Overstimulation in adults? Whaaat? Isn’t that a kid thing?
Well, yes. It is a kid thing. But if you are a highly sensitive person (HSP), sensory overstimulation is something you deal with for your whole life. Even as an adult.
The word overstimulation first entered my consciousness roughly seven years ago with the arrival of my oldest daughter. Like many overwhelmed new parents before and after us, my husband and I quickly discovered that if you let your baby become overstimulated – if you let her underdeveloped sensory system become overloaded with too many stimuli at once, like, say, going to the mall – your otherwise happy baby will not sleep. And incidentally, neither will the parents!
After another sleepless night with the baby, I first said it jokingly: I think the mall gives me a hangover too. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this wasn’t a joke. I actually DID get something like a hangover after going to the mall, the state fair, a concert, or any other event with crowds and a lot of sensory stimuli. And it had been happening long before the baby arrived.
Shortly after that realization, I stumbled upon Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You and the puzzle pieces started coming together. My history of unexplained headaches, exhaustion, and depression could all be traced back to this little fact: I was a highly sensitive person. And because I am a highly sensitive person, my brain and my body get easily overstimulated. And when I let myself get overstimulated too frequently and for too long, I break down. Both mentally and physically.
I get headaches. I get stressed. I get tired. Everything starts irritating the shit out of me. I become a slobbering mess of hopeless tears and misery.
Discovering that I was a highly sensitive person was a major breakthrough for me. At least I now knew the root cause of many of the issues I had been struggling with! And I knew exactly what I needed to do to make myself feel better.
But still, learning how to manage overstimulation has not been easy and has required a lot of trial and error. Learning my triggers. Learning my limits. Learning to predict when I’m about to cross my limits. I’m still not perfect at managing all of this, but I have gotten a LOT better.
So if you are a highly sensitive person who struggles with overstimulation, I want to share with you what I have learned. I want to share with you 17 things that have helped me deal with the overstimulation that comes with being a highly sensitive person. I hope that at least some of these tips help you too!
How To Deal With Overstimulation In Adults: 17 Tips For The Highly Sensitive Person
1. Know That You Are Not Alone
Many of us highly sensitive people have gone through life feeling like there is something wrong with us, like we are weird and weak. Different from most other people.
And it is true that we are in the minority. But you should know that you are most definitely not alone. Elaine Aron, the above-mentioned author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of the population possess the highly sensitive trait.
So why haven’t you met that many other highly sensitive people?
Because we don’t walk around advertising it. Most of us have learned to hide it. To blend in.
But we are here. You are not alone.
2. Understand What Is Happening In Your Body
Simply understanding that I’m a highly sensitive person and how my highly sensitive brain and body work has made it easier for me to deal with it.
One of the traits that distinguishes highly sensitive people from non-HSPs is depth of processing. Both consciously and unconsciously, we tend to take in more information into our brains and we tend to process it more deeply. And because our brains process more, we also tire out quicker. Our brains get overloaded and we need a chance to process the overload before we can take in more.
Our nervous systems are also more easily aroused than non-HSPs’ nervous systems. This means that the same amount of stimuli that can make a non-HSP feel “just right” can make a highly sensitive person feel uncomfortably aroused. The non-HSPs’ “just right” is too much for us. We start feeling flustered and distressed. And again, having our body go into this heightened state much more easily and more frequently results in us getting tired quicker and needing more rest.
If you want a more detailed look at all the ways sensory stimuli can overload you, check out Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World by Sharon Heller. Some highly sensitive people who have learned to love themselves exactly as they are would disagree with the over-arching theme of this book, which frames sensory sensitivity as a problem to be solved and I lean toward agreeing with that criticism. But I think this book is still valuable in explaining the sensory systems and cataloging all the ways your senses can become overloaded. So for that reason, I would recommend this book.
3. Don’t Compare Yourself To People Who Are Not Highly Sensitive
One of the things that has been a major struggle for me is learning to focus on my own well-being and to stop trying to “keep up” with non-HSPs.
But it really doesn’t make sense to compare ourselves to non-HSPs. Studies show that our brains and our nervous systems work differently. It’s like we are almost our own species. This is truly a case of comparing apples and oranges.
4. Learn To Appreciate The Gifts That Come With Being A Highly Sensitive Person
Highly sensitive people have survived evolution for a reason. Although we have this pain in the ass overstimulation to deal with, our high sensitivity is also a gift. Ability to notice subtleties. Deep thought. High levels of empathy. These are not bad qualities to possess!
The better you take care of yourself – the better you manage the overstimulation – the more of your gifts you can share with the world.
5. Know Your Triggers
For literally decades, I was getting overstimulated without being conscious that it was happening. The first task in learning to manage overstimulation was beginning to recognize the triggers. Although each highly sensitive person is unique and our triggers may differ somewhat, here are some examples of the types of places and experiences that are highly stimulating for me:
- amusement parks
- shopping malls
- kid birthday parties
- driving in fast traffic
- socializing with new people or people I’m not very comfortable with
But a trigger doesn’t necessarily have to be a special event. Just “regular life” as a working mother of three – lived for too many days in a row without a break to recharge – can and will overload me.
6. Know Your Limits
In order to prevent overload, you need to be able to recognize when you are getting close to hitting your limit.
