Sometimes you just gotta stop and… well, just stop.
Have you ever been in a mindset where you just can’t take any more input? A point where every sound, smell, sight, and any other sensation is enough to make you want to run and hide? Becoming overstimulated is something that almost everyone has experienced. And the most common remedy is simple “down time.”
Everybody needs “down time.” That’s when we process the information we’ve acquired in the recent time, usually since our last period of sleep. It’s when our brain files things under experience, updates our collected knowledge, and puts things in perspective. For most people, down time is straightforward, and doesn’t require much thought. Most folks have a quiet meal with their family, enjoy a beer at their favorite hang out, read, listen to music, or whatever. Everyone has their preferred method for unwinding.
But for neurodivergent people, this can be a little more difficult. For starters, a lot of them need more down time than most others, and more frequently. The most common explanation is that for many neurodivergent people, particularly the ones on the higher end of the autistic spectrum, their brains have no filters. The world around them is feeding them a dizzying array of information through all of their senses, at a relentless rate. The stereotype image of an overstimulated neurodivergent has them crouched low, with their arms around themselves, rocking back and forth, and softly muttering. It’s difficult to watch (unless you’re a cruel person enjoys putting them into this state), and even harder to experience.
Overestimation can have a variety of causes, because there are many varieties of people. On the whole, however, if my own experience is anything to go by, most of society doesn’t know how to react when a neurodivergent person becomes overstimulated. Or, as is often said colloquially, “starts having a meltdown.” However, it will be some time before society changes on this front. The process has started, but it’s likely to be slow. So for now, us neurodivergents need to self-manage as best we can.
Before I continue, I want to point out that I am not a therapist or psychiatrist. I’m only describing my own experiences and observations, and what I did to handle them.
One of the first things we can do is recognize what causes us to become overstimulated. These events and experiences are often called “triggers,” for obvious reasons. Loud noises, and sudden light changes are two of the most common categories. Other people can be triggered by more subtle things, like common sound patterns, seeing certain objects or activities, and even smells or colors. If you know certain things are likely to “set you off,” then the smart move is to prepare yourself to roll through it, or even try to avoid it (if possible). I know that’s a real no-brainer, but I thought it worth mentioning.
For example, I occasionally have problems with vertigo and agoraphobia. So, if I know I’m going to be in a situation with a lot of crowds, or being way up high (like on a plane), I try to fortify myself for the sensory assault that I know is coming. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s hard to know beforehand.
Lisa, Xander and I recently went to Louisiana to spend the holidays with Lisa’s extended family. On the whole the trip went very well, but not without some issues. At one point we drove across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which is a very long bridge over that large, shallow, inland sea of a lake. The causeway is generally low to the surface, so I wasn’t expecting a vertigo-related response. However, over the course of the thirty minutes it took to cross the thing, I gradually became rattled. I was driving 60 miles per hour, on a very narrow bridge, with absolute nothingness in all directions! The sensation was akin to falling. I watched those mile markers count down as the distant northern shore came more and more into focus, all the while wishing it would end. That experience left me a wreck for several hours afterward.
Recognizing triggers can be tricky, and sometimes we will have to update our list. I certainly did after that experience. I don’t know of any secret for dealing with triggers, only to know what they are and when they are likely to be flipped. Recognizing triggers may mitigate states of stimulation, but what about those times when it doesn’t?
Earlier, I mentioned how everyone has their own ways of unwinding during their down time. If you can get into one of those, great. After a little time in your comfort zone, you may level out. For a neurodivergent, though, this may take longer than for others.
Another popular trick is the mindfulness method of breathing at a regular pace, and try to take note of your surroundings. Try to identity five things you can see, five you can hear, five you can touch, and sometimes five you can smell or taste. It’s a good way to clear away the noise in your head, if only temporarily.
Another common approach, especially if you don’t have a lot of time, is the Four-Seven-Eight breathing exercise. Quite simply, you deeply inhale for a count to four (or use seconds if you have a time piece), hold your breath for a count to seven, then slowly exhale for a count to eight. This one is especially useful if you’re on the verge of exploding after a sensory onslaught. I’ve been trying to use this one more frequently of late.
Other things I’ve done are to look a window for a few seconds, to remind me of the larger picture. Some people like to take a quick walk to “touch grass.” Different methods work for different people, so if you have a unique decompression exercise that works for you, excellent! The real goal is to not go berserk in public and scare, or hurt, other people. I can understand the desire to sometimes want to, but it usually doesn’t end well. Try not to lash out at the neuro-typicals. They probably don’t understand what’s going on in your head. A lot of them want to understand, and a lot of them are trying. But this is a new social trend. Or more accurately, the decision to take it seriously is new. So it may take a while for them to catch up.
Just keep your cool, in whatever way works best for you, and the over-stimulation will soon ebb.
And now, I’m going to go lay down. I think I got overstimulated writing about over-stimulation.