How to Practice Self-Care When You’re Overstimulated and Overwhelmed

When it comes to processing information and stimuli from our environment, everybody has a different capacity of how much they can successfully manage. Signs of being overstimulated and overwhelmed include racing thoughts, heightened startle response and an increased sense of agitation or fear. These physical and mental symptoms can gradually take their toll over time. The tricky thing about this emotional state is that it tends to emerge in response to periods of stress, when life becomes particularly hectic. In turn, being incredibly busy only fuels the desire to rush from one task to the next without wasting any precious time.

However, it is important to remember that once we reach our emotional capacity of how much we can successfully manage, we no longer become efficient at managing anything. Emotional burnout can manifest in feelings of hopelessness, fatigue or anxiousness–all of which are not conducive to productivity. One’s personal capacity for stress, whether high or low, is not as important as the ability to be aware of personal limitations and how to avoid surpassing them.

With that in mind, here are some ways to practice mindfulness when stress levels trick you into thinking that “there’s no time” to rest.

    • When you find yourself racing from one thing to the next, or continually ruminating over “what if” scenarios, take a moment to pause and check in with yourself. Make an effort to really observe your physical state and ask yourself if you are experiencing the signs of being overstimulated and overwhelmed. 


    • Label each specific emotion you feel. For example, you might say “I am feeling agitated, irritable, afraid and ‘wound up’.” 


    • Accept these feelings with self-compassion. Acknowledge that you are feeling uncertain and that anxiety is an inherent part of uncertainty. Along with this, remind yourself that nobody is able to predict how future events will unfold. Worrying about “what ifs” will not change the future for the worse or better, it will only diminish your emotional capacity to cope with whatever does happen. 


    • Seek out any possible ways to decrease exposure to environmental stimuli. For instance, remove yourself from places that are brightly lit, noisy or overcrowded. When feasible, take a break from “doing something” and engage in a less stimulating activity. Read. Listen to music. Meditate. By picking out and focusing on the things in your environment that provide comfort, such as soothing sounds, textures and visuals. 


    • Once an overstimulating situation is over, take adequate time to rest and recharge. Remember, you are not going to be magically more productive if you bravely “push through” exhaustion and sensory overload. 


Perhaps the most important takeaway is to avoiding self-judgement, which will defeat the purpose of feeling recharged. Remember these steps the next time you feel yourself in “fight or flight mode” and use them as an exercise to build up your self-compassion as well as your tolerance for distress. 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Leave a Reply