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How To Deal With Overstimulation

8 min.

Overstimulation, which happens when your brain is overwhelmed by sensory information, is commonly associated with neurodivergence and a variety of mental health conditions. Learn more about overstimulation and how to manage it here.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

July 3, 2023

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Table of Contents

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by what is happening around you? Maybe you feel uneasy because of bright lights in a room, the sound of multiple people talking, or music coming from an overhead speaker— and the only way to feel relief is to remove yourself from the situation. If this experience sounds familiar to you, you may be someone who is experiencing sensory overload, also known as overstimulation. 

For certain people, overstimulation can interfere with their ability to function on a daily basis. In fact, several mental health conditions can affect how a person receives and processes sensory information, leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of symptoms related to sensory overload. Learn more about the relationship between mental health and overstimulation and how to address the challenges that come with overstimulation here.  

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What is overstimulation?

Overstimulation is a term that is used to describe when a person becomes overwhelmed by the sensory activity around them. Any combination of sound, touch, taste, sight, and smell can cause this reaction. 

One of the brain’s primary functions is to collect and interpret sensory information. During sensory overload or overstimulation, the brain becomes so overwhelmed with incoming information it begins to think that a threat is present and signals to the body to escape the situation. This sets off the body’s fight-flight-freeze response, and feelings of anxiety, fear, and discomfort take over.

During episodes of overstimulation, people experience the sensations around them to a greater extent than they usually would, leading to physical symptoms that can be disruptive, including:

  • Headaches, dizziness, or light-headedness
  • Feeling ill, faint, or nauseous
  • Increased anxiety and stress
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Issues with sleeping
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Restlessness
  • Panic attacks

Prolonged exposure to bright lights, certain sounds, strong smells, particular tactile stimulation such as certain textures and materials, and crowded spaces are common triggers for sensory overload. 

While overstimulation is something that everyone will experience at some point, this experience is more common in individuals with certain mental health conditions.

Overstimulation and the brain 

Research suggests that individuals suffering from certain sensory processing issues—including overstimulation—have quantifiable differences in their brain structure, which may contribute to their difficulties.  For instance, early childhood trauma has been linked to structural brain changes that lead to processing issues, including sensory overload. Similarly, overstimulation is a common occurrence for individuals with disorders related to trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder.

Not every person that experiences overstimulation has structural changes to their brain, but it is important to keep these structural changes in mind when thinking about mental health and well-being.

When dealing with mental health challenges, becoming frustrated with yourself and the world around you is easy. However, self-blame and feelings of inadequacy can add to the difficulties you are already experiencing. Realizing that difficulties like sensory overload are not due to some type of failure on your part is important to keep in mind.

Overstimulation and co-occurring disorders 

Overstimulation is commonly seen in people with certain co-occurring mental health, developmental, and medical conditions. As mentioned, though, overstimulation is something that everyone will experience in their life. This is more true today than ever due to our fast-paced and technologically advanced world. We are constantly being bombarded with information through the phone, social media, and people around us. If you have ever found yourself scrolling through social media and noticed that your jaw is clenched or your shoulders are tight, then you know firsthand how certain sensory experiences can impact your overall well-being. 

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Here are several conditions commonly associated with sensory overload:

Autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with ASD perceive sensory information differently than others, and for this reason, sensory overload is a common experience. For people with ASD, their atypical sensory processing can lead to various behavioral, emotional, and physical responses that can significantly impact their life. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a mental health condition that can occur in people who’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. These individuals experience long-term negative effects related to their initial trauma, including hypervigilance and hyperarousal.

For individuals with PTSD, exposure to triggering sensory stimuli can cause feelings of anxiety and panic. For this reason, people with PTSD are constantly on high alert concerning their surroundings. It’s common that they might feel overstimulated by sensory cues that remind them of their initial trauma. 

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a common disorder that causes hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, and/or trouble paying attention. Individuals with ADHD have differences in the way they process sensory information, and for this reason, they may be more sensitive or reactive to sensory stimuli in their environment. Additionally, they may have difficulty filtering out irrelevant sensory information. For this reason, people with ADHD are prone to overstimulation and the frustration, irritability, and anxiety that comes with it. 

