The other day I read a post in a dystonia support group that is similar to something I see and hear very often. I’m sure you have as well, and I am guessing many of you have experienced something very similar. The post went like this… “I went to an early family Christmas celebration Thursday. I love my family BUT it was very tough to cope with all the noise from lots of people, excited children, everyone talking at once, etc. I had major sensory overload, my body was spasming like crazy, and I felt beyond exhausted that night. How do I avoid this happening again Christmas Day which will be more of the same. I have already decided to not stay very long this time!”
Sound familiar? It sure does to me. I have experienced this plenty of times and still do at times. If you have a sensitive neurological/nervous system, you probably experience stress and anxiety in higher amounts and more quickly than other people and you find it hard to deal with multiple stimuli. Certain things can seem alarming and even threatening above and beyond what is reality. Now, this is only part of the issue. The important part, and the part I want to discuss, is how we react to external stimuli and how that reaction impacts our health.
If you live with a neurological disorder (as I do with dystonia) or chronic pain, for many of us the personality trait called Highly Sensitive Person (which you can read more about by clicking this link) may apply; your nervous system is primed to be on guard. We have an instinct to run from over-stimulation because it engages the fight/flight system. It can cause mild anxiety to full on panic attacks, and of course has a negative impact on our symptoms and overall health. I want to share what I have learned to do in these situations, along with some other ideas.
When I feel overstimulated, which can cause pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness, confusion, fear, a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, feelings of suffocation, etc., I allow myself to purposely experience and welcome all stimuli coming in (noise, movement, lights, etc.) and allow my mind and body to acclimate to all of it, focusing on my breath in a calming way. It may take 15-30 minutes to feel at ease and more comfortable in the environment (sometimes more and sometimes less), and it takes practice. When I am able to sit with everything going on around me that my nervous system perceives as dangerous and do so in a passive manner, the “threats” reduce or go away.
Running or avoiding will only make us feel better in the moment. Unfortunately, this response will further train the mind that it’s better to run, which will strengthen the fight/flight stress response. When I feel overwhelmed, my initial reaction is to resist all unpleasant stimuli. When I decide to purposely notice all of it and let it be what it is and let my nervous system learn that it is not dangerous, it turns off my internal emergency alarm system. When we run, we reinforce the perception of “danger,” which keeps the internal emergency alarm system on high alert. This is why sitting with uncomfortable feelings is so important. We must find comfort in discomfort to change our internal response to external stimuli.
To give you an idea for how easily overstimulated I can be and what I did to overcome this problem, I want to share the following example. I feel almost silly sharing this example, but it illustrates how easy it is for many of us to experience system overload. When I am at a red light and there is a car in front of me with their blinker on, sometimes the repetition of the blinking light is too much to handle, particularly at night. The sound of the blinker in the car I am in can also be system overload, which trains my brain that this kind of stimuli is harmful.
I knew I couldn’t continue living my life like this, so I decided to try something different than resisting the visual and auditory repetition. What I did was think of a song that I like that went along with the beat of the blinker. The very first time I did this and every time thereafter, I was not bothered by the noise of the blinking sound or light. Now when I have it on, I sometimes catch myself not even noticing it! This is a super basic example of how I engaged my brain in a different way that reduced system overload.
Let’s go back to the story this person shared about being overstimulated with her family on Christmas. Her alarm system was activated, which put her into fight/flight mode, meaning that her sympathetic nervous system perceived noise from lots of people, excited children, and everyone talking at once as a threat. Thus, her nervous system went into high alert protection mode which caused her complete exhaustion. A way of dealing with this situation is to become purposely aware of the noise and activity. To REALLY pay attention to it so that we are the ones consciously aware of it versus it being thrown at us from every direction. When we do this, we become intentionally immersed in the environment on our terms, and the mind and body are typically more at ease because we allow ourselves to acclimate in a healthy way. Doing this also allows us to focus better on one thing at a time versus everything coming at us at once where all we hear is noise that sounds like the inaudible voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the background.
To feel what I mean, right now or when you are stressed, try the following: Find your breath. Simply become aware of its rhythm. Is it coming from your chest or stomach? Slow or fast? Is there a pattern of in-breath and out-breath or is it staggered? I don’t want to go into any breathing exercises in this article; I just want you to become aware of your breath, no matter what it is. Don’t judge it. Just practice focused, conscious awareness, which is also called mindfulness.
Now, become consciously aware of something else. It can be anything. Just become very aware of it and notice it in ways you may have never done before. It can literally be anything. A pillow, a light, a sound, a pen, plant, flower, your own hand or foot, food you are smelling or eating, another person…anything. Again, without going into depth about conscious focused awareness just like I don’t have space to go into breath work, practice conscious awareness as often as you can. This diverts attention away from what we perceive as danger to disengage the sympathetic nervous system (where the fight/flight response is located- click here to read more about this topic) and engages the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest and digest branch of the autonomic nervous system. Doing this also engages the environment in a much more purposeful, mindful way that leads to mental calmness.
Another helpful tool is setting an intention prior to a certain event that we know or think will trigger our nervous system to go into overdrive. Using the example of the post I quoted at the opening of this article, rather than think about all the things that could go wrong when this person will be around people again a few days, I suggest she get excited about it, so she looks forward to it. I also suggest she think about how she is going to allow her brain to perceive the noise and activity. By using visualization and planning her response before it happens by acting as if it is already happening, it will shift her out of her fight/flight mode she is already in by expecting the next family gathering to be the same as the first.
For all of you in a similar situation, set that intention long before the event and rehearse how you want to feel in those environments so you have a plan and are mentally prepared in a positive way versus dreading the upcoming experience. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, take a break and go outside or to another room or bathroom. Find your breath. Tell yourself you are not in danger, because you aren’t. It is just your mind playing tricks on you.
Many of us can initiate system overload even before there is any actual stimuli, which is why this is an important tool. We have the power to switch it off as it is happening and/or not turning it on at all by changing our current self-defeating thought patterns. If necessary, say something aloud in a strong, affirmative voice to stop you from going down the “I am in danger” rabbit hole. I like to say to myself, “Stop. Breathe. Slow Down. Do your best and have fun.” There are many other things you can say, as well as prayers and affirmations you can recite.
While there are many therapies out there that can help us (CBT, EMDR, hypnosis, biofeedback, medications, etc.), there are many things we can do on our own that can help calm down our overactive sympathetic nervous system. Regular meditation, breathing exercises, visualization, and mindfulness activities are all very helpful for keeping the fight/flight response at a distance.
These are just a few of the hundreds of things we can do to reduce system overload. I’m sure you have other strategies, and I would love to hear about them. If you would like to learn more about my other strategies for how to deal with this issue, among many other different challenges, please see my two books, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges.