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Overstimulation Explained

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12 min

Overstimulation Explained

Imagine two people entering a supermarket. The first experiences a calm atmosphere: people moving about, soft music, gentle lighting, and a subtle blend of pleasant fragrances. 

The other, however, faces a sensory attack: a crowd of people, harsh fluorescent lights assaulting their eyes, loud music bombarding their ears. And the combined scent of a hundred different perfumes caused a wave of nausea. See the stark contrast? 

No, this isn’t a scene from a “sad and happy guys on a bus” meme or a science fiction movie. It’s a daily struggle for many who experience sensory overload, also known as overstimulation.

It goes beyond feeling overwhelmed. Your body that says, “Whoa, that’s too much!” This can leave you drained, irritable, and desperate for an escape.

So, what does overstimulation mean? Can we deal with it in daily life? You will find all this and more in this article. Discover how to create a calmer, more comfortable environment for yourself, even when it feels like the world is turned up to eleven.

What is overstimulation in adults?

Many people experience sensory processing challenges, with estimates ranging from 5% to 16.5% of the general population. What does it mean to be overstimulated? According to experts, there isn’t much scientific theory behind the definition of overstimulation. 

It happens when the brain is flooded with more sensory information or emotional stimuli than it can manage.

This overload can stem from many sources, including loud sounds, intense lighting, extreme temperatures, strong odors, crowded spaces, or specific physical sensations like clothing texture. When the brain thinks there might be danger, it tells your body to react. You might feel anxious, scared, or uncomfortable. That’s the meaning of overstimulation. 

It’s important to tell the difference between states of overstimulation. The thing is that anyone can be overstimulated, regardless of their mental health status. It can be a temporary reaction to an overwhelming environment, like a loud concert or a busy street. 

But overstimulation can also be even more common in people with conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Hyper Sensitive Person (HSP), ADHD, and AuDHD

For other people, overstimulation can go gradually and unseen. For example, have you ever noticed that you’re constantly “plugged in”? You wake up glued to your phone, checking news and emails all day. Online banking, shopping, work, then unwind with screens before bed.

Mary Hoang, the founder and principal psychologist of online counseling practice, says it’s because “the brain is programmed to pay attention to stimuli that are changing quickly – so we are often at the mercy of the ‘endless scroll’ and TV screens.” This is so true.

And yet, many of us count it as a typical routine. But wait, do you feel that? Yes, this is overstimulation, breathing down your neck. Besides that, there can be other causes to consider for why you get overstimulated.

ADHD& Overstimulation

Many with ADHD can be frequently overstimulated due to how their brains process information. When someone has sensory processing challenges, everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches can feel overwhelming or unpleasant. This can make focusing and filtering out unimportant details quite challenging.

The thing is that the areas of the brain responsible for focus, decision-making, and impulse control may function differently in people with ADHD. That is why it makes managing emotions and external distractions difficult for them and can lead to ADHD burnout even.

Overstimulation in HSP

It’s important to know that highly sensitive people (HSPs) also perceive everything differently due to how their brains work. They easily get overstimulated because they notice and think deeply about everything around them. A hypersensitive person might pick up on sounds like faint whispers, the rustling of leaves, subtle fragrances, or even small movements nearby. 

Being this sensitive can also be a good thing, as some research shows it helps them in the long run. The downside, however, is this makes highly sensitive people tired quickly at the end of the day.

Why do I get overstimulated so easily?

It’s not always easy to understand why overstimulation can feel overwhelming. While our nervous systems usually do a great job of managing incoming information, sometimes things get thrown off balance. 

Past experiences, like unresolved stress, childhood trauma, or specific conditions like ADHD or HSP, can influence this, as I already mentioned. 

By understanding the triggers that lead to overstimulation, we can find ways to manage it. So, let’s take a look at the causes of ADHD, HSP, and overall overstimulation. And see how many of these you can relate to.

Causes for ADHD sensory overload

People with ADHD need to know their sensory triggers: things that flood them with stimulation. While some are common, they vary from person to person, including:

  • Loud or sudden noises can be overwhelming for someone with ADHD.
  • Strong or unfamiliar tastes and textures in food can be too intense for those with sensory issues, leading to avoiding certain foods.
  • Certain textures or touches are too much to handle or excessively uncomfortable for people with ADHD.
  • Bright lights or busy places can make it hard to focus or stay calm.
  • People with ADHD might find some smells to be too intense and unpleasant.

