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How to Cope When You're Overstimulated: Tips & Strategies

By Julian Lewis October 9, 2023

How to Cope When You're Overstimulated: Tips & Strategies

Have you ever walked into a crowded space filled with loud noises, flashing lights, and strong smells, and felt completely overwhelmed? That sensation—where your senses seem to hit their limit and your stress response skyrockets—is called sensory overload. Understanding what it means to be overstimulated is the first step in managing these overwhelming experiences.

Being overstimulated isn't just about feeling temporarily overwhelmed; it can have real, lasting impacts on your mental and physical health. In some people, such as those with anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory overload can be a chronic issue, setting off a cascade of stress hormones that disrupt daily life.

So why is it crucial to address sensory overload promptly? Ignoring the common symptoms and failing to manage sensory input can lead to chronic stress, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and even affecting your body's stress response mechanisms. For children, who are often more sensitive to sensory stimulation, ignoring the signs can result in long-term sensory processing issues.

In the sections that follow, we will delve into the triggers, symptoms, and coping strategies for sensory overload, equipping you with the tools you need to navigate an often overwhelming world.

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Understanding Overstimulation: The Basics

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where every sound seems too loud, lights too bright, and scents too strong? You're not alone. These sensations often stem from being overstimulated or experiencing sensory overload. Whether it's a crowded room or just multiple conversations happening simultaneously, certain types of sensory input can quickly make you feel overstimulated and overwhelmed.

Defining 'Overstimulated' and 'Sensory Overload'

Being overstimulated means that your senses are taking in more information than your brain can effectively process. This state can result in sensory overload, a condition characterized by symptoms like increased heart rate, anxiety, and an overwhelming desire to escape your environment. Sensory overload is not to be taken lightly; it can affect anyone—children and adults alike—but is particularly prevalent in certain groups, such as people with anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Common Symptoms and Sensory Input Leading to Feeling Overstimulated

So, what kind of sensory input can trigger this state? Loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, and crowded spaces are some of the most common culprits. But it's not just the intensity of these stimuli; it's also the volume. Being exposed to multiple types of sensory information simultaneously can also make you feel overwhelmed.

In the following sections, we'll explore coping strategies, delve into the neuroscience behind sensory overload, and offer practical tips to help you manage when you're feeling overstimulated. Stay tuned!


What Causes Sensory Overload?

Ever wondered why bright lights at a concert or the constant hum of conversation in a crowded café can make you feel suddenly anxious or overwhelmed? If so, you've already touched on the tip of a sensory iceberg that can lead to sensory overload. This feeling is more than just an inconvenience; it's a distressing state that can have significant impacts on your well-being.

Environmental Factors Like Bright Lights and Loud Sounds

One of the most common causes of sensory overload is the environment you're in. Bright lights, loud sounds, strong smells, and even certain textures can serve as triggers. Imagine walking into a mall with flashing lights, multiple conversations, and an array of strong smells from the food court. These environmental factors alone can ignite a stress response in your body, producing a flood of stress hormones and a sense of acute anxiety.

Certain Groups at Higher Risk

Sensory overload isn't universal; it hits certain groups harder than others. Children are often more sensitive to sensory stimuli, as their brains are still in the process of learning how to filter and process information. Additionally, individuals with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or autism may find themselves at a higher risk of experiencing sensory overload. For these groups, the experience can be more than just uncomfortable—it can be debilitating.

In the coming sections, we'll break down coping strategies and delve into preventative measures, ensuring that you're equipped to deal with sensory overload in various scenarios.


What Does Overstimulation Feel Like?

Have you ever been in a bustling coffee shop and suddenly found yourself acutely aware of every conversation, scent, and rustle of paper? Perhaps your heart rate accelerates, your palms become sweaty, and you can't think straight. Welcome to the world of overstimulation and sensory overload, where too much sensory input bombards your senses and triggers a flood of stress hormones, creating an immediate stress response in your body.

Physiological and Emotional Symptoms

From physiological to emotional reactions, feeling overstimulated can manifest in various ways. Stress hormones like cortisol surge, amplifying your stress response and making it harder to process information or make decisions. You might start to feel overwhelmed, anxious, or even experience chronic stress if exposed to specific stimuli for extended periods.

Sensory Overload in Day-to-Day Life

Experiencing sensory overload isn't restricted to extreme environments like concerts or packed shopping malls. It can occur in everyday scenarios—from the sound of loud conversations in a crowded restaurant to the flashing lights and loud noises in a busy street. For example, children with sensory processing issues may find a typical school day distressing due to the multitude of stimuli they cannot ignore.

So, what can you do when you experience sensory overload in your daily life? In the coming sections, we'll cover coping strategies and preventive measures that can help you better manage sensory stimuli and improve your quality of life. If you're looking for more tips on managing anxiety, especially in a work environment, check out this post on calming anxiety at work.

How to Recognize the Triggers of Sensory Overload

Have you ever walked into a room and instantly felt bombarded by a cacophony of sounds, lights, and scents? One moment you're fine, and the next, you're grappling with an overwhelming surge of emotions and physical sensations. Understanding what triggers sensory overload is the first step toward gaining control over this unsettling experience.

