Overstimulated: Meaning, signs & how to cope

Overstimulation, or sensory overload, is when the sensory information you receive from one or more of your senses exceeds the information processing capacity of your brain.

Our brains have a limited capacity to process sensory information. Processing sensory information consumes mental energy and bandwidth. The brain does what it can to conserve energy.

It’s designed to prioritize attention to evolutionarily important information.

Our brains were designed for simpler times. In ancestral times, our environments were relatively stable. If there was a change in the environment, the human brain was wired to pay attention to that change.

Changes in our ancestral environment mostly meant the presence of a threat or an opportunity to socialize and/or mate. For the most part, there was a clear boundary between one task and another, one experience and another.

So, our brains have evolved to focus on one task at a time. Our mental resources and attentional bandwidth are very limited. Our attention is our most precious resource.

Fast forward to modern times, and we’ve created this jungle of attention-draining environments. We’re exposed to unprecedented sensory stimuli on a daily basis. It’s no wonder that many of us often find ourselves overstimulated.

Types of overstimulation

Overstimulation can be sensory, cognitive, and emotional. In modern times, we regularly experience events that overstimulate us in all three areas.

1. Sensory overstimulation

When one or more of your senses are overstimulated by stimuli of high intensity and/or complexity.1

For example:

  • Covering your eyes when exposed to a bright light
  • Covering your ears when hearing a loud sound
  • Getting confused when many people talk simultaneously (complex vs high-intensity stimuli)
  • When a perfume is too strong for you
  • Feeling weird when touching certain textures and surfaces
  • Tasting food that is too bitter or sweet

2. Cognitive overstimulation

Cognition has to do with thinking. Thinking is mostly information processing. Our cognitive faculties process the information that they receive from our senses.

If that information is simple, it’s easy to process or interpret. If that information is complex, it’s difficult to process, leading to cognitive overstimulation or information overload.

Unlike sensory overstimulation, which occurs at the sensory level, cognitive overstimulation occurs at the thinking level.

Examples:

  • Making a difficult decision
  • Solving a complex math problem
  • Planning and strategizing
  • Making inferences and predictions

People who work in jobs that require them to think a lot- academics, doctors, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, etc. are likely to experience cognitive overstimulation.

One of the reasons these people are highly paid is because very few can do what they do. Not many can bear the cognitive overstimulation that is characteristic of these jobs.

3. Emotional overstimulation

It’s caused by experiencing an emotion intensely or experiencing too many emotions simultaneously.

You’ve probably had that experience where you can’t describe your feelings. It likely happens because you’re experiencing multiple emotions simultaneously and can’t sort them out.

Compare that to experiences where you’re experiencing just one emotion and can clearly identify it. For instance, anger.

On the other hand, experiencing just one emotion intensely, such as anxiety, can also emotionally overstimulate us.

People experience overstimulation differently

Some things are universally overstimulating for humans. But there are also individual differences in how easily people get overstimulated.2

Certain medical conditions make people more likely to get overstimulated. People with autism, ADHD, and PTSD are also more likely to get overstimulated. Highly sensitive people, introverts, and avoidants are likely to get overstimulated.

The tendency to be easily overstimulated may arise from genetic or environmental factors or both.

People who’ve been through traumatic experiences tend to experience a hypervigilant state in which they’re continuously scanning their environment for threats. As a result, they’re more readily and frequently overstimulated.

This is why the same situation may trigger someone but not you.

Say you’re eating in a restaurant and hear a car honking loudly outside. You’re slightly irritated but not overwhelmed. But your friend finds the noise unbearable.

He has more stored negative associations with cars honking than you. Perhaps he’s been in some really bad traffic jams.

Your baseline of getting overstimulated also varies depending on how used up your mental resources already are. Things like whether or not you’re eating and sleeping well, and your emotional state.

For instance, when stressed, you have little mental bandwidth for other seemingly unimportant stimuli. Your partner may want to talk to you about their day, but you’re like:

“I don’t have time for this right now.”

