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Overstimulation effects & finding the root cause

It is increasingly common to experience overstimulation. With the emergence of technology, media, and modern lifestyles, it can be difficult to manage how we react to overwhelming situations. Being overstimulated can lead to feelings of anxiety, frustration, and fatigue. It is important to understand the causes of overstimulation and how to regain control when we become overwhelmed.

What is Overstimulation?

Overstimulation, or sensory overstimulation, is a term used to describe the process of being exposed to too much sensory input at once. This can be anything from loud noises, bright lights, uncomfortable temperatures, or even tactile sensations. Our senses act as messengers to our brain, providing it with the information it needs to make decisions and direct our body’s reactions. Whenever there is an excessive amount of sensory input, the brain can become overwhelmed and unable to process all the data, resulting in being overstimulated. Sensory overload is another term used to describe these occurrences. 

This may happen gradually and go unnoticed.

Consider a typical day of your life: we start by scrolling through social media, followed by a full day of staring at screens as we work from home or the office, inevitably ending with more screen time while watching TV or reading an e-book to relax and unwind afterward.

This seemingly harmless routine has an impact on our senses and can strain our bodies. We are constantly bombarded with notifications and this demands attention, leaving us feeling exhausted.

It’s no surprise you’re showing signs of overstimulation in such conditions. This can occur in anyone but is often associated with conditions such as a dysregulated nervous system, autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, PTSD, or Tourette syndrome. You may feel overwhelmed, irritable, anxious, or panicked when you are overstimulated. This can eventually lead to neuromuscular and neurological diseases.

What Does Overstimulation Feel Like?

The symptoms of overstimulation vary on the individual and the situation. Some of the most common symptoms may include:

  • Difficulties focusing

  • Restlessness and agitation

  • Excessive irritability

  • Mental fatigue or “brain fog”

  • An aversion to sensory input

  • The feeling of discomfort in environments with many people or bright lights

  • Heightened sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights

  • Textures and fabrics that are uncomfortable to touch

What are the Causes of Overstimulation?

A dysregulated nervous system is one of the primary causes of overstimulation and often the culprit behind seemingly disproportionate reactions – such as under-responding or over-reacting – to events, people, and situations. This can be rooted in unresolved stress responses from past experiences.

The result may be mental health issues like depression, anxiety and panic, sleep problems, poor memory, and concentration, irritability, and exhaustion; as well as damaging behaviors like rage outbursts or passive aggression. All of which have the potential to further exacerbate any existing mental health concerns.

Some other common root causes of it include:

  • Excessive stress or environmental triggers

  • Over-exposure to loud noises or bright lights

  • A busy workspace or home environment

  • High levels of physical or mental stimulation

  • Poor sleep habits or inadequate rest

  • Substance abuse, such as alcohol and drugs

  • Inadequate nutrition

Are Highly Sensitive People More Prone to Sensory Overload and Overstimulation?

Yes, Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are more prone to overstimulation as their nervous systems are wired differently than others. Research suggests that their brains process the information on a deeper level and take notice of even the smallest detail. This type of processing leads HSPs to become easily overwhelmed and exhausted after prolonged exposure to stimuli, strong emotions, or a crowded environment.

Not only can HSPs feel things more intensely, but they can also absorb other people’s emotions – something that can lead to cognitive overload in times of stress or exhaustion. This why conversations may become difficult when someone has experienced too much stimulation!

Are Sensory Overload and Overstimulation the Same Thing?

Sensory overload and overstimulation are closely related, in that both involve the senses responding to external stimuli. However, overstimulation is the process of information being taken in by the senses, sensory overload is the result of too much input – when your brain can’t keep up with all the information directed at it. The nervous system is responsible for filtering out sensory inputs that are not relevant, but when it is overwhelmed with too many sensory stimuli and fails to filter out these inputs, a person can experience sensory overload.

 This can occur in situations where there is too much sensory stimulation, such as being in a crowded room or surrounded by loud noises. Consider a person walking in a crowded room – the amount of sensory information coming from all directions can be too much for the brain to process. That’s an example of both overstimulation and, if it becomes overwhelming, sensory overload. In such cases, this abundance of stimulus can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion.

Sensory Overload Symptoms may come in a range of forms, including physical and mental exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, or disoriented. When a person experiences sensory overload, they may feel anxious or overwhelmed. They can also have trouble paying attention, difficulty concentrating, experience physical tension in their neck and shoulders, and feel an overall sense of exhaustion. Chronic sensory overload can lead to further mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

Experiencing sensory overload is a part of life, and it is important to understand how sensory processing works so you can better deal with the effects of overstimulation.

Can overstimulation cause stress and anxiety and/or burnout?

Yes, overstimulation can absolutely cause stress, anxiety, and/or burnout.

When our brains are constantly bombarded with sensory information or have to process too much complex information, we can become overwhelmed and exhausted. This can lead to feelings of stress, tension, irritability, and exhaustion. If left unchecked, this can develop into more serious issues such as burnout or anxiety disorders.

How can I find relief?

The most important step in finding relief from overstimulation is to identify the root cause and take action to address it. The primary cause of overstimulation is a dysregulated nervous system. Taking steps to regulate your nervous system can help reduce the sensations of overstimulation and improve overall well-being in the long term.

Navigating the journey to a regulated nervous system is no easy task and requires dedication and a strategy to reach your goals. The “fix” mentality can be alluring, but trying one tool or tip without understanding how we’re truly connected with our nervous systems can lead us into a cycle of further dysregulation.

It’s essential to have a strategy to promote regulation that takes into account the ups and downs of the journey – especially during the early stages. Without patience and perseverance, it is easy to become disheartened and think you are “broken”, which could lead to giving up entirely.

Here are a few steps towards healing your nervous system after burnout:

  1. Awareness

  2. Regulation

  3. Restoration

  4. Connection

  5. Expansion

Here are some other simple practices that may help you:

  • Unplug from your devices – take a break from technology and turn off all notifications on your phone.

  • Take deep breaths – make sure each exhale is longer than your inhale.

  • Ground yourself in the present moment – become aware of your senses in the current environment and focus on how they make you feel. Emotional regulation helps.

  • Get physical movement – take a few minutes to stretch or go for a walk.

  • Connect with nature – spend time outdoors surrounded by natural elements like the trees and water.

  • Talk to someone – find an understanding ear if you need to talk about what’s going on.

Practicing these activities regularly can help to restore balance and give you the respite you need to take on bigger challenges. 

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