A young person sits on the floor next to his guitar journaling, utilizing the tools he knows to manage his overstimulation.

Here’s Why You’re Feeling Overstimulated — And What to Do About It

6 min.

Feeling overstimulated can be a sign of an underlying mental health condition, but healing is possible.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Updated: April 25, 2024

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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 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 describes when a person is feeling overwhelmed by sensory input around them. Any combination of sound, touch, taste, sight, smell, and loud noises can cause this reaction. Specifically, 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.

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

Overstimulation and the brain 

Overstimulation happens, in large part, because of the brain. One of the brain’s primary functions is to collect and process sensory information, but when there’s too much sensory input, it can make the brain think there’s danger, sending off signals to the body to escape. This triggers the body’s fight-flight-freeze response, and feelings of anxiety, fear, and discomfort take over.

Some research shows that people with 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 who 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. 

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

Overstimulation and co-occurring mental health conditions 

Feeling overwhelmed can happen to anyone, but overstimulation is more common in people with certain co-occurring developmental and mental health conditions. Here are several conditions commonly associated with sensory overload:

Autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder marked by challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. People 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 lives.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a common disorder that causes hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, and trouble paying attention. People 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. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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

Anxiety disorders 

Certain types of anxiety disorders can lead to overstimulation. The most characteristic example can be found in people who 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. 

Seeking professional help for overstimulation

While the conditions mentioned above are most commonly associated with overstimulation, sensory overload can be a feature of other mental health conditions, too. For this reason, if you are someone who experiences overstimulation regularly and it is affecting your ability to function, it is important that you reach out to a professional for help — like a primary care provider or mental health professional. Through collaboration with professionals, it is possible to identify the underlying cause of the sensory overload that you are experiencing and seek treatment 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

In addition to professional mental health support, 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.

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.

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

If you’re struggling to manage feeling overstimulated or think your overstimulation may be connected to an underlying mental health condition, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with serious mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual therapy, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic online therapy, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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