Anxiety disorders 

Certain types of anxiety disorders can lead to overstimulation. The most characteristic example can be found in people that suffer from specific phobias, especially social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder. For individuals with social anxiety disorder, the overstimulation that is caused by social settings produces an overwhelming stress response, leading to avoidant behavior. 

Other related disorders 

Several medical diagnoses are associated with overstimulation, including but not limited to fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis (MS), traumatic brain injury, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Tourette’s syndrome.

While the mental health, developmental, and medical diagnoses mentioned previously are most commonly associated with overstimulation, sensory overload can be a feature of several other mental health conditions as well.

For this reason, if you are someone that experiences overstimulation regularly and it is affecting your ability to function, it is important that you reach out to your primary care provider. Through collaboration with different healthcare providers, it is possible to identify the underlying cause of the sensory overload that you are experiencing. 

Ruling out any possible medical diagnosis is an important step in treating mental health. Whether or not an underlying medical diagnosis causes your overstimulation, your primary care provider may still recommend consulting a mental health professional to help you manage your sensory overload symptoms. 

A young person in a blue shirt dealing with overstimulation holds a pillow to calm down during a therapy session.

Seeking professional help for overstimulation

The best step that you can take to address your struggle with overstimulation is to reach out to a professional for help. Different treatment options may be recommended based on the underlying cause of your sensory overload episodes. 

Treatment of the underlying disorder is paramount.  For example, if your overstimulation is related to PTSD or social anxiety, different forms of exposure therapy along with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help in improving symptoms. If your overstimulation episodes are more so related to sensory processing issues, a therapy known as sensory integration therapy can be effective. It is important to recognize that there is help available and that improvement in your symptoms is possible. 

Tips for dealing with overstimulation

There are also certain steps you can take on your own to help address your struggle with overstimulation. These are not replacements for therapy but can help you cope with sensory overload in the moment. Here are some tips to address overstimulation:

Create a support network 

Reaching out to friends and family and sharing with them the struggles you are facing can allow them to offer support. Helping them to understand what you are going through can also make you feel less alone. 

Identify your triggers 

Figuring out what situations cause you to go into sensory overload episodes can help you to better prepare for future events. Keeping a journal in which you take note of these triggers can be a helpful way to track them.

Control your environment 

Making sure to avoid environments that are full of triggers is a way to help alleviate the frequency of your symptoms. For example, if loud noises cause you to suffer from overstimulation, avoid events where you will have difficulty finding space away from the noise to give yourself a break. 

Create a safe space

The world is full of unknowns, and creating a space where you can feel at ease is one way to help give you peace of mind. Try to create a space that you can go to feel safe, somewhere that is free of any triggers that may cause you to feel overstimulated. 

Develop a plan 

There are only so many ways to control our environment. Preparing for situations in which you may be exposed to a trigger can help you feel more at ease when going out into the world. Practicing deep breathing exercises, engaging in positive self-talk, keeping noise-canceling headphones nearby, and developing an exit strategy for situations that might trigger you can make you feel more prepared.

Stay healthy 

Getting regular and high-quality sleep, exercising, and eating a healthy diet are all ways to stay one step ahead of overwhelming situations. If you do these things, the likelihood of feeling prepared for whatever challenges you might face is much higher. 

Communicate your needs 

Whether it is at work or school, communicating your needs is an important part of living with sensory overload episodes. It is possible that accommodations can be made to help you feel more comfortable in the spaces that you need to attend. However, these accommodations can only be made if you attempt to share your needs with others. 

How Charlie Health Can Help 

Whether your overstimulation is related to a mental health diagnosis, an underlying medical condition, or something that you feel has hindered your quality of life, the professionals at Charlie Health can help address your needs. 

Our virtual intensive outpatient program provides personalized mental health services that can put you on the path to a better future. You do not need to try to figure out what is causing you sensory overload on your own. Our mental health providers have extensive experience working with a wide variety of mental health challenges, and you can use their experience to your advantage. 

Avoiding certain situations and constantly being in fear of your triggers can take its toll, and things do not have to be this way. Click here to get started today.

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