There’s a time and a place for bright lights and loud music. For many people, the presence of even one of these stimuli can lead to overstimulation. This is true not only for those with neurodiversity, but also those who are neurotypical — sensory issues and overstimulation are a common experience that lead to stress and overwhelm.
But what is overstimulation and what are sensory issues? Read on to learn more about these two concepts, including what it feels like and the different types of overstimulation.
What is overstimulation?
Overstimulation is a mental and emotional state that occurs when someone’s senses are taking in more stimuli than their brains can process. When the brain has multiple inputs all at once, it can become overwhelmed because it isn’t sure where to place attention — which is a finite resource, and not something easily dispersed amongst multiple sensory inputs.
When people are overstimulated, they may feel stuck because there are too many things happening for them to know what to do next. They can’t fully process any one piece of information, as attention is split across the various inputs. This stuck feeling then becomes a need to escape that environment, and when an escape isn’t possible, it can lead to emotional distress. Overstimulation is more than feeling overwhelmed. It’s a physical reaction to too many stimuli that leads to an adverse emotional experience and possibly compensatory behaviors.
Psychologist Dr. Megan Connell shares that stimuli that activate the fight, flight, or freeze response may lead to overstimulation. She says, “This reaction typically is involuntary and it is a way for the person’s body to try and get the experience to stop.”
What types of overstimulation are there?
There are several types of overstimulation that correspond to four different types of stimuli: sensory overstimulation, emotional overstimulation, intellectual overstimulation, and social overstimulation.
- Sensory overstimulation, as the name indicates, describes hypersensitive senses — sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. People who have sensory overstimulation become distressed when their senses are activated. Certain stimuli, like specific sounds or textures, can become upsetting. People might have that “nails on a chalkboard” experience by touching cotton balls, hearing the sound of dishes stacking together, or the smell of certain detergents.
- Emotional overstimulation, feelings and emotional experiences are the triggering stimuli for overwhelm. Those with emotional overstimulation might feel brain fog or disconnection when placed in settings that either engage their emotions or where they witness other people’s emotions. They might not be able to describe how they’re feeling or they might suddenly take on other people’s heavy emotions. Emotional settings don’t just have to involve people — some people experience emotional overstimulation from reading books or watching TV shows.
- Intellectual overstimulation comes from overthinking — people who experience intellectual overstimulation find themselves distressed by their thoughts. These thoughts might be about situations in their lives, problems in their work or at school, or even current events. Spiraling thoughts or rumination may lead to challenges for the brain to prioritize where to focus, leading to overwhelm.
- Social overstimulation combines all three of the previous types of overstimulation. Social overstimulation comes from the expectation to switch between intellectual, emotional, and sensory stimuli. During conversation or social activities, individuals must pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues on top of following the conversation. Even simple conversations then become a challenging sensory experience.
What are sensory issues?
Sensory issues describe the challenges that one has when it comes to processing sensory information coming from one or more of the five senses. Many people with sensory issues become overwhelmed by their environments, which then leads to an emotional reaction. For children, this reaction might be crying or throwing a tantrum. For adults, this reaction might be snapping at a loved one or resorting to unhealthy coping behaviors.
We constantly rely on our senses to navigate the physical world. Despite having such an important purpose, when overloaded, our senses can cause physical and emotional distress. When this distress begins to interrupt regular daily activities, including personal relationships, then it may be called sensory processing disorder (SPD), which often looks like mood swings and atypical behaviors.
Sensory processing disorder is marked by significant distress that leads to interruptions in daily activities. When overstimulation leads to an inability to smoothly attend to personal hygiene, nutrition, or sleep needs, it might be a sign of the presence of SPD. SPD can also be debilitating in relationship contexts, including the relationship one has with coworkers, family members, partners, or children.
Dr. Connell notes that having a sensory issue doesn’t automatically mean that someone will experience overstimulation, however she says that, “it puts one at an increased risk for experiencing overstimulation.”
What are examples of sensory overstimulation?
There are many examples of sensory overstimulation, though each person’s experiences vary based on how their brains work and in what types of situations they commonly find themselves.
Here are several examples of stimuli that often cause sensory overstimulation:
- Bright or flashing lights
- Loud music or car traffic sounds
- Large crowds of people
- Textures of food or clothing
- Sounds of other people eating or breathing
- Watching violent or suspenseful movies or TV shows
Sometimes, when multiple of these stimuli happen at once, they have a compounding influence. Certain stimuli can also become increasingly distressing when there are other things happening in your life concurrently, for example when you’re sick or stressed out. The causes of sensory overstimulation can also change with time and are often based on your surrounding environment, with novel environments being more conducive for overstimulation.
