4 Therapist Tips for Anyone Who Is Very Overstimulated Right NowThe big light is ruining my life.
Ever stepped into a bar where 20 TVs are playing all of the sports, music is blaring, people are talking over each other, and then someone asks, “What’s new with you?” That intense blast to the eyes, ears, and brain is enough to make anyone say, “Woah, I need a sec.” But for those of us who often feel overstimulated, just a fraction of those visuals, sounds, or even smells can make us lash out or shut down.
Though it’s not a diagnosis or a clinical term, many mental health pros agree that overstimulation happens when you’re overwhelmed by things you can taste, touch, hear, smell, or see (see: sensory input), explains therapist Mema Mansouri, LICSW. You can also be overstimulated by tasks and social interactions (like trying to hold five different convos with all your friends at the dinner table) that require processing info faster than you can handle, she adds. Basically, no matter the situation or the sense that’s being overloaded, the incoming sensory information exceeds your ability to digest it—leaving you totally consumed by it and unable to function the way you’d like, Mansouri says.
Why do we get overstimulated?
If TikTok is any indication—where the concept has over 453 million views—this feeling can seem pretty common. Still, overstimulation isn’t just being enraged with your chronic pen-clicker colleague. This mental health challenge also involves an all-consuming sense of overwhelm that can become unmanageable and manifest as irritability, nervousness and jitteriness, nausea, and discomfort in your body—especially in places like your head and chest, explains licensed clinical social worker Neathery Falchuk, LCSW-S.
Sometimes that makes people shut down completely, other times it’s being diverted from what you’re working on or who you’re talking to and feeling like you’ve blacked out. It’s as if the only thing you can focus on is how horrible this sensation makes you feel, explains therapist Sheylah Trotter, LMHC.
While some rock back and forth and cover their ears to self-soothe, crying, lashing out, or going into a full-on panic are also common ways people deal with that overstimulation, says Trotter.
Like we said, anyone can experience sensory overload but the debilitating kind seems to be more common in people with sensory processing disorders, anxiety disorders, or neurodivergent people—like people with autism or ADHD. That’s because these conditions can come with heightened sensitivities to things like flashing lights, crowds, and irritating sounds, says Falchuck. Plus, neurodivergent people’s experiences with overstimulation can last longer and feel more intense than what neurotypical people may experience in those same instances, making it harder to cope, Mansouri explains.
Whether you have a mental health condition or not, overstimulation could make you want to close yourself off to new experiences, limit how often you see other people, or keep you preoccupied with potential triggers and sources of relief, Mansouri adds. Obviously, that can feel isolating and even depressing, affirms Mansouri and psychotherapist Leah Cohen, LCSW.
If you’ve ever experienced this kind of overwhelm, you know how hard it can be to get back to baseline after being personally victimized by your environment. Still, there are a few expert-backed ways you can navigate those tough moments when they come up.
1. Know your triggers and stay prepared.
To prevent sensory overload sneak attacks, you can plan ahead by identifying those potentially distressing situations and the coping strategies that might work best, Falchuk says.
You can start this detective work by journaling about or making a list of when you tend to feel overloaded (Trader Joe’s), what thoughts you experience in those moments (no one here knows how to be a human), and how you’d normally respond (sorry to the innocent cashiers), Trotter suggests. If you’re already in the thick of it and you’re able to, take a quick note on your phone of what is triggering you and how you are responding (or want to). Cohen also recommends taking note of which senses are most sensitive, like if the store music pierced your ears.
Once you’ve gathered some intel on your brain, you can prepare yourself for future sensory pile-ons that might derail your day. Falchuck explains, “If you find grocery shopping overstimulating, a way to cope with this could be choosing to go at a time that’s less busy.”
But you don’t have to rearrange your life to avoid your triggers. You could also bring along a sensory kit, or a bunch of items that can help you manage an influx of sensory information, Mansouri explains. You can pop on some noise-canceling headphones and sunglasses or even use some communication cards to help you relay your emotions and needs to others when you’re struggling to vocalize your thoughts in the moment, Mansouri says. (You can buy these cards online, but they might not make sense for your specific situation, so making your own to reflect your needs in the various settings where you might use them is an option too.)
2. Use grounding techniques.
Once you’re in the throes of overstimulation, it can feel like you’re detached from reality and out of control, Trotter explains. Like any situation that gets you stuck inside your head, little tricks to help you focus on what’s really happening around you (even if that reality is an overwhelming one) can get you out of that mental spiral and ready to cope, Trotter adds.
There are a ton of mindfulness exercises out there, but you can start by stepping into a quieter, less crowded space (like the bathroom or hallway) to practice deep breathing for a few minutes. Inhale through your nose to fill up your stomach like a balloon, and then exhale slowly, as if blowing on a cup of tea, Cohen says.
Of course, deep breathing isn’t for everyone (hello, my anxious, hyperventilating friends). In that case, you could try to distract your mind from whatever it’s fixated on by naming five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste, Trotter says. You can also mess around with a fidget spinner or take a whiff of an essential oil you like (mmm, eucalyptus).
You can also use your phone. Mansouri, who identifies as neurodivergent, gets centered by watching videos of sea turtles slowly swimming through the ocean, living their best sea turtle lives. But your choice of vid could be anything that has that slow movement and makes you feel more stabilized, she says.
No matter what grounding technique you prefer, practicing them before an overstimulation emergency pops up will make them easier to lean on when you need them most, Trotter says.
3. Do something physical.
Some people may find that physical activity helps them cope with sensory overload. Cohen mentions that they’ve seen clients benefit from movement, like walking or other forms of exercise, because it can release stress and tension in your body and distract your mind from the trigger(s) and how terrible you feel.
“For many autistic people, stimming [aka repeating certain movements or sounds for a calming effect] in their preferred way helps mitigate the impact of sensory input,” Cohen explains. This may mean self-soothing by rocking back and forth or shaking your leg, Trotter says.
4. Find your people.
Rather than trying to isolate or deal with overstimulation alone forever, telling your support system what you’re dealing with—and showing them how to help you—can keep you from feeling bad about the fact that you feel bad, Falchuk says. So tell your boss you may need to turn off your camera in a Zoom meeting or ask your parent to keep a sensory kit in their car if you tend to feel overloaded on the way to school.
You’ll also want to foster connections with people who understand your struggle because they can share tips, and the camaraderie can help you feel less alone. “The experience of being understood is so powerful, and the reminder of not being the only one who experiences sensory overload is incredibly validating,” Falchuk explains.
Like a lot of these tools, it’s best to reach out when you’re in a chill state of mind to build a network of empathetic people for long-term support. When you have your community on lock, you can call on them when a crisis strikes, Mansouri says.
Social media can be a great way to get plugged in. If you’ve been diagnosed with a condition like autism or ADHD, joining a Facebook group—like “Neurodivergent Adulting”—can provide a space for you to get support from other people who might also experience overstimulation. Instagram accounts like Jenn Granneman’s, author of the book Sensitive, also offer advice and encouragement for people who often feel overloaded.
If you’re neurotypical or don’t have a diagnosable mental health condition, you can still find support through platforms like Reddit, TikTok, or Meetup, which host multiple stress relief and self-care groups where you could practice grounding and coping techniques, Masouri suggests.
Finally, if you have a hard time finding groups that speak to you, consider opening up to someone you already trust and let them know what you're dealing with and how you'd like them to support you in the future.
The bottom line: Overstimulation can feel impossible to control in the moment, but there are ways you can cope now and be ready to handle sensory overload in the future. By experimenting and finding what works for you on top of leaning on your support system, you’ll become confident in more settings.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.