You’re sitting at your desk when loud chirps from your cellphone make you jump – some app is sending notifications. The noise rattles against the cacophony of your coworkers talking over one another during your Zoom meeting. You can smell your coworker’s lunch heating in the common microwave and you feel like you’re being pressed in on all sides. It all feels like too much—and it is. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or powerless in moments like these, you’re experiencing sensory overstimulation.
Overstimulation: When You Can’t Even
Sensory overload can happen when any of our senses receives an excessive amount of input. As one article describes it, our brains sometimes receive too much information to process correctly. And as a result, we’re left with feeling anything from mild discomfort like stress or a loss of focus to extreme distress making us feel overwhelmed, full of anxiety, depression or fear.
Our brains can get overstimulated by anything we’re exposed to. After all, every day we get bombarded by an array of sights, sounds, and information during any activity. It’s a lot to process. And as UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small once commented, “more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity.”
Dr. Small studied the brains of six volunteers as they surfed the web, comparing those who were “experienced web surfers” with novices. While their brains looked different initially, when he rescanned their brains several days later, the brains of the novices now looked like the brains of their experienced counterparts. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing, as they believed that the environment both the experienced web surfers and novices were exposed to was one that “promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” In other words, when our brains are overexposed to stimuli, whether it be through a screen or not, our focus is what falls by the wayside.
While we all know how important focusing is to completing our tasks and achieving our goals, we may not be able to avoid losing our focus because of the various stimuli we encounter. After all, it’s impossible for us to live and simultaneously avoid the sights, sounds, and experiences of life. We’re not suggesting that you move to a cave and cut off interaction with the outside world. However, there are ways to prevent overstimulation.
How to Handle Overstimulation
When our senses are being bombarded, there are several ways to mitigate the risk of overstimulation:
1. Take note of what triggers your feelings.
If the constant reminder of all that is wrong with the world from the news sends you into a tailspin, it’s okay to step away from it. If the phone notifications reminding you of unread email and messages give you a pit in your stomach, its acceptable to turn them off. Take a moment to recognize the feelings that result from various stimuli. When you do, you can pinpoint what in your life brings you joy and fulfillment versus angst and anxiety. When you know what emotions result from particular stimuli, you can choose to focus on the things you enjoy in life and shut out the negativity around you.
2. Minimize overloading your senses in your personal surroundings.
The environment we create for ourselves has an impact on how our senses process what happens around us. In other words, we can build a bunker in our personal lives just as we do in our professional lives to minimize distractions. Work to create an orderly environment, free from loud or distracting noises and clutter. This goes for people too. If there are people in your life that overload your senses and send you into overstimulation, it may be beneficial to limit your contact with them. Restricting the amount of time you are exposed to stimuli that negatively affect you can help you keep focused on what matters.
3. Plan for recovery time.
When an attack on your senses is impossible to avoid, it’s important to give yourself adequate time to recover. This is where time blocking can be hugely beneficial. Make a fixed appointment with yourself and use that time to quell your thoughts. Find a quiet area to review what triggered the emotions you are currently feeling, practice deep breathing, meditate, and focus on mindfulness.
What have you found helpful to tune out the noise and focus on what matters? Our Facebook community wants to hear your suggestions.