You have a dozen unopened emails; you're behind on your work; the light above keeps flickering; a potent aroma fills the room; and the constant chatter won’t allow you to focus. Whether you’re working from an office, a cafe or at home, these distractions and triggers can be enough to overstimulate and cause you to shut down.4
Being a remote worker myself, I find it impossible to concentrate if someone around me (mostly my spouse) is having a fishy meal. The overwhelming smell takes over my mind and consumes my thoughts.
Anywhere you work, there are many small triggers and distractions and this sort of overstimulation is more common than you think. In fact, 82% of Americans have experienced it.1
While eliminating these triggers may be impossible, we can learn to manage overstimulation at work.2 In this article, we do just that. We also explain how F4S can identify your preferred environment so you can thrive at work.
Overstimulation also known as sensory overload is when your brain gets more information than it can handle. When this happens, you fail to focus as your mind becomes preoccupied with the numerous stimuli, reducing your ability to work effectively.3
There are 4 main types of overstimulation:
To explain why overstimulation has such a profound impact on performance, health psychologist Grace Tworek compares it to having too many tabs open on a computer. This causes the computer to slow down or even crash.
In the same way, too much information can make you feel stuck or overwhelmed. This is your body's way of telling you it's getting too much input at once.4
Constant overstimulation not only shatters long-term performance, it also affects your physical health and mental well-being.5 Therefore, it’s crucial to know what triggers us at work.
Some factors that contribute to sensory overload are:1,4,9
The experience of overstimulation varies. It can manifest emotionally or physically in different forms. When people become overstimulated, they experience a range of sensory overload symptoms, from feelings of slight discomfort to extreme anxiety, stress, or even feeling paralyzed.3
Lights and sounds become too much and they feel everything around them is too loud, too bright, and too overwhelming to process. This makes people want to escape and provokes panic attacks in some.
Ever noticed how some people can’t stand chewing sounds whereas others don’t even notice them?
This is because different people are prone to different types of stimuli. Take my example, even though we work in the same conditions, one of my colleagues barely notices distractions while I struggle to concentrate and often rely on my noise-canceling headphones to get work done.
People like me, who are easily upset by loud sounds, bright lights, or strong smells are referred to as Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). HSPs are more susceptible to chronic overstimulation.6 But it's not just us, most people have trouble focusing in places with many distractions.
Forensic psychologist trainee Amy Jayne, says,
‘Sensory Overload. I can say from personal experience, it is awful. For me, my body completely shuts down until I have returned to baseline. These are the times I wrap myself with fluffy throws, turn all the lights off, and want to be left alone.
‘For me, this often happens at work, I’m just so exhausted from having to function “normally”, I get home and just flop.’7
For Amy, overstimulation can be paralyzing. Dr Tworek explains this phenomenon as ‘The body’s fight or flight response’. Something commonly observed when a wild animal is faced with a predator.
When fight or flight kicks in, our body gears up for action. Our heart beats faster, our breathing quickens, and our muscles get ready to move. Our hands and feet feel cold as the blood in the body moves to important muscles, and we start sweating. All these involuntary actions are our body’s natural way of dealing with danger.
These feelings last for a while. She suggests calming techniques like deep breathing or meditation to help speed up recovery, but we’ll talk more about this later.
Since sensory overload is not recognized as an official disorder, getting a formal diagnosis isn’t possible.8 However, many doctors and health professionals recognize overstimulation, especially in neurodiverse individuals such as those with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD or other conditions.
Even though overstimulation may exhibit differently in different people, some common symptoms are:4,9
Overstimulation takes away your ability to think straight. When this happens, you’re often left feeling confused and lost. So how can you manage sensory overload?
Most experts believe that one of the first steps is acknowledging and accepting the triggers. It is also equally important to treat yourself with compassion and kindness and refrain from judging yourself.
Psychologist, Dr Megan Connell, recommends taking breaks from time to time and focusing on how you're feeling,
‘If you need time alone, be alone. If you know that you have certain foods, or smells that comfort you, keep them on hand for bad days. For some, it is taking time in meditation, while for others it is spending time with a pet, and still others want to use a weighted blanket. Find what works for you and have what you need on hand so that if you are overstimulated it does not ruin your day.’10
Instead of fighting your emotions, observe what's happening and pay attention to your body's reactions. This may require some time and experimentation to get right.
Here we’ve gathered 9 expert-suggested techniques to manage sensory overload:11,12
Place your head under cold water or use ice on your neck, wrists, and underarms. This lowers your heart rate and helps you calm down.
Exercise is a great way to distract yourself and reduce negative energy. Run up and down the stairs or do jumping jacks to release excessive energy.
Mindfulness is a popular method for achieving focused attention and awareness. It allows you to recognize and disengage from overwhelming external stimuli, without judgment, reducing stress and enhancing emotional regulation.
This is something I practice whenever I start feeling overwhelmed. Psychologist J Ryan Fuller suggests the 4-7-8 breathing method to regulate our nervous system.
Inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and then exhale slowly for 8 counts. The long exhale slows your heart rate and makes you feel relaxed.
Practice focusing on one sense at a time. This way, you become more aware of your surroundings and sensations, which creates a sense of calm.
In the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, you identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. By doing this, you distract yourself from stressful factors and stay grounded in the present moment.