Triggers for HSP overstimulation

Different types of highly sensitive people can be bothered by similar things:

  • Feeling sponges: A hyper-sensitive person feels others’ feelings deeply; they pick up emotions easily and may get affected by negative media.
  • Sensory overload: Loud noises, messy spaces, and information overload can drain and overstimulate HSPs.
  • Decision dilemmas: Overthinking and considering every angle can make decisions challenging.
  • Deep thinking: Analyzing details can get them easily overstimulated by decisions.

Overall causes of overstimulation

Since we’re aware of common triggers for specific conditions, it should be easier to understand how to work on them. Now, let’s explore the most prevalent causes of overstimulation overall.

1. Bright lights and loud noises

These are the very first to trigger overstimulation and anxiety episodes. Car honking, construction noises, and crowded cafes are more than just annoying – they feel loud and stressful. Bright lights in cities, flashing phone screens, and even sunshine can be uncomfortable, giving you headaches and making it hard to focus. 

2. Social media overdose

Have you ever caught yourself scrolling through endless feeds on Instagram while doing something else? Procrastinating bedtime because of it? Spending much time on social media can overwhelm your brain with information overload, quickly leading to overstimulation.

3. Always stressed, always tired

Feeling constantly stressed and tired affects your body, mind, and mood. It makes you feel even more drained by daily tasks, making it harder to cope with everyday stress and get overstimulated.

4. Doomscrolling

Something is interesting about it. According to experts, online news causes more stress than printed news or TV. Why? It’s primarily because of graphic images, especially when seen repeatedly. Due to our tendency to remember more negative than positive things, this can lead to anxiety or depression, getting easily overstimulated in adults.

If you’re seeking to manage anxiety and track negative thoughts, consider exploring tools like Breeze to support your well-being.

5. Sleep Deficit 

Insufficient sleep steals your memory and mood. That’s why you wake up tired in the morning, struggling to recall what you learned yesterday or control your reactions today. This can snowball into health problems down the road.

6. Urban Overload

For many, city overload is a double-edged sword. It can be both thrilling and exhausting, leaving you feeling drained yet energized. Crowds, lights, smells, voices – it’s enough to melt your brain and make you feel overstimulated. Urban overload is an experience that stays with you long after you leave the city behind.

triggers for overstimulated people

Symptoms of overstimulation

Not everyone reacts the same way to stimulation. It can be overwhelming depending on who you are, how long it lasts, and what it is. So, how do you define if you are being overstimulated? While everyone reacts differently, watch out for these common signs of overstimulation in adults:

  • Overwhelmed and stressed. Feeling like you have too much on your plate, can’t relax, and everything seems urgent. You also get the obsessive feeling that you’re behind on deadlines, even though that’s not really the case.
  • Can’t ignore sounds, sights, and smells. Music in a public place feels unbearably loud, fluorescent lights seem blindingly bright, and everyday cooking smells become overpowering.
  • Little things bother you more. Dropped pens send shivers down your spine, background chatter feels like yelling, and someone chewing gum becomes irritating.
  • Want to escape or get away. You dream about quiet solitude, being somewhere peaceful, and want to leave overwhelming situations urgently.
  • Dizzy, confused, disoriented. The room might spin, your thoughts feel foggy, and you have trouble remembering simple things.

That’s how overstimulation feels like. It can be challenging, and I want to remind you that you’re not alone. If it’s causing you significant challenges, reach out to your doctor. They have the knowledge and tools to guide you towards feeling better.

Also, you can take a gentle step towards calm with Breeze. You will be able to

➡️Track your moods to identify what’s causing the overload.

➡️Challenge negative thinking patterns.

➡️Take in-depth tests to understand your personality and strengths.

➡️Access educational courses based on your needs.

Breeze isn’t a replacement for professional help but can be a friendly companion on your journey to feeling more in control. ✨

Now, let’s talk about how to stop overstimulation. Are you ready for some tips?

How to deal with overstimulation

We all have different levels of sensitivity to our surroundings and how much information our minds can juggle at once. This “personal volume knob” adjusts all the time, influenced by things like stress, sleep, and even how much coffee we’ve had. 