Signs of overstimulation

Overstimulation is an unpleasant and threatening experience for the mind. And for good reason because overstimulation can damage our sensory organs.

Cognitive and emotional overstimulation are also threatening because they steal our mental resources that could be devoted to other worthwhile pursuits.

Following are the signs of overstimulation:

  • Stress
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Mental discomfort and confusion
  • Mental and emotional exhaustion
  • Impaired focus and decision-making
  • Restlessness
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Feeling dizzy and disoriented
  • Mood swings

How to cope with being overstimulated

Being overstimulated often triggers the flight response that motivates you to escape the overstimulating situation. That is probably the best thing you can do when you’re overstimulated, especially when you can’t ‘fight’ the overstimulation by doing something about it.

If you can do something to stop the overstimulation, then it’d be wise to do that.

For instance, if your roommate is playing music and you’re trying to study, you can assertively ask them to make it quieter.

If you don’t like disturbance when you’re working, let people know how it affects you. You may have to repeat your boundaries multiple times before they finally get it. Keep reinforcing your boundaries. It’ll be worth it.

When you feel overstimulation creeping up, your mind tells you it’s time to take a break. Listen to your mind and body in such situations to avoid burnout.

Over-investing your mental resources into a particular activity or goal is a recipe for overstimulation. You need time for your other needs and self-care.

Journalling is an effective tool to overcome cognitive and emotional overstimulation. It’s easier to sort through your thoughts and feelings when you write them down than when they’re floating in your head.

Your social support network can also help you unload some of the things weighing you down.

Identify the situations that tend to overstimulate you and make plans to minimize or completely avoid them.

Overstimulation and the Zeigarnik effect

The more decluttered and organized your life, the less overstimulated you’ll feel. If you have things lying around, every time you look at them, you’re mind’s like:

“Oh! I need to put that in the cupboard.”

If you don’t put it in the cupboard, you don’t complete the experience for your mind. The mind likes completed experiences.

Incomplete experiences or unfinished businesses create the Zeigarnik effect, where you get intrusive thoughts about your unfinished work. Intrusive thoughts create cognitive load, which leads to cognitive overstimulation.

Similarly, if your ideas and knowledge are scattered, you’ll experience cognitive load. You need to create an efficient and reliable system of collecting knowledge and implementing it.

Overstimulated with social media

Social media is arguably the most significant reason so many people feel overstimulated.

When you scroll through newsfeeds, your mind gets stuck in an unnatural state.

Imagine a caveman hunting for a deer. He sees a deer, approaches it, attacks it, and brings it to his cave. The experience is complete. It had a start and a rewarding endpoint.

In contrast, newsfeeds are changes in your environment that you’re wired to pay attention to, but the experience never gets completed. This creates what author Cal Newport called ‘a background hum of anxiety’.

You’re still thinking about the newsfeed and the notifications after you’ve logged off because it’s a sort of permanent Zeigarnik effect. It produces the same effects as when you are overestimated by anything else.

I’m not suggesting you quit social media altogether, but it’s essential to be aware of how it might be affecting you.

Many symptoms of depression and overstimulation overlap. Studies have shown that people who use social media excessively are more likely to be depressed.3,4

Your depression might be nothing but overstimulation from social media. Once you deal with the overstimulation, the depression will also be taken care of.

References

  1. Scheydt, S., Müller Staub, M., Frauenfelder, F., Nielsen, G. H., Behrens, J., & Needham, I. (2017). Sensory overload: A concept analysis. International journal of mental health nursing26(2), 110-120.
  2. Pluess, M. (2015). Individual differences in environmental sensitivity. Child development perspectives9(3), 138-143.
  3. Cunningham, S., Hudson, C. C., & Harkness, K. (2021). Social media and depression symptoms: a meta-analysis. Research on child and adolescent psychopathology49, 241-253.
  4. Keles, B., McCrae, N., & Grealish, A. (2020). A systematic review: the influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents. International journal of adolescence and youth25(1), 79-93.