When someone becomes overstimulated, they might react by trying to get away from the activating environment. This can cause conflict in relationships, especially if a friend or partner doesn’t understand the negative impacts that environmental stimuli have on a person. It might also impact work or school performance when not recognized as overstimulation.
What does it mean if I have sensory issues?
If you have sensory issues, it simply means that you have challenges when overstimulated — it doesn’t mean you have a diagnosable mental health condition or physical condition. While sensory issues are commonly part of ADHD or ASD symptomatology, having sensory issues doesn’t mean that you have ADHD or ASD. It may mean that you’re a highly sensitive person. Or it may simply mean that certain stimuli or high levels of stimuli impact you, and nothing more.
Getting diagnosed with ADHD or ASD begins with extensive testing with a psychiatrist. Diagnoses can be helpful when engaging specialized services, but people with sensory issues can also begin to implement strategies to manage their overstimulation without one.
How can I cope with sensory issues or overstimulation?
There are many ways to cope with sensory issues, sensory overload or overstimulation, and you may find certain strategies help more than others. The most straightforward way to avoid these experiences is to avoid the stimuli that impact you. However, that’s not always possible or realistic. Instead, here are a few methods to try:
- Understand your triggers and set boundaries. Learning what stimuli cause you to feel overwhelmed is the first step towards understanding how best to manage overstimulation. Once you know what your triggers are, you can begin to set and enforce those boundaries.
- Advocate for yourself. If you start to feel overwhelmed because of the environment you’re in, it can be helpful to advocate for yourself by way of changes. You might consider asking your friend to turn down the music or change the lighting if that would help you feel more comfortable. You might also decide to remove yourself from your environment or situation, “This TV show is getting a little much for me. I’m going to take some time by myself for a bit.”
- Try out technology and tools. In certain environments, noise-canceling headphones can be helpful in blocking out noise stimuli that can cause overstimulation. Fidget tools can also be a good way to focus your attention on what you can feel, rather than what’s happening around you.
- Ask for accommodations. Getting accommodations — at work or at school — can make a huge difference. Talking to a manager is a good place to start, though an HR team member or a school administrator can also be effective.
- Practice radical acceptance. It can be easy to feel frustrated by your response to stimuli, but it’s important to remember that your brain is managing the situation the best way it knows how. Mindfulness and grounding strategies can be useful tools as you navigate difficult situations that can’t be avoided.
What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when coping with sensory issues or overstimulation? Dr. Connell reminds clients to be kind towards themselves. She says, “People can often feel shame and guilt over their reactions, which can cause us to feel worse and get in the way of us moving forward. Give yourself grace and kindness. Recall that we will be overstimulated at times, make a plan for how to best recharge yourself.”
It might take some trial and error to find the right strategies for you when it comes to managing overstimulation, and that takes self-compassion too. As you try out different ways of coping, it’s important to remember that you need to be patient with things, as it’s not an easy task. Dr. Connell continues, “If you need time alone, be alone. If you know that you have certain foods, or smells that comfort you, keep them on hand for bad days. For some it is taking time in meditation, while for others it is spending time with a pet, and still others want to use a weighted blanket. Find what works for you and have what you need on hand so that if you are overstimulated it does not ruin your day.”
Your brain might also change with time, so the strategies you use now might not be the best ones in a few years or across different environments. That’s why it can be incredibly helpful to work with a mental health professional to cope with overstimulation.
How can therapy help with sensory issues or overstimulation?
Working with a therapist when it comes to sensory issues or overstimulation can benefit you more than simply finding the right coping strategies. Therapists can help you draw connections between sensitivity and emotions like anxiety or shame. They can also help you become more mindful and self-aware, and guide you through reflections on how your sensitivity has impacted your life in the past.
If you’re looking for ways to find more peace and comfort in your everyday life, look for the right therapist for you using the Zencare therapist directory. You can even filter your search by specialities such as Sensitivity, Emotional Regulation, and Neuropsychological Testing to find someone more specialized. You can even filter by Identity to find a therapist who identifies as Neurodivergent! Many therapists are knowledgeable in sensory issues, and you can learn about their specialities and areas of interest by checking out their profiles.
For both the neurodiverse and the neurotypical, how much is happening around us impacts our experiences. Being curious about what makes you feel overstimulated and then finding ways to ensure that you are comfortable can benefit your work, school, relationships, and overall well-being.