Does it sometimes feel like the room is buzzing around you at a million miles per hour when you're standing still? Millions of people can relate. If you feel overwhelmed by the world around you when you encounter crowded spaces or multiple conversations bouncing around the room, you may be someone who is easily overstimulated. The discomfort, fear, irritability, confusion, and anxiety you're experiencing are common signs of something called sensory overload. When we suffer from sensory overload, it can feel like our senses are under attack from every direction. We feel scared, overwhelmed, and out of control.
Not everyone who experiences overstimulation experiences sensory overload in the same way. Certain triggers can affect people differently. This is one of the reasons why highly sensitive people sometimes struggle with getting answers regarding the underlying causes of their experiences. This guide to understanding sensory processing is a great starting point if you experience sensory overload.
Here's What's Happening When You're Experiencing Sensory Overload
Why do I get overstimulated so easily? Gaining an understanding of what is happening on a physiological level when sensory overload strikes is an important step in taking control over the experience. Over time, many people who experience overstimulation are able to anticipate stimuli from everyday situations that are likely to trigger sensory overload. In many cases, coping strategies can help affected people to either shut out or overcome external stimuli that would ordinarily cause distress.
When Sensory Stimulation Goes Awry
The simplest explanation of sensory overload is that the body's five main senses become overwhelmed by external stimuli. This can occur in everyday situations at work, at home, or out in the world. During an overload episode, the brain is inundated with more information than it is able to process. The brain is then unable to recognize, interpret, or prioritize incoming information. Unable to properly categorize the information it is receiving, the brain essentially sends out "danger" cues by default in order to communicate to the body that it's time to escape the situation.
This is precisely why so many people who struggle with overstimulation experience feelings of anxiety, panic, and great discomfort. Others who are witnessing a person in distress may struggle to understand why the school cafeteria, shopping mall, restaurant, or public park may feel so dangerous and alarming. This can exacerbate the spiral into feelings of confusion, shame, and isolation for the person who is feeling overstimulated.
What does experiencing too much stimulation feel like for someone who suffers from extreme sensitivity? The brain often feels like it is being trapped, cornered, and suffocated by stimuli. Sensations feel inescapable.
Signs of Sensory Overload
Here's a look at some common signs that you're in the midst of a sensory attack:
- You hear every sound deeply down to the core of your body. Ignoring or tuning out sounds becomes impossible. You may find that you jump or flinch every time there is a loud sound.
- You find strong smells and odors irritating and suffocating.
- You experience deep anxiety or fear.
- You feel agitated and irritable.
- You feel overwhelmed.
- You cannot focus.
- You feel restless or jumpy.
- You feel stressed.
- You experience panic attacks.
The people around you may not necessarily be aware that you're being overstimulated. That's because some highly sensitive people cope with overstimulation by freezing or disassociating. To outsiders, you may appear calm, detached, or simply "tuned out."
Other people have intense physical reactions to overstimulation. This can include crying, shaking, covering the face, placing hands over the ears, or having a complete breakdown. It's also common for people with overstimulation issues to simply flee a location that they find upsetting in a way that's similar to jumping out of a pool to gasp for breath!
Someone who falls in the middle of these extremes may simply appear unfocused or agitated while in the midst of an overstimulating environment. They may find that maintaining a conversation with another person becomes impossible. They come across as distracted, disconnected, or anxious without necessarily offering any indications about why they are in an altered state.
The Role of Habituation in Managing Sensory Input
Most people are undisturbed by everyday background sensory experiences due to something called habituation. Habituation is a term that refers to a type of non-associative learning that occurs when our response to stimuli decreases after repeated exposure. This is why most people don't generally have a problem holding a conversation in a noisy restaurant, studying in a library where other people are moving around, or doing the dishes while listening to music.
For a person who doesn't suffer from sensory overload, the brain essentially allows ambient stimuli to fade into the background instead of occupying a front-and-center status within the nervous system. The brain can do this because it has designated the noise, bright lights, or breeze from a ceiling fan as being "safe" after assessing its purpose and significance. People who experience overstimulation often have stunted or impaired relationships with habituation.
Why Do Some People Experience Sensory Overload?
There are many physiological and environmental factors that can make a person more vulnerable to sensory overload. Some conditions are linked with sensory overload. Additionally, people surviving in high-stress lifestyles may become vulnerable to overstimulation after living with long-term stress and anxiety. Next, take a deeper look at some of the underlying causes of sensory overstimulation.
Sensory Processing Disorders (SPDs)
Individuals labeled by the world as highly sensitive people may actually be living with sensory processing disorders (SPDs). An SPD is a neurological disorder that makes responding to sensory input in an appropriate or "normal" way difficult. The two subcategories of SPDs are hypersensitive and hyposensitivity. A person with hypersensitivity experiences deep and uncomfortable stimulation from tastes, sounds, odors, textures, of sensations. Meanwhile, a person with hyposensitivity actually seeks out high-stimulation experiences or objects.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Sensory overload is linked with ADHD. Researchers are still working out the specific relationship between sensory experiences and ADHD. However, new work has emerged that labels what researchers call "sensory over-responsivity" as a potential added dimension of ADHD. Interestingly, researchers find that females with ADHD are at higher risk for overstimulation compared to males.
