More and more adult clients arrive at psychologist’s offices suffering from stress and an inability to concentrate that makes them worry that they may have ADD. Often they are just overstimulated and overwhelmed.
Stress is what we experience when the world moves too fast, when there is too much to do and too little time to do it. We feel stressed when the emotional world around us is strained or endangered. Through emotional contagion we feel stressed when others around us are stressed.
Both good and bad changes can stress us. Think of the new parent, the bride or groom-to-be, the person needing to “learn the ropes” in a new job. Stress is unavoidable for most of us and often enough life enhancing, but stress is hard on the body and on the brain. We remain wired like our primitive ancestors to respond to anxiety by fight or flight. Stressful situations which endure over long periods of time keep our brains awash in neuro-chemicals and our bodies tuned to yellow alert in preparation for flight from an enemy or a predator.
Scanning for danger
In this state of mind we are evolutionarily primed to scan the world for danger. For those people living with genuine terrors this is entirely appropriate, but for most of us, the irritating co-worker, our unsympathetic spouse, the bad driver on the road beside us, the wretched state of the economy or the melting ice caps which we point to as causes of our stress are not really the life-threatening dangers that evolution has prepared us for. Nevertheless we use them to explain and justify our over-arousal by pointing to them as upsetting stimuli in the world.
This makes our experience seamless. We feel that we have an explanation for why we feel threatened. It may not, however, be the whole truth.
So what ARE we feeling?
We are often simply “over-stimulated”.
Our lives are full of what we have come to feel are necessary or unavoidable activities. We suffer from “information overload”, too many choices and tension producing anxiety that we may fall behind if we do not do everything, try everything, glue ourselves to our TV’s and computer screens. Every trip to the supermarket or mall is an exercise in overstimulation.
Over-stimulation and ADD
George Washington University neurology professor Richard Restak notes that attention deficit disorder is becoming epidemic in both children and adults. He points out that “as a result of increasing demands on our attention and focus, our brains try to adapt by rapidly shifting attention from one activity to another– a strategy that is now almost a requirement for survival.” Restak goes on to cite comments by Wired magazine’s cyberspace critic Evan Schwartz, who argues that that attention deficit disorder may be “the official brain syndrome of the information age”.
Almost everyone you speak to feels that their life is moving too fast.
We snap at our preschoolers when they dawdle over breakfast and grit our teeth when our teenagers can’t find their notebooks.We rage at bad drivers and inattentive pedestrians as we travel to work in the chaos of rush hour.
The pace in the workplace increases all the time. Friendships and collegial relationships occur across time zones on the internet. Conference calls replace face to face meetings. Canadian executives wake at 2 am to check in on subsidiaries in Japan via their blackberries. Television ads feature the small town family doctor speaking to his patient via Skype while he is away on vacation. Information processing and information generation outstrips and certainly surpasses our ability to digest the results. Our bodies feel the strain. Our minds are exhausted and overwhelmed.
At our personal point of overstimulation, we break down.
Overstimulation is unpleasant and aversive. We literally experience it as an attack… an attack on out senses, on our emotional equilibrium and on our ability to understand and feel in control of what is happening to us.
When we reach our personal point of overstimulation, we may behave like overtired, overwhelmed children. We can melt down and demand that others take care of us, we can behave badly and coercively of others as we try to control what is coming at us. We may lash out in anger, flee inappropriately or isolate ourselves too rigidly.
Sometimes we collapse physically instead and experience psychosomatic or stress-based ailments. We may become hyper-aware and concerned about bodily pains because they provide an acceptable reason to retreat from unpleasant overstimulation.
Reducing overstimulation reduces stress.
Since a significant part of what we experience as stress is may be simple overstimulation and sensory overload, psychologist and sensitivity specialist Dr. Elaine Aron suggests that we can do some practical things about it.
Instead of melting down in the face of overstimulation-based stress, we can respond by acting consciously and responsibly to reduce our immediate level of stimulation. We can work proactively to reduce the general level of stimulation to which we expose ourselves. She suggests some strategies:
Purely physical strategies for lowering your level of overstimulation
- When you feel your tension rising get out of the stressful situation for a bit or entirely.
- Close your eyes for a few moments, 80% of our stimulation is visual.
- Limit your use of stimulants like coffee, tea and soda particularly before entering highly stimulating situations.
- Get outside: access fresh air, natural random sounds.
- Use water to reduce your stress: Take a bath or shower, drink it, walk beside it or listen to running water, fountains etc.
- Take a walk.
- Calm your breath
- Adjust to a more relaxed posture.
Psychological strategies for lowering your overstimulation
- Offer yourself advance permission to limit your participation if a situation overstimulates you…or to withdraw.
- Practice a meditative discipline which can calm and re-center you.
- Nurture and value inner resources such as spiritual or philosophical beliefs and cultivate a basic conviction that the world is safe and supportive.
Interpersonal strategies for lowering your overstimulation
- Respect your limits and ask others to respect them too. Monitor your interpersonal boundaries.
Strive for an optimal level of stimulation
Human beings perform at their best physically, intellectually and emotionally in an environment which offers, what is for them personally, an optimal level of stimulation; neither too low or too high. Giving a little thought to the cumulative nature of overstimulation can help you lower your level of physical and emotional stress and remain in your comfort zone.
Richard Restak, (2003) The New Brain, How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind, Emmaus, PA., pg 45
Elaine n. Aron PhD, (1996). The Highly Sensitive person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York, Broadway Books