Last month, my friend Sarah and I walked into a Mexican restaurant together after our weekly Zumba class. Without speaking, we gravitated toward a two-top at the outer edge of the dining room. The week before, at the same restaurant, I’d asked the host if we could change locations twice because the first two options were near loud, crowded tables.
It’s almost impossible for me to have a conversation with someone if there’s someone else speaking behind me. Thankfully, Sarah knows this about me and understands — she deals with her own sensory triggers, as do many people.
“Another way to describe overstimulation is mental overload,” says Laurie Helgoe, PhD, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength. “It’s when the external inputs outweigh our capacity to process.”
Helgoe, cohost of the podcast The Incompatibles, knows it’s happening to her when she feels a bit frantic and stressed. “It’s similar to having a bunch of windows open on your computer; the system can get overwhelmed and just shut down,” she explains.
Some people are more susceptible to overstimulation, including introverts, highly sensitive people (HSP), and those with autism or anxiety disorders. But it can happen to anyone, and the unavoidable profusion of stimuli — computer screens, 24-hour news, and endless push notifications — doesn’t help matters.
Our environments comprise countless sensory triggers that stimulate one or more of our five senses. For those prone to overstimulation, a catalyst such as bright or flickering lights, temperature changes, a new fabric, or even a hug could lead to stress, irritability, or other negative reactions. Thankfully, there are strategies we can use to cope with sensory overload.
Know Your Triggers
Not everyone has the same triggers or reactions — so one of the most important steps in handling overstimulation is to notice the sources, explains psychologist Michael Alcée, PhD, mental health educator at the Manhattan School of Music. “Ask yourself, Did I have too many meetings in a row? Have I had any solo time today? Have I been under bright lights for too long?”
At his office, Alcée doesn’t use overhead fluorescent lights because they can feel overwhelming and overstimulating to HSPs like himself and some of his clients. “Other people could be more sensitive to noises or textures,” he explains.
Once you notice what’s overwhelming you, you can work toward solutions by considering what’s within your control. For example, Alcée once advised a client with light sensitivity to wear a baseball hat to class, which helped immensely. Small things can make a big difference.
Make Space for Yourself
Conversations with others can be a common source of mental overload. Helgoe explains that introverts are already stimulated by their thought processes, so they don’t need much from the external world.
“We like to process things internally,” she adds. “I say that I’m ‘taking information into my laboratory.’ Introverts prefer to process privately and then reveal our outputs to the world.”
This can sometimes mean that an introverted person will still be processing what’s been said while the other person continues to speak, adding new information and more stimulation. Explaining what’s happening, or “narrating your quiet,” is a strategy Helgoe employs to make space for herself in situations like this. You can say something like “I need a second because I’m still processing” or “Let me think that over for a moment.”
(Introverts and extroverts often struggle to communicate effectively. See “How Introverts and Extroverts Can Talk to Each Other” for strategies that can help connection.)
Protect Your Time
An overflowing inbox can make anyone feel overwhelmed, especially if some of those messages include requests for your time. “I will often say to people, ‘Let me think about this, and if I don’t get back to you by tomorrow, please ping me,’” Helgoe says.
It might also help to downgrade an incoming phone call to written communication, which can feel less stimulating and allow you to take your time with the information.
“If I get a phone call and I just don’t have the bandwidth, I might send that person a text or email instead and ask them what’s up,” Helgoe explains. That way, she can assess the urgency of the conversation before she responds.
Setting aside transitional time in your schedule should be a priority. “I don’t ever schedule meetings back-to-back if I can help it, and I will block that in-between time on my calendar,” she explains. “Claiming space for that can be a huge stress reducer.”
Design an Exit Strategy
Planning a way out of a situation is important for people who tend to get overstimulated in groups, even if the escape is just a brief one. “Sometimes we need to temporarily shut down the system when we’re overstimulated,” Alcée says. “It’s a way of taking back your inner space.”
If you’re in a comfortable setting with folks who understand your sensory triggers, like I was when my friend Sarah agreed to switch tables at the restaurant, you could give your people a heads-up that you might need a few moments to yourself.
In other social situations where you feel you might need a break, try to have an escape plan in mind. It might be as easy as ducking into the bathroom for a few minutes. Or maybe you need a built-in excuse to take a longer break — or remove yourself from a situation entirely.
“When my son was a baby and we’d go to a restaurant, I’d volunteer to walk him around,” Alcée says, “because he would get tired of sitting, and so I would take that as my opportunity to step away.”
Shift Your Perspective
When you find yourself feeling overloaded, calming your nervous system can help you relax and refocus. Breathing exercises can help you unwind even in a highly stimulating environment. (Learn about belly breathing and the 4-7-8 breath at “Trying to Unwind? Try These Two Breathing Exercises.“)
Helgoe suggests meditation, which can help you slow your thoughts and tune in to your body. She goes for walks, finding it helpful to look up at the sky and observe her surroundings. “That way, I feel more space to air out my thoughts,” she explains.
If she needs a bigger reset, she goes to the movies. She calls it “movie therapy” and adds that she often feels like she comes out of the theater “with fresh eyes toward my own life. It’s one of my favorite perspective-taking activities.”
Alcée suggests another type of reframing: Rather than thinking of overstimulation as something you need to hack or as a problem you need to solve, imagine it’s a message your body is sending you.
“It’s not a personal failing, by any stretch,” he notes. “It’s simply a signal that something in your environment is out of balance.” Changing the way you think about that signal can be a powerful reminder of your body’s inner wisdom.