Traumatic experiences may trigger sensory overload. One of the telltale indicators of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is hypersensitivity to one's surroundings. This occurs because triggers in everyday life subconsciously remind the person of a traumatic past experience. This experience has taught them that it is not safe to ignore loud sounds. As a result, they may appear to overreact when they cannot maintain emotional regulation in the face of what the nervous system perceives as a threat.
Sensory issues are included within the current diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). People with ADS experience sensory input differently than other people. It can seem as though the brain refuses to place stimulating factors in the background because it is on a mission to make sense of them.
Lifestyle, Circumstances, and Habits
Chronic stress and fatigue can trigger anxiety responses in the body that overlap with sensory overload. For some people, sensory overload accompanies burnout. In fact, burnout-related overstimulation was widely observed in workforces during the COVID-19 crisis.
How Stress Makes Us Vulnerable to Sensory Overstimulation
When we are stressed for long periods of time, our bodies undergo a stress response that creates a chemical change. The fight-or-flight instinct is activated as a protective mechanism that can help us to use emergency boosts of vigilance and adrenaline to safely escape a dangerous situation. While in this hypervigilant state, the body pumps out cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones.
Of course, the fight-or-flight instinct originally developed to help our ancestors quickly escape predators and dangerous scenarios. It isn't necessarily as helpful when the stress we're dealing with is tied to our workplace, family life, relationships, or thoughts on world events. A demanding email from a boss, an upsetting headline running across the screen, or a stressful situation in family life can all trigger the same "danger" hormones that would have been triggered by a pouncing cheetah thousands of years ago.
The body was never meant to stay in fight-or-flight mode for long periods of time. As the nervous system continues to stay in a battle-ready state, it has difficulty differentiating between authentic threats and simple background stimulation. As a result, emails popping up on your phone, your children playing video games too loudly in the next room, or a ceiling fan buzzing over your work desk can all trigger extreme discomfort that leaves you in a dizzy, dry-mouthed state. While in a stress-induced state of sensory overload, everything is a pouncing cheetah.
Multitasking Can Trigger a Stress Response
Most people today are guilty of multitasking. While multitasking may seem like the ultimate hack for getting more things done, the truth is that multitasking actually makes us less efficient. What's more, attempting to do too many things at once can actually cause us to overtax our mental load.
As the brain attempts to process several different streams of sensory information at once, it becomes overwhelmed. We can no longer properly categorize and interpret the information that is coming at us. Anything can become a threat.
Humans are meant to complete one task at a time
Research shows that just 2.5% of the population can actually multitask without decreases in performance. Unfortunately, multitasking doesn't just decrease our productivity while we're in the midst of juggling multiple tasks.
Studies show that people who multitask using different forms of media simultaneously are actually more likely to have trouble paying attention even when they revert back to performing a single task. Developing a habit of becoming easily distracted through multitasking can cause a person to become more sensitive to surrounding stimuli. Studies also show that multitasking is linked with anxiety and depression.
You're not alone if you're overstimulated. The "always on" aspect of living in digital times means that more people are experiencing chronic sensory overload than ever before. Both newcomers to sensory overload and people who have underlying disorders that make them vulnerable need to be aware of multitasking, burnout, and other risk factors.
Questions and Answers
What does it mean if I get overstimulated easily?
You may be suffering from a sensory issue that makes processing stimuli difficult. While the root cause of overstimulation can vary by person, highly sensitive people often have trouble with a process called habituation that allows the brain to grow accustomed to stimuli.
What is overstimulation a symptom of?
Sensory overload symptoms are tied to ADHD, ASD, PTSD, burnout, and sensory processing disorders. It's important to be screened or evaluated by a healthcare provider if you feel that sensory overload is affecting your health, well-being, or quality of life.
Why do I get overstimulated and irritated so easily?
If you are living in a constant state of agitation caused by sounds, smells, lights, and certain textures, you may have a sensory disorder. While it's impossible to be diagnosed with a sensory issue without professional help, learning about the symptoms of overstimulation can help you to begin to understand why things that don't bother other people leave you feeling overwhelmed or panicked.
How do I stop being overstimulated easily?
There's no easy answer. First, it's necessary to explore why too much stimulation affects your physical and mental health. People with neurological or developmental disorders that cause them to feel overstimulated may benefit from working with a team that consists of counselors, occupational therapists, and coaches. There are also many small steps that people can take to find relief once they begin learning how to anticipate triggers. This can include taking regular breaks, using noise-canceling headphones, taking deep breaths, and reducing screen time.