Feeling Overstimulated? Here are 5 Ways to Cope With Sensory Pollution
Sometimes, it seems like the entire world is exploding in my face.
As if this time of year wasn’t loud enough already, we have our phones bleating our alarm clocks, calendar reminders, meetings, voicemails, text messages and Instagram updates - all simultaneously screaming for our precious attention.
The word ‘dynamic’ has been so overly applied - it seems everything is moving at any given time; twisting, blinking and beeping to grab our notice, until the whole cacophony blends together in a swirl of noisy madness. Is your head spinning? You may be suffering from sensory overload!
What is Sensory Overload?
Simply put, it’s a barrage of stimulation aimed at many of our senses at once. So much is going on in our environment that our senses of touch, smell, sound, sight and taste overlap and even start to blend together.
It’s too much for our brain to process, leading us to feel overwhelmed, stressed out and even very anxious.
We know what air pollution does to our hair and skin, how it can lead to things like asthma, headaches - and worse. So what about other sensory pollution?
Some people, known as highly sensitive people, or HSPs, are so highly attuned to sensory stimulation, that it seems to them as though sights, smells, sounds and even textures are amplified to a point that a too-loudly patterned couch can be the last straw to being completely overwhelmed.
Do you ever wonder if malls are getting louder and more garish as a devilish strategy to confuse us into buying without consideration, just so we can get back into our quiet cars and get some sweet relief?
OK, it’s probably not a conspiracy, but, the point can be made that the world is just a much noisier place than it was 20 years ago - so what can we do about navigating it when we feel like it’s attacking us at every angle?
Tips for Coping with Sensory Overload:
Be liberal with your ‘mute’ button
This can be applied literally - if you are still watching TV shows with commercials - the power of the mute button is effective and immediate. Doing the same to your constant notifications can be a scary undertaking at first, but one worth trying if you feel you can’t get away from the stream of information.
Figuratively, learning to tune out extraneous noise is a talent worth developing. Meditation can certainly help, as it trains you to focus on something singular, such as your breathing - as can yoga, a practice that teaches us to slow down and listen to our minds and bodies, rather than the outside world.
Yes, this also applies to people - and conversations you…
a) don’t need to hear, and
b) don’t care to continue.
Make a calming playlist & use noise-cancelling headphones
For some of us, the sensory overload can be curbed by taking away some of the other senses. If the conversation happening behind you at work, the noise of outside traffic, the office music layered over that and the constant pings of new emails is too much for you to focus, take away what you can and pop those headphones on.
One of my favorite applications to keep it together is to wear headphones when I go shopping, to the art museum, the library, the grocery store - wherever I find myself overloaded with stimulus.
I take them off when I’m in an actual retail store, or if I’m paying, because that can get rude, but at least there is only sound from one place, not the entire shopping mall with all of those people, lights, sound, movement.
At the end of the day, no one really cares if you are jamming to classical music while you shop - you are one of thousands, and you’re minding your own business. Enjoy the experience.
Don’t be afraid to walk away
Who said you had to accept feeling this way?
Finding your happy place doesn’t just have to mean you close your eyes and think of a hot tub on a mountain in a ski lodge. Excusing yourself from a situation where you feel like your head is about to explode is perfectly acceptable.
Find a place where you feel safe - even if it’s the bathroom - and go there for a few minutes, if only to catch your breath. A favorite coffee shop, a nearby greenhouse, a park - find your retreat and head there when you need a break.
Related Article: How Spending More Time Alone Can Help You Manage Your Anxiety
Learn how to say ‘no’
This is one we all need a reminder for - for the most part, you are in control of what you allow into your head - and your life! If you are feeling super overwhelmed, especially at work, practice the fine art of turning people (and your social media) down.
Don’t rule out working from home either. Many businesses are turning to this option for their employees, even if it’s only one day a week, as it has been found in some studies to boost productivity and lower turnover.
You might just need that day to put your head down and catch up, but you can also escape Randy the open-mouthed gum chewer and Tim, the guy whose garish button-ups always make your face hurt.
Slow down & find some green space
The simple act of breathing deeply is also effective enough to calm us down in a pinch.
This study from the Hunter Pain Clinic in Broadmeadow, Australia found that aiming for a slow and steady pace of 6-10 breaths a minute can increase heart rate variability, which helps us regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and digestion.
In other words, slowing your breathing down, even if it’s just to pause and focus only on your breath for a few minutes, can be enough to get you to back to the present, and away from the overstimulation.
Extra points if you can get outside for some fresh, cool air. Being in green space boosts your mood, but also has a calming effect on us, as this grassy color is also the easiest for our eyes to absorb. This is a big part of why we feel so refreshed when we can get out in nature - along with the detoxifying effects plants have on our air.
You don’t have to completely avoid leaving the house to recenter yourself after sensory overload - it might not be possible for you to do that.
Taking a mini time out to do some deep breathing, stepping outside for some air and coming up with simple ways to enhance your experiences without increasing your blood pressure are all solutions within your own hands.
Read this next: 4 Signs You Need to Say No More Often