So, how to help with overstimulation? The world can get overwhelming, but don’t panic! Tools are here to help. Explore ADHD/HSP strategies and general tips to tame sensory overload.

Tips for ADHD overstimulation

Living with ADHD-related sensory overload can be tricky, but there are strategies to manage the stress from too much sensory input. Consider the following:

  • Identify your triggers: What sights, sounds, or textures make you feel overwhelmed? Think about it. Once you know, try to avoid or minimize them when possible.
  • Prioritize self-care: Getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, and staying hydrated will make you feel less overstimulated.
  • Create a calming environment: At home and work, optimize your surroundings for comfort and focus. This might involve reducing clutter, using calming colors, or having noise-canceling headphones on hand.
  • Explore therapy options: Several therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), sensory integration, and occupational therapy, can help manage ADHD and sensory overload.

Advice for HSPs’ sensory overload

Highly sensitive people need calm and simplicity to handle lots of sensory input:

  • Quiet spaces: A peaceful environment helps them unwind and feel their best.
  • Planned breaks: Regular downtime helps them stay energized and happy.
  • Time alone: Focusing on tasks or hobbies is easier without distractions.
  • Routines: Predictable schedules reduce stress and communication needs.
  • Silence: Breaks from noise are vital for feeling relaxed and thinking clearly.

5 Tips for everyone who feels overstimulated 

Nowadays, overstimulation is incredibly common, so it’s important to seek helpful tips and incorporate them into your daily routine to feel better and healthier. ➡️

1. Find your cozy corner: Find a spare room, dim the lights, play calming music, and add comfy blankets. You are all set! Also, try getting outside. Go to your favorite park or other place and find a quiet corner where you can just sit and relax surrounded by nature. Find what works for you!

2. Sound therapy: No, it’s not about fighting fire with fire. For example, creating a calming playlist filled with instrumental music, nature sounds, or even guided meditations is a good idea. Podcasts or audiobooks with soothing voices can also offer calm and reduce overstimulation.

3. Limit screen time: Instead of going cold turkey, set reachable limits. It’s not easy, but at least try to spend less time on your phone. You can set time limits using apps or built-in features. Another idea is to create screen-free zones like bedtime or meals. Gradually increase these windows as you feel more in control.

4. Mindfulness: Take a few deep breaths, close your eyes (if comfortable), and simply be present. Feel your feet on the ground, and listen to the sounds around you. These small moments of connection can help ground you and bring a sense of calm. 

5. Learn to set boundaries: If you live with others, let them know you need quiet time. You can say, “Can I have an hour in my room?” or “Could we all have a quiet dinner tonight?” It’s okay to ask for these things. Remember, self-care isn’t selfish; it’s essential for well-being.

Bonus Tip: Life is movement: Sometimes, physical activity can help process overwhelming emotions. Take a walk in nature, stretch gently, or try some light yoga. Movement can release tension and bring clarity, leaving you feeling more centered and less overstimulated.

Wrapping up

It’s completely okay to feel overwhelmed, which is pretty common nowadays. But while overstimulation isn’t a formal medical diagnosis, it can really affect your physical and mental health.

Therefore, it is crucial to understand what it is and what signs to look out for. This way, you can figure out what bothers you and learn ways to feel better. This helps not just you but others who might feel the same way.

Remember, you’re not alone. Our Breeze app offers helpful tools to manage stress, anxiety, and worry. Start with the test to explore how it can improve your daily life.

Cimone Safilian, PhD, TLLP, added her advice on how to reduce overstimulation
“Reducing overstimulation is all about finding what works best for you! Experimenting with these tips and figuring out what works best and makes you feel your best is key. Another helpful tip is establishing a calming night time routine. Something that you can do every night, that is relaxing, and is something that you look forward to at the end of a long day. This can be lighting your favorite candle while getting ready for bed, dedicating 30 minutes before sleep to reading your favorite book, or sticking to a night time skin care routine. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just needs to be simple and relaxing!”

Cimone Hanif, PhD, TLLP photo

Reviewed by Cimone Hanif, PhD, TLLP

Dr. Hanif is a practicing therapist and behavioral health writer/editor. She received her PhD in International Psychology from The...