It seems that society here in the West does not always operate in a way that empowers folks who quickly become overstimulated. Just to mention a few examples:
-Coffeehouses and downtown restaurants often have noisy dining rooms with tables close together, music blaring, and orders being shouted over the raucous of conversation.
-Movie theaters have screens that almost encompass your scope of vision from periphery to periphery with the sound so loud you can feel it in your chest.
-Technology is constantly at our fingertip—stimulating with alerts, beeps, buzzes and lights that demand attention and illicit emotional, mental, and perhaps occasional physical responses.
This barrage of stimulation is a constant background to our life—even in places of study like elementary school all the way through university (where, on top of this background of activity, the learner is asked to focus and use critical thinking and memory). Are you overwhelmed yet?
THEN—there are also people who are not only affected by external stimuli, but are highly sensitive to the emotions and experience of those around them. They absorb emotions and sensations of others simply by being in the same room, walking by them, or sharing proximity in some way!
(For those who don’t have this trait, the fact that people can experience another person’s emotion in their body sounds weird or imagined. But it’s real, and there are links* below that explain what happens for highly sensitive people).
I have noticed that my clients with sensitivities to their environment often:
Feel alone and perceive that others around them are not similarly affected; therefore, they
Think something is wrong with them—so because of a. and b., they
Don’t express their experience—often leading to
Suffering in pain from the effects of overstimulation--OR
Are forced to find creative ways to adapt to this society in which we live.
And then many of these folks often have the additional impact of their own mental illness, anxiety, depression, or symptoms of trauma.
And. life. just. feels. too. much.
If you are one who is reading this saying “ME!” or, “Oh, that’s so (friend/family member)..?” If so, I hope you take away four thoughts.
You actually aren’t alone
This is real
Creating your boundary is critical
Look at how you’ve already been creatively adapting—this shows your strength!
There are multiple ways of understanding and describing what makes some people more affected by their environment and emotions than others.
The Myers-Briggs identifies INFJs in particular, along with other personality types, as people who are highly affected by the emotions and the environment around them. (*https://personalityhacker.com/infj-personality-type/ ).
Dr. Elaine Aron who wrote the book The Highly Sensitive Person (*http://hsperson.com/) also describes a pattern of people who are extremely sensitive to stimuli.
A history of traumatic experiences can also cause a person to have heightened responses to stimuli (https://traumatherapy.us/trauma-ptsd/what-is-ptsd/) .
However you like to understand your pattern of responding to your environment, know you aren’t alone. There are so many people who experience this AND multiple ways to describe it!
This is real. You are not making up in your head how much energy it takes to sit in a room with someone or how you can know something about someone without them speaking.
If this describes how you feel, it will be important in your life journey to work at creating boundaries. Talk with your therapist about how you can explore healthy boundaries in relationships and in your lifestyle to develop resilience and empower you to take care of yourself (and improve your mental health)!
Finally—take a step back and recognize how you are likely a HIGHLY creative individual who has been forced to adapt to a society where noises and lights and buzzing is constant. You probably have some of the best ways in finding moments of quiet, rejuvenation, restoration, and self-care.
Perhaps you find yourself outside, on walks, exercising at the gym, breathing deep in yoga, reading, making art, or simply sitting in a comfy chair. You have some great tools in your belt! Or perhaps you find yourself “zoned out” on social media, flicking through your phone or binging on TV. These things have likely been helping you function in an overstimulating society, but they might not leave you feeling rejuvenated.
I encourage you to try one thing new this week: instead of picking up your phone when you start feeling overloaded, put on a coat and step outside. Breathe. Look deeply into the world. Find something that makes you smile, and smile back. You are working hard to manage each day. Allow yourself to have permission to find things that recharge and to give to you, too.