Who doesn’t love fidgeting with fidget toys like spinners or stress balls? Use them to distract yourself and keep from feeling overwhelmed.
According to therapist Laurie Singer, chewing gum engages your senses and provides you with a sensory distraction.
One study on the effects of chewing gum found that frequent gum chewers have decreased stress levels compared to their counterparts. Even people who don’t often chew gum felt less stressed when they started.
Whether it's a 15-minute walk around the block or 1 minute away from a heated conversation, walk away from overwhelming situations to calm down. Limiting or taking a break from social interactions clears some of the brain fog and allows you to think more clearly.
While all the techniques provide some sort of relief, they can only offer temporary management solutions for sensory processing issues.
For long-term management, Dr Fuller recommends Exposure Therapy. This is when you expose yourself to overwhelming situations. This may sound intimidating but gradual exposure, while you’re in control, takes away fears and allows you to adjust.
Remember, not all techniques and strategies will work for you. Take the time to experiment and learn what works best.
Practice the following to prevent factors and control variables that lead to overstimulation. Build a healthy routine so you're always calm and not overburdened.
Another factor that leads to overstimulation is stress.13 We all get extra snappy when we’re on edge, tired, overworked, or not at our physical and emotional best. Keeping a healthy routine and taking preventive measures can keep the stress from building at work. Include calming activities in your daily life.14
Spend some time figuring out what sets you off and then make adjustments to reduce those triggers.
Setting boundaries whether they're mental, physical, emotional, or even technological helps you spend your time wisely and keeps you away from unnecessary tasks and drama.
Talk to your supervisor or colleagues and ask for support. Openly communicate what’s causing you stress and work together to build a supportive and calming workplace.
Discover your preferred work environment with the Fingerprint for Success (F4S) assessment. Do you gain energy from working independently with minimal contact with others or do you feel most productive and energized when you work with others?
F4S is a collaboration and performance AI that helps individuals and teams work more productively by gaining a deeper understanding of the personal communication styles of each colleague. This allows you to adapt your communication to suit each individual.
You like some variety, radical changes, doing new and different things in some of your work or business.
With a little bit of development you can become more socially aware of yourself and others.
Lots of people who feel overwhelmed and find it hard to focus on their work have tried different ways to deal with overwhelming sensory stimuli.
Otega Ajuchi, a former teacher, shares his personal experience with sensory overload. Just like many of us, Otega experienced overstimulation due to juggling multiple projects with a disturbed routine.16
‘It can also overwhelm me as I receive a myriad of stimuli from different directions. Learning new things can sometimes push me into an overstimulated state.’
He continues by mentioning his complex relationship with social media and how it can sometimes push him over the edge,
‘I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I love that it allows me to keep in contact with friends + family and get inspired but sometimes I find it overwhelming.’
It's not just Otega who feels this way, I also see social media as a double-edged sword. There's so much content suggesting others live in a perfect world that it makes most people feel stressed and overwhelmed.17
To manage sensory overload, Otega made several changes, including establishing a daily routine, taking exercise breaks, practicing breathing exercises, listening to soothing background music, and using noise-canceling headphones to minimize distractions.
He also made healthy food choices and changed to his environment to help him deal with overstimulation.
Libby, a highly sensitive person and a mom, shares her struggles with overstimulation.
Libby uses several simple methods including scheduling less and avoiding multitasking as coping mechanisms. She also talks about the importance of acknowledging her feelings to manage sensory overload.18
‘I use my guided journal to help me be realistic about what sensory input I will likely have to deal with that day or what capacity I will have to take a break or what my to-do list looks like, it helps me to get ahead of the game so that I can better implement the rest of these tips. Simply having and building self-awareness helps.’
And as a working mom myself, I can relate. We always have a dozen things going on every minute so preplanning our activities per our motivations can keep us from feeling overburdened.
Many helpful resources are available for understanding and managing overstimulation so we can take preventive measures. Here are some suggestions.19
Calm is a meditation and relaxation app. The app offers a variety of guided meditations, sleep stories, and calming music tracks designed to reduce sensory overload.
myNoise app allows users to customize and mix soundscapes according to their preferences and adjust the volume. This helps hypersensitive individuals cope with sensory overload.
Miracle Modus, created by an individual with autism, incorporates input from the #ActuallyAutistic community. It offers customizable features such as soothing lights, rainbows, and optional sounds to help users relax and regain focus.
provides insights into understanding your sensitivity, and managing overstimulation, and offers practical advice on self-care and how to navigate a world that may feel overwhelming.
Talks about the modern challenges of constant distraction and cognitive overload caused by technological factors and offers practical strategies grounded in neuroscience and psychology to regain focus and productivity.
Explores the strengths of introverted individuals and offers strategies for managing overstimulation in a world that often prioritizes extroversion.
Anyone can be overstimulated by external factors, but it is worse for people with sensory disorders. Also, factors such as fatigue and stress lower a person’s threshold for sensory overload, making them more susceptible to overstimulation.
We can spot and tone down things that make us feel overstimulated but the best game plan is to get ahead of it. Building up our mental health ensures that sensory overload doesn't affect our productivity and well-being.
Tools such as Ask Marlee are great for uncovering personal strengths, and helping us become mentally stronger, more independent, and self-reliant. This not only boosts our own productivity but also enhances team communication and leads to improved individual and team performance.
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