important details outside.
Focus is especially challenging for those with overstimulation ADHD because their brains are not prepared to filter out sensory input. While many people can prioritize which stimuli should be handled immediately, those with ADHD try to process it all at once.
Overstimulation is also the result of constant access to technology. We struggle to maintain focus because we are accustomed to a barrage of information delivered immediately. We can scroll through hundreds of social media posts in a minute or read the headlines of several articles.
When our brains adapt to processing countless different ideas at once, it can take time to adjust to focusing all of our attention on one topic.
5. Disruptive sleep patterns
Overstimulation can alter sleep patterns in various ways. We may sleep too much, too little, or get poor-quality sleep. Sleeping too much often indicates our body’s need to recover from daily exhaustion.
Others sleep too little because it is difficult to fall asleep when your brain is hyperactive. It is common for those with overstimulation anxiety to experience insomnia or interrupted sleep.
We can also find ourselves in a relentless cycle when we lose sleep. When our fight or flight response is activated, our bodies believe they do not need sleep.
Then, our lack of sleep causes our brains to circulate more cortisol throughout the body. Large quantities of this hormone decrease our desire to sleep. Over time, we sleep less and crave less sleep.
How to solve overstimulation
There are a few effective solutions to overstimulation backed by research. You may have to try a few before finding the one that best suits your needs. Learn about five common techniques and how to carry them out.
Mindful breathing techniques
Overstimulation is the result of excessive input from our environment. Sometimes, we need to take a break and shut everything out. This process gives our brain time to reset and recover.
Mindful breathing techniques are helpful for many people exhibiting overstimulation anxiety and other overstimulation symptoms. We can filter out unnecessary stimuli and decrease our wandering thoughts by focusing on a simple task like breathing.
These techniques are ideal for people with little time to relax. They are quick, and you can do them anywhere. You may practice mindful breathing during your lunch break, on a train ride, or as part of your morning routine.
How to practice mindful breathing techniques
To begin mindful breathing, sit with your back straight or lie down.
Choose between closing your eyes or focusing on a fixed point in the room. Bring your attention to the feeling of the supports beneath you, the temperature, or any sounds you can hear. Then, shift your attention to your breathing.
There are several options to help you focus on your breathing. Try any of the following:
- Count your breaths.
- Notice the sensation in your chest while you breathe.
- Alternate breathing between your nostrils.
- Focus on the moment your breath changes from inhalation to exhalation.
- Pay attention to the quality of your breath.
While practicing mindfulness, take the time to notice when you become distracted, then return your focus to breathing. It is crucial to remain non-judgemental. Distractions are a natural part of the process and do not indicate that you failed or are incapable of mindful breathing.
Physical exercise and relaxation
Regular exercise increases dopamine and norepinephrine, which help to regulate our attention systems. Over time, we can raise the baseline levels of these neurotransmitters, leading to long-term improvements in attention.
Once we regulate our attention systems, we can begin to cope with overstimulation ADHD. Instead of focusing on every stimulus within a mile, we can find the most important stimuli and give them more attention.
Although all exercise helps, more complex exercise increases norepinephrine levels more significantly. For example, practicing martial arts can provide better results for overstimulation ADHD than running on a treadmill.
It is also beneficial to select exercises we enjoy. After a long day of overstimulation followed by exhaustion, the last thing we want is another chore.
Choosing enjoyable exercises can increase motivation. We can run through a park or take a kickboxing class rather than complete an ab workout at home.
While physical exercise can burn off excess energy and regulate our bodies, we cannot overlook relaxation. Taking the time to unwind is crucial to help our bodies and brains recover from stressful days.
You can set aside time to relax before getting out of bed, between tasks at work, before making dinner, or before going to sleep. It does not need to involve a bubble bath and candles, but it should give you time to let the worries and frustrations slip away for a few moments.
Setting boundaries to prioritize self-care
Of all the overstimulation solutions, self-care is often the most overlooked. Unfortunately, overstimulation symptoms like emotional burnout, overstimulation anxiety, and fatigue can spiral out of control when left unattended.
We tend to accept any task when feeling energized by an overactive brain or increased cortisol levels. We may agree to fill in for a coworker at a meeting, pick up a friend’s kid from school, and attend a dinner party with our spouse.
Unfortunately, we have little time to decompress after completing all these tasks. By the end of the day, we are mentally and physically exhausted.
Instead, we must learn to set boundaries and leave time for self-care. Some tips include:
- Be more direct: Do not discuss your exhaustion and hope the other person will get the hint. Say that you cannot add more to your day.
- Limit communication: Choose a time of day for self-care, and do not respond to non-emergency situations during this time. Work tasks, help with homework, and catching up with a friend can wait.
- Take your schedule into account: Offer to help at a time that is convenient for you. Instead of agreeing to babysit three days a week, offer to do so only on Tuesdays. This method helps the other person without eliminating time for self-care.
Your self-care routine can include a favorite hobby, mindfulness exercises, physical exercise, yoga, or a bath. Adding enjoyable activities that lower your stress will keep you from burning out.
Disconnecting from technology
Most of us scroll through social media when we wake up, while waiting in line, before we fall asleep, and more. Even those who limit screen time are exposed to TVs everywhere they turn and the sounds from others’ phones.
This digital stimulation mingles with our thoughts and decreases our ability to focus on one task. However, we can clear our minds by disconnecting from technology.
We may need to fight the urge to check our phones during every free moment or set a limit to our screen time. Those who do not use technology regularly may need to switch their daily routine from walking in the mall, surrounded by screens, to walking outdoors.
Taking time to appreciate the present can decrease overstimulation anxiety and overstimulation ADHD.
Mindfulness and meditation
Like mindful breathing, mindfulness and meditation help us focus our energy. We practice filtering stimuli and canceling out unnecessary noise.
Types of mindfulness and meditation
There are many types of mindfulness and meditation, but some of the best for people experiencing overstimulation symptoms include the following:
- Guided meditation: Listen to an instructor as they describe a relaxing scene, such as a forest or beach. They help you picture yourself in a different place where you can focus on yourself without the distractions of your current situation. This type of meditation is ideal for people who struggle to quiet their minds. You can do this with a therapist, find an app, or choose a video online.
- Active imagination: This is the same idea as guided meditation, but you describe your environment without the help of someone else.
- Meditations that focus on concentration: Repeat a positive phrase, such as a positive affirmation.
- Open monitoring: Begin the same as you would for mindful breathing. Reflect on your thoughts without judging them. Focus on the present.
- Self-transcending practices: Choose a word or meaningless sound and repeat it. Eventually, it will grow faint and disappear, leaving pure awareness with few thoughts and feelings. When you have a thought, return to the word or mantra.
The next time you experience anxiety, mental or physical fatigue, decreased concentration, or disruptive sleep patterns, ask yourself if overstimulation could be the root cause.
When these challenges arise, you can fight back with mindful breathing, physical exercise, setting boundaries, prioritizing self-care and relaxation, taking breaks from technology, and practicing meditation.
Although overstimulation can leave us feeling drained and helpless, countless solutions are accessible to almost anyone. Don’t let yourself burn out or accept the discomfort of overstimulation any longer. Find a simple solution to make your life brighter.