A psychologist explains.
8 Reasons Why You Feel Overstimulated (And What to Do about It)
A psychologist explains.
Overwhelmed by the world around you? Feeling extra sensitive to everyday stresses? You might be experiencing overstimulation – and you’re not alone.
And while overstimulation – also known as sensory overload – has always been ‘a thing’, the pandemic has fundamentally changed everything about how we perceive and interact with the world, causing what’s being called a ‘sensory revolution’ and further altering the way we see, hear, taste, touch and smell in an ever-changing environment.
To learn more, we consulted a psychologist for a complete breakdown of what it means to be overstimulated, some of the common causes of sensory overload today, and what you can do to minimise their impact.
What is overstimulation?
“Overstimulation, or sensory overload, occurs when your five senses are receiving more input than they can process,” says Mary Hoang, founder and principal psychologist of online counselling practice, The Indigo Project.
“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.”
What are the symptoms of overstimulation?
“Common symptoms of overstimulation include irritability, stress, agitation, insomnia, loss of focus, overwhelming feelings and thoughts, and anxiety,” Hoang says. “It may be difficult to block out or ignore sensory input. One may experience uncomfortable feelings in the body.”
Per Hoang, while anyone can experience overstimulation or sensory overload from time to time, it is often more “pronounced” for people with “conditions such as anxiety, ADHD and autism” and those classed as Highly Sensitive Persons.
“We are all prone to experiencing sensory overload and our ‘limits’ may change from day to day depending on how much rest we have had, and the cumulative effect of stressors in our lives,” she says.
“Sensory sensitivity and overstimulation are often more pronounced in conditions such as anxiety, ADHD and autism where there already may be a lower ‘threshold’ to sensory input.”
If your feelings of overstimulation are ongoing or disruptive to your everyday life, it is highly recommended that you speak to your general practitioner for individualised advice and support.
Common causes of sensory overload
1. Excessive use of social media
Find yourself mindlessly scrolling Instagram while doing other activities? Can’t go past a bit of revenge bedtime procrastination? As it turns out, being constantly plugged into social media can lead to experiences of sensory overload.
“Whether we are generating, managing or consuming social media, the never-ending load of our friends’ updates, videos, news and information uses up our attentional resources because our brains just can’t help but to take it all in,” Hoang explains.
To combat overstimulation caused by social media, Hoang recommends placing boundaries around your consumption and paying attention to the emotions that cause you to log on in the first place.
“Have some rules around when you can and can’t use it (e.g., not first thing in the morning, or after 8pm). Consider deleting social media apps from your phone and only being able to access them if you manually sign in on a browser,” she says.
“Pay attention to your feelings when you reach for your phone for a mindless scroll – are you avoiding feelings such as stress or frustration? What are you wanting to feel? If it's a connection or stress relief, could you call a friend or step outside for a breather?”
2. Online news consumption
From the seemingly constant influx of bad news permeating our Instagram feeds to the ‘doomscrolling’ habit that forms as a result, consuming news online – compared to, say, via a newspaper – can also induce and increase feelings of sensory overload.
“Research has shown that news consumed online and through social media is linked with increased stress and anxiety compared to via print, television and radio. The reasons for this could be due to more graphic images online and being exposed repeatedly to footage,” she explains.
“Being inundated with excessive news can lead to overstimulation and stress as it’s often negative, and we have a negativity bias – the tendency to give more importance to negative rather than positive events. We can’t help but remember the anxiety-provoking news headlines and stories.”
It’s important to set limits on our news consumption, especially if you are reading it more than once a day or checking multiple sources, Hoang advises.
“Notice how you feel when you consume a lot of news – is this how you want to feel? It is important to review the sources you use for your news – are they based in fact or sensationalised?” she adds.
3. Too much coffee
Our sincere apologies to all latte lovers and espresso enthusiasts, but your morning coffee might be responsible for those ‘on edge’ sensations that leave you feeling wired. Why? The caffeine in coffee blocks chemicals that cause drowsiness and also releases stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – through the body.
“[This] is helpful in small doses, but in excessive amounts will increase the stress response, leaving you feeling jittery, restless and anxious,” Hoang tells Bed Threads Journal.
“Limit coffee to two a day, but if you are highly sensitive to caffeine you may need to limit it to one a day – or cut it out completely.”
4. Working in an open-plan office
Your co-workers’ constant chatter. The sound of people walking past every few minutes. Communal music blaring from someone’s speaker. Sounds exhausting? Evidently, there is research to suggest that open-plan offices not only decrease productivity, they can also drain your mental battery and leave you feeling scattered.
“If you are being constantly interrupted by people, noises and visual stimuli, this takes up bandwidth in your brain, making it hard to focus on the task at hand,” Hoang explains.
If you have the option, try to take advantage of working from home on days when you really need to focus, otherwise, see if you can move your in-office space away from loud, high-traffic areas.
“[While] it is difficult to inhibit visual and auditory information, if you have to work in an open-plan office, find a seat that limits the view of people walking past, and use headphones to manage the noise,” she adds.
5. Crowded spaces
Being in crowded spaces can trigger an overload of sights, smells, and sounds, which can quickly become overwhelming if you are sensitive to being surrounded by people.
“You can manage sensory overload in crowded spaces by focusing on your breath and breathing slowly – this will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. If you commute to work in the rush hour, consider scheduling travel for quieter times if possible, when public transport may be less busy,” says Hoang.
“If you are headed to a party or a crowded place to meet friends, letting one of them know beforehand that it may become overwhelming for you can be helpful if you need someone to have a quiet chat with in a different part of the venue, or to take a break with you outside.”
6. Lack of sleep and rest
Sleep is critical for brain development, self-regulation, and processing information. Less sleep means less deep REM sleep, which is crucial for processing and storing information from the day into our memory, Hoang emphasises.
“Without good rest, breaks or adequate sleep, we are reducing our ability to manage and regulate information – and our emotions,” she explains.
“Try a body-based meditation like progressive muscle relaxation or gentle stretches before bed to help encourage relaxation and sleep. Make an effort to get outside at least once in the day and to have time away from your desk, like having lunch outside.”
7. Bright lights and loud noises
As two of the most common causes of overstimulation, it may be worth keeping track of specific stimuli such as lights and noises when incidences of sensory overload occur. If you find they are triggers for you, Hoang recommends making changes in your living and working spaces to reduce their impact.
“Try listening to ambient music while you are working or in the house for some relaxing vibes. Change lightbulbs to low wattage or use fairy lights in the home,” she says.
8. Chronic stress
Being constantly busy or ‘under the pump’ is damaging to our physical, mental and emotional health, and can lead to a chronic stress-induced type of fatigue that makes us less resilient to everyday stressors and stimuli.
“It may be important to question if you are constantly busy – and whether you find it difficult to relax and to ‘be with’ yourself,” Hoang says.
“It could be helpful to speak to a psychologist or counsellor about your relationship, work or life stressors to help you find coping strategies and a pathway towards living a life more in line with your values and priorities.”
Mary Hoang is the founder and principal psychologist of online counselling practice The Indigo Project. She is also the author of Darkness is Golden: A Guide to Personal Transformation and Dealing with Life’s Messiness.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualised health advice. If you are concerned about your health and wellbeing or suspect you have anxiety, ADHD or autism, please speak to your GP, who will advise on the correct treatment plan. You can also call Lifeline 24/7 for mental health support on 13 11 14.