And this has been the single biggest struggle for me. Pushing myself to get out there and enjoy the world as much as I can, but then knowing when I need to pull back for a rest before I hit my breaking point. I can tolerate stimulation for long stretches of time – so long that I kinda forget about the whole thing – but all of a sudden something tiny will be the last straw that pushes me over the edge. Or the headaches and the exhaustion will just creep up on me and I will know I overdid it once again.
The only way to learn what your limits are is to learn from experience. Start keeping a written record. What did you do and for how long before you started feeling bad? Look for patterns.
7. Be Selective: What Is Worth Getting Overstimulated Over?
Sometimes I fantasize about living alone in a little cabin on some remote mountain top and only interacting with the rest of the world twice a year to replenish supplies.
But I know that while I would probably really enjoy it for a few weeks, the world would eventually pull me back. I would start missing my husband and kids. That mountain top would get cold and lonely.
So I subject myself to the world and its stimulants. 😉 But since my brain doesn’t have unlimited processing capacity, I have become pretty choosy about who and what is worth getting stimulated over. I limit my activities to what I can handle without compromising my well-being. And that means setting priorities and saying no to people and activities that are not near the top of my list.
8. Don’t Schedule Too Many Triggering Events Back To Back
So the challenge for the highly sensitive person is not to avoid stimulation all together, but to learn to balance activity and rest. And one good way to achieve this balance is to make sure you designate lots of quiet time in your calendar between highly stimulating events.
And when I say “lots of quiet time”, I don’t mean just leaving an hour for you to recover between the amusement park and the birthday party. I mean days. If I take my kids to the amusement park on Saturday, then I will let my husband take the kids to a birthday party on Sunday and I will let some other parent chaperone the school field trip on Monday.
9. Be Mindful Of What Is Happening In Your Body
There are also things you can do to lessen the impact of highly stimulating events even when you are in the midst of it. Try to get in the habit of being present and observing what is happening in your body at regular intervals. Are you tense? Are you holding your breath? If so, make a conscious effort to lessen the stress on your body by relaxing your muscles and taking deep breaths.
10. Create An Imaginary Boundary
Another trick is to create an imaginary boundary around you to block out whatever is overstimulating you at the moment – be it noise, light, or someone’s energy. You simply imagine a protective wall around you that keeps the distressing stimulus out.
This is a skill that takes some practice, so you might need to try it a few times before it starts working.
11. Take Breaks
And of course, there are breaks! Take them! Take lots of them! Close your eyes for a moment. Hide in the bathroom for a while. Excuse yourself to take care of an “important task that can’t wait”. 😉
12. Block Out Longer Stretches Of Time To Be Alone Without Disturbances
Here’s what I have discovered the hard way: taking a 15-minute break here and there is not enough. It’s just not. In order to fully recharge and recover, I need hours of quiet time. And I need them regularly. Ted Zeff, author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World recommends doing a four-hour quiet time mini-retreat twice a week with no disturbances.
We all know that healthy adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. But I think this is even more crucial for highly sensitive people. Our brains tire out faster, so our brains REALLY need the rest. After I started consistently blocking out eight hours for sleep every single night, I started feeling SO. MUCH. BETTER. than when I was trying to make do with six or seven hours per night.
In addition to getting a minimum of eight hours of snooze time per night, here are two other things that help:
- If you don’t sleep well at night for whatever reason, try to make up for it with naps.
- Even if you can’t go to sleep, just laying in a dark room with your eyes closed might have a recharging effect.
I have heard that some highly sensitive people find exercise too stimulating. I think that would be the case for me too if I tried team sports or went to a crowded gym. My exercise of choice is running and it’s actually one of the most life-changing habits I have ever taken up. It really helps me release stress, tension, and anxiety and sort of resets my body every morning.
I know running is not for everyone, but I hope you find some form of exercise that works for you. Maybe yoga or walking if running is too much?
15. Experiment With Your Diet
I think pretty much everyone agrees that limiting caffeine and sugar is a good idea for highly sensitive people. I eat a mostly Whole30 diet, with one cup of coffee in the mornings and no sugar or sweeteners of any kind at all and I do really well with that. I also try to load up on magnesium-rich foods like spinach and almonds, since magnesium is supposed to reduce stress and tension.
But different diets work for different people. So experiment a little and see what works the best for you.
16. Control sights, sounds, smells…
We can’t always control our environments, but there are a few things we can do to limit sensory input from our environment:
- Wear headphones – either listen to calming music or wear noise cancelling headphones.
- Establish quiet time for your family – a block of time when everyone engages in quiet activities.
- Dim the lights when you are at home.
- Wear sunglasses outside.
- Wear comfortable clothes.
- Keep the air fresh in your house.
17. Block Out Time For YOUR Kind Of Fun And Relaxation
For the non-HSP world, “fun” is pretty much synonymous with stimulation: restaurants, parties, fairs, festivals… Sure, these types of things might be fun for us too, but only in small doses. And don’t feel bad if you actually don’t find the highly stimulating events fun at all. We are entitled to our own definition of fun: reading books, trying out a new recipe, a quiet evening at home with a loved one.
We need to remember that life is not just about enduring as much stimulation as you possibly can. Life is there to be enjoyed. In whatever way you happen to find enjoyable.
What about you? What do you think about these tips? Do you have anything to add to my list? I would love to hear from you in the comments below. 🙂
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