13 Things People Don't Realize You're Doing Because You're Overstimulated
Imagine being in a supermarket and noises are buzzing all around you. There’s the sound the pin pad makes when it asks you to remove your card and the “beep” of each item being scanned. There’s the sounds of people talking to their loved ones as they push a loud cart down the aisle. And those lights are too bright. Doesn’t sound like fun, right?
For some folks, especially those who are on the autism spectrum, this can be incredibly overstimulating. You might feel overwhelmed by all of the noises and unable to process what you’re trying to do. Maybe you’re having a conversation with someone in that noisy supermarket but all the sounds are making it hard to differentiate between your conversation and what’s going on around you.
Naturally, you’re going to have a reaction to feeling overstimulated, but some folks may not understand what you’re doing is a response to that. You might get irritable or start crying — you might even shut down and be unable to speak. All of these responses are a way of trying to handle too much sensory input.
To help normalize what happens, we wanted to know what things people do when they’re feeling overstimulated, so we turned to our autism community for some perspective. We realize some people who live with anxiety also grapple with overstimulation so we asked them to share their experiences as well.
Here’s what our communities shared with us:
1. Focusing Intensely on an Object
“Focusing very intensely on a clickable pen and very slowly clicking it through its cycle, focusing on feeling the mechanism work inside and breathing very slowly. A couple of cycles and I can handle things again. If I’m really overstressed, I cannot hear anything anymore and I have to isolate.” — Stephanie R.
2. Becoming ‘Moody’
“I turn into a grouch. My face goes flat and my voice gets flatter. I talk less and become irritable if I’m required to speak. You may catch me lip-reading more when you’re talking to me.” — Natalia M.
“When I feel overstimulated I get very combative. I find it hard to regulate my fight or flight response and since running out of a room isn’t considered professional, I end up snapping at someone when at work. I do try to apologize to the person afterward if I feel my reaction was disproportionate but to be honest sometimes they deserve it!!” — Eliza B.
“Playing with my hair and becoming moody. I get snippy with people when there’s too much going on. Everyone and everything frustrates me so I start snapping at people. Then I realize I’m snapping at them for no reason and get frustrated with myself and the cycle continues. To stop it I’ll usually take a nap.” — Kim C.
3. Being Sensitive to Touch
“My friend recently pointed out that I will nonstop scratch the back of my neck or arms. I can’t stop bouncing my legs or pacing. I also get extremely sensitive to things touching me. Any type of fabric is especially horrible at times.” — Katie C.
“Become extremely sensitive to sound and touch. If anyone touches me or is too loud around me I snap and want to crawl out of my skin.” — Caryn S.
4. Being Unable to Speak Clearly
“I lose the ability to speak clearly and finish my thoughts. It’s as if there’s a log jam keeping my mouth from letting the words out.” — Tonya H.
5. Having Speech Difficulties Worsen
“My speech impediment gets worse. I actually just learned this from my in-home therapist. She has been the only person to tell me this.” — Caitie W.
“My speech impediment gets worse, my tone gets flatter. I play with my hands or move/wave them around a bit. I might be more likely to tell someone to leave me alone. Require quiet, cover my ears and/or eyes. Varies by the situation. Tangles are paramount. I have an emergency sensory kit I keep on hand at all times, full of fidgets.” — Kylene M.
6. Biting the Inside of Your Cheek
“I hold my breath and bite the inside of my cheek.” — Tammy S.
7. Not Answering Messages Right Away
“Not answering messages in a timely fashion.” — Susan V.
8. Removing Yourself From Situations
“Hiding in the bathroom, insisting to be alone and starting arguments when I am unable to, throwing objects (typically my cell phone, as I always have it with me) when it makes me angry. I once threw a full box of cereal I was eating because my dad was being confrontational on my lunch break. Sleeping when I get the chance to be alone.” — Kristin V.
“Sometimes I have to remove myself from the situation for a few minutes. Go to a quiet room, close my eyes and ‘reset.’” — Dina C.
“Running my pendant up and done my necklace chain. Fiddling with earrings.” — Trere B.
“I get overstimulated especially in big supermarkets and I count on my fingers 1, 2, 3, 4 back and forth or spin the ring on my keys round and round.” — Lauren L.
“Rubbing my ring finger, finding the closest corner-like area, fidgeting with accessories a lot.” — Malory L.
10. Trouble Differentiating Between Sounds
“Saying ‘What? What?’ I have excellent hearing but if there’s a lot of noise around, my brain can’t differentiate and I can’t understand what people are saying.” — Ashley T.
“Most of the time when I’m overstimulated, I cry. It’s an overwhelming and stressful thing and it makes me cry uncontrollably.” — Autumne C.
“I disassociate and stare off into space. Or I have short answers as I’m trying to keep myself steady. Usually, I have to remove myself from the situation and decompress.” — Nicholas R.
13. Having Difficulty Making Eye Contact
“Can’t make eye contact at all.” — Natasha R.
“I have a difficult time looking at people in the eyes, I tend to look away and do my best to focus on looking at one object at a time around the room or wherever I am. I’ll often go to my bedroom or a bathroom where it’s quieter, try and lower noises and close blinds to help calm my overstimulation.” — Victoria K.
If you do any of these things because you’re overstimulated, you’re not alone. Having a reaction to overstimulating situations like an overly loud and crowded room is perfectly normal. Having a fidget tool on-hand or creating a portable sensory tool kit is one way to help fight overstimulating situations when they happen.
If you’re feeling overstimulated right now and you need a distraction, you can always reach out to The Mighty community by posting a Thought or Question using the hashtag #DistractMe.