Stifling Stimuli

In today’s fast paced society, we’re bombarded with stimuli on a minute by minute basis. Some people are well equipped to handle it. Others aren’t. Having a few simple tricks in our playbook can be a tremendous game changer.

Like most people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, I often get overwhelmed by the things going on around me. The constant demand for my attention drives me batty! This is known as sensory overload.

A little about sensory overload

Sensory overload can come from a variety of sources, but the most notable are noise, crowding, visual stimuli and information overload. There are many other forms as well. For me, I’m affected by a variety of sources, but the most crippling are noise, visual stimuli and information overload.

Someone who suffers from sensory overload will often “shut down” or refuse to participate further in the activity at hand. They can get irritable. They can become tense, fidgety, restless, have difficulty concentrating or have angry outbursts. Sensory overload can affect people who suffer from a long list of disorders. When we think of sensory overload, we typically think of Autism, anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but sensory overload can also affect individuals who suffer from fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and schizophrenia. (source)

Treatment and Prevention

Of course, with any disorder or syndrome, there are medical interventions that can be taken to treat the illness, but I’m more inclined to go the prevention route. I’d rather find the source of the issue and eliminate it rather than masking the issue with a cloud of pharmaceuticals – especially since so many drugs end up causing more health problems. Ever read one of those side effect lists?

Instead of drugs, I am utilizing these two techniques: avoidance and setting limits. Avoidance involves creating a peaceful environment. This can be done by producing quiet, uncluttered spaces. Setting limits involves limiting social interaction, limiting the amount of time spent on any one project, and taking frequent “time outs”.

To reduce the visual stimuli, I decluttered my home. I discovered through self-reflection that my home caused me a great deal of stress. Visual overload occurs when I have too much stuff to look at and process. Having papers scattered across all the solid surfaces, clothes scattered all over the floor, toys filling any remaining void, and a mounting to-do list brings me to my proverbial knees. I just can’t do it. Decluttering my home was key to solving this problem. In addition to keeping my home neat and tidy, I have to keep my desk at work tidy too. Books are put away in their cabinet. Pens and pencils are tucked away nicely in their pen caddy. Unneeded papers are shredded. When things are left out, it’s like each one of them is screaming “look at me! look at me!” I’d had enough. The negative (empty) space created in both my home and work environment simply by decluttering or putting them away when I’m done with them has done wonders for my mental status. Decluttering a home is a lofty task. If you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo for inspiration.

NOISE! Oy. Noise. This is a monster for me because how do you tell everyone around you to shut up? You can’t. Plain and simple. But you can create a space where you can get away – most days, this is my car. Mornings at our home are hectic. Everyone is running in a million different directions trying to get things done before we leave. It takes us an hour to get dressed, put on our shoes, and walk out the door. It shouldn’t take that long, but it does. And it’s stressful. There are many times when the stress of getting moving in the morning drives me to tears after I drop the kids at daycare. This time in my car alone, without the radio and without social interaction is vital to me. If I had to go straight from dropping kids off to walking into my office within minutes of each other, I’d be a frazzled mess all day long. The hour long drive to work is my morning stress buster. Most “normal” people don’t have an hour commute, so to those people, I would say bless your heart and suggest finding a ritual you can perform, alone, before embarking on the next part of your day. Stop at a coffee shop and enjoy a cup of Joe before work. Meditate. Take a walk through the park. Something, anything, to help you decompress.

At home, when things get out of hand, I will often retreat to the shower. A nice hot shower without interruption is priceless! Lock the door and drown in the steam! Then, of course, there’s also bedtime for the kids. As sad as that is to say, sometimes, bedtime is the biggest blessing of them all. And I can’t forget exercise! Taking an hour to focus on yourself can’t be understated. Like they tell you on an airplane: put on your mask before you help someone else put on theirs. Mama’s no good to anyone else if she’s not taking care of her self first.

Information overload is overwhelming to me. I will often miss key details because I’m overwhelmed at the sheer volume of words coming at me and tune the rest out. Taking notes helps. I don’t go anywhere at work without a notebook. If my boss has specific instructions, I’ll start writing them down. Getting the words out of my head and onto paper frees my brain to accept and process the next series of words coming at me. Whether you’re getting directions to an unfamiliar place or taking directions at work, writing them down is ever so helpful. And when you’ve gotten them all written down, you can read them back to the speaker to make sure you’ve got it all correct.

This applies to that long to-do list, too. Don’t keep that thing stored in your head. Write it down to clear up the space in your brain.

Other techniques include limiting interactions with specific people, taking frequent breaks during tedious tasks, and just simple deep breathing techniques. They all help. At the end of the day, you have to know your own physical limits and you have to respect them.

How are you taking care of yourself today?

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