There you are, losing grip, deeply ashamed and jumpy around seemingly “normal” tasks.
In those moments, it’s hard to reach out for help because you look like there’s something seriously wrong with you.
At the same time, you do need help when stuck (or freaking out) and thoughts of “doom by disfunction” are running amok in your head.
Overstimulation is so little understood in the “busier-is-better” culture that people worry themselves INTO dysfunction whenever it arises.
I did so too. For decades.
All this angst from misunderstanding the completely healthy and useful phenomena.
Healthy? You don’t know what it’s like!
Ah, but I do know.
Any of my kind empathy buddies could testify that I am capable of meltdown, overwhelm, anxiety and frozen stuckness to name but a few predicaments.
And until relatively recently, I was very worried about myself on account of these experiences, with chief worry being that there MUST be something wrong with me because “normal” people don’t lose the plot that often.
Paradoxically, it’s the worry that causes your problems and not your overstimulation.
Worry creates dysregulation (like a snake chewing its own tail) but pretends it didn’t do it. It tells you instead: “See? I told you so!”
But every human being is travelling constantly between the natural states of:
= under-stimulation (boredom, apathy, depression),
= just-right stimulation (sometimes called flow)
= too much stimulation (manifesting as agitation, anxiety, panic, frustration, etc)
How overstimulation itself is good
Here, I don’t mind telling you, a quiet stream of tears is flowing from me.
I’m feeling gratitude for finally discovering and believing the wisdom of sensitivity.
I believe in it, I believe in life and yes, I appreciate overstimulation.
Because slowly but gradually, over the years, clues have been gathering for me to form a much kinder and more useful picture of what’s happening in the frazzled, overstimulated human state.
As ever (thank you for that pointer, Byron Katie!), reality is kinder than the stories we tell ourselves about it.
I’ve come to see that overstimulation is an ally, quite like the Dakini Oracle card. It looks like a monster but is your most loyal asset.
But you need to understand what it’s there for and how to use it.
The missing essential education
Surrounded by the culture that values productivity more than humanity, it’s easy to conclude that overstimulation is a problem. Yet, it’s only, simply, an inevitable byproduct of missing education.
Let me illustrate with a personal example.
In the lead up to my A Levels (well, Polish equivalent of A Levels), I was so overwhelmed that I could not study and not being able to study terrified me so much that I got completely stuck in dread.
Somehow, I made it through the exams and into college and – independently and only in my twenties – discovered study skills.
I had feared I was a lazy student, incapable of self-motivation. The reality was that my system couldn’t function under pressure and without relevant skills.
When I found study skills, relevant education for the situation so to speak, I had FUN with the very experience that was torturous and “impossible” for me before.
I loved, loved, loved taking notes with colours and pictures (mind maps), memory techniques, speed reading, etc.
Now, cracking the skills for overwhelm/overstimulation took me a LOT longer because I got hypnotised by the (inherited from the culture) judgement that my sensitivity was a sign of trouble.
How the general culture has it backwards
Thankfully, even if slowly, I realised that there must be skills for overstimulation as well.
Because feeling/being sensitive is nothing to do with being “less than”. It’s more like a life-saving capacity for oneself and humanity.
Think canary in the mine and you’ll get the picture.
This week I met Alexandra Pope, a wise teacher on human rhythms, and she expressed this most succinctly when she said:
We’re supposed to be on our game all the time.
No one is. Ever. Vulnerability is NOT weakness.
Not only is vulnerability not a weakness, but human discomfort is part and parcel of how we learn and grow in consciousness.
If you’re like me, you may have often felt ashamed of inner discomfort. But it’s time to discover the wisdom and the beauty of what’s happening to you instead.
We are so privileged!
Unlike our parents and grandparents, we live in the world where many qualities that sensitive nervous systems long for (e.g deep kindness, awareness) are becoming more known and used.
More and more people are learning that emotional discomfort is not a liability but an asset.
Frederic Laloux, who’s studied diverse organisations which operate in new, radically better ways, describes the phenomena this way:
What triggers a person to open up to a later, more complex stage of consciousness?
According to the research, the trigger for vertical growth always comes in the form of a major life challenge that cannot be resolved from the current worldview.
In the case of overstimulation, the discomfort at work and relationships is driving people to create new systems that serve human needs in new, better ways.
And it was one of such creative systems, called Personal Kanban, that gave me the most practical clue about overstimulation that I have found to date.
The key to overstimulation being your ally
If we don’t understand something, we can’t dispel it.
Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry
If you study overstimulation a little closer and hear from those who’ve worked on understanding rhythms of human activity, you’ll see that there’s nothing here about being a lesser human.
Overstimulation is simply a result of your system trying to multi-task between doing something AND tracking your overall picture (i.e. thinking what it means, what else is important, etc).
In other words, you should be doing something OR assessing it but not both.
Try and do both, simultaneously, and you’re in trouble. Overstimulation simply must come up when you overtax the capacity of your nervous system.
I know it’s not fun.
But that’s what overstimulation is there for.
The do’s and don’ts
You can picture how overstimulation is provoked, I’m sure.
As you’re getting filled with stimuli (sounds, words, smells, etc), you’re reaching a point where you’d need a break or change of activity.
But, a child of the look-busy-culture, you try to respond to discomfort with diagnosis. You begin to think about “what’s wrong” and those thoughts completely disrupt whatever you’ve been trying to do.
Now, you’re at war with yourself.
You’re not responding to your system’s alert (via signs of overstimulation).
You’ve lost the flow of effectiveness yet you’re not pausing to rest nor taking a time out to reflect/regroup.
Trying to save yourself from spiking discomfort, you try to think and act yourself out of it but but the combo of doing and analysing jams the already taxed system.
Many wisdom traditions tell us that the key to inner peace is to be present in the moment. To have a stub at that, it helps to understand how it is that you lose presence/the stimulation sweet spot.
If you do, you can begin to make things better instead of worse for yourself in response.
So, next time you’re feeling frazzled, please take a moment to chose one and only one! from the following three options and watch your system begin to naturally reboot:
* Take a moment of rest from the activity you were in (& change location, if poss.), or
* Put ALL attention on one specific activity, perhaps try a new or smaller chunk of activity, or
* Take time for reflection/empathy, with no added activity while focusing on that
There are “pause” and “reboot” functions in all best machines. It’s time to reclaim these options for humans too!
Good luck and good stimulation to you, dear Reader!