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Identifying Specific Stimuli and Environments

It's crucial to recognize the specific stimuli and environments that trigger sensory overload in your life. For some, it might be the sensory input from a room filled with strong smells and bright lights. For others, it could be crowded spaces or loud noises. Knowing your triggers can help you prepare and even avoid settings that cause discomfort or stress.

Importance of Awareness and Sensory Information

Heightening your awareness to sensory information plays a pivotal role in managing and preventing sensory overload. Being tuned into your body and surroundings lets you spot the early signs of overstimulation, allowing you to take timely actions, such as seeking out a quiet place or using noise-canceling headphones.

Coping Strategies: Effective Ways to Manage Overstimulation

Imagine being stuck in a room where every sight, smell, and sound overwhelms you. That flickering fluorescent light? It feels like a strobe. The ambient chatter of multiple conversations? It feels like a rock concert. This is not a rare phenomenon but a slice of day-to-day reality for those who experience sensory overload. Thankfully, there are effective coping strategies to manage these overwhelming situations.

Using Noise-Canceling Headphones, Finding a Quiet Place, and Setting Boundaries

Among the most effective ways to cope with sensory overload are noise-canceling headphones. By dampening the loud sounds around you, they can provide instant relief. Finding a quiet place serves a similar purpose by limiting your sensory input. Setting boundaries, whether physical or emotional, also plays a vital role in shielding you from extreme sensitivity to stimuli.

Tips from Occupational Therapists: Ignoring Loud Sounds Through Specific Techniques

Occupational therapists offer specialized techniques for dealing with sensory overload. One of the key tips they provide is learning to ignore loud sounds through targeted exercises and mental training. This is crucial, especially in settings where you can't control the environment, like in school or at work.


Helping Children Experience Sensory Overload

Picture a bustling school hallway filled with children. While most navigate the sensory information effortlessly, some children are grappling with an invisible burden. Imagine being that child for whom the hum of voices triggers sensory overload, or for whom bright lights are overwhelmingly intense. These are not rare instances of discomfort; they are telltale signs of sensory processing issues in children, which deserve prompt attention.

Signs of Sensory Processing Issues in Children

Children with sensory processing issues often display common symptoms such as extreme sensitivity to specific stimuli like loud sounds or strong smells. It's crucial to recognize these signs early, as they can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. Furthermore, these issues might exacerbate conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.

Steps Schools and Parents Can Take

Schools and parents have a pivotal role to play in helping children experiencing sensory overload. One practical measure includes the establishment of "safe spaces" equipped with noise-canceling headphones and dimmed lighting where children can retreat to when feeling overstimulated. Occupational therapists can also offer coping strategies tailored to each child's needs, like teaching them how to ignore loud sounds or find a quiet place to rest.


Sensory Stimulation vs. Sensory Overload: The Balance

Imagine walking through a fragrant flower garden; your senses are delighted. Now, imagine a bustling city street, filled with flashing lights and loud noises; you may start to feel overstimulated. Both scenarios involve sensory stimulation, but the latter can easily tip the scale towards sensory overload, especially for those with extreme sensitivity.

How Some Amount of Sensory Stimulation is Necessary

Our brain craves a certain level of sensory input to function optimally. The sights, sounds, and smells that surround us help process information and orient us in our environment. However, the right balance is crucial. Too little stimulation and we become disengaged; too much, and we risk overwhelming our senses.

Extreme Sensitivity and The Concept of 'Safe Spaces'

For individuals who experience sensory overload, navigating everyday life can be like tiptoeing through a minefield of triggers. Recognizing this, the concept of 'safe spaces' has gained prominence—places where sensory input is minimized to help the individual regain balance.

When to Seek Professional Help

Imagine your life as a tightly wound spring. Each sensory overload event winds it tighter and tighter, contributing to chronic stress. If left unmanaged, the long-term impact can be detrimental to both your mental and physical well-being. So, when should you consult experts in the field? This section aims to guide you in recognizing the signs and symptoms that indicate it's time to seek professional help.

Embracing a Life Balanced with Sensory Input

In a world saturated with stimuli, finding balance is more crucial than ever. Whether it's the bright lights at work or loud sounds in a crowded space, sensory overload is an increasing reality for many. Especially vulnerable are children and individuals with specific conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety. But remember, life doesn't have to be a constant battle against overwhelming sensory input. From recognizing your personal triggers to implementing effective coping strategies, you have the tools to manage overstimulation. Consult experts when chronic stress becomes unmanageable, and never underestimate the power of safe spaces and awareness. Let's embrace a life where sensory stimulation enriches us, rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.

Read more about: Well-being

About Julian Lewis

Julian Lewis is a driven and accomplished professional with a passion for driving positive change in the business world. He is the co-founder and COO at Zella Life.

His own experience as a professional of color in a Fortune 500 company led him to discover the limitations for advancement that many professionals like himself face. Determined to reach his full potential, Julian became an established business coach and entrepreneur, committed to supporting others in their pursuit of personal and professional growth.

Today, Julian is a recognized corporate trainer, coach, and leader, known for his ability to leverage real-life experiences and evidence-based methodologies to affect positive change within individuals and organizations. As the leader of Zella Life's coaching division, he is dedicated to empowering individuals and businesses to achieve their full potential.