As a generation involved heavily in the world of social media, work culture, and constant “bad news,” overstimulation is a very real risk. It’s not just a fancy term for being bombarded consistently, but rather an explanation for why we often experience burnout. It exists widely around us, whether we choose to ignore it or cover it up – for ourselves and those around us – in order to simply march forward. But what is it, really? And what are the potential risks? 

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Overstimulation can occur when internal and external stimuli overpower our minds, bodies, or senses. It can look like anxious thoughts repeating themselves in our heads, or specific scenarios refusing to exit our consciousness. It could also be fears, worries, or other negative emotions in excess. For example, experiencing heartbreak, while simultaneously struggling with mental health could be intensely overwhelming. For someone else, it could look like trying to undo various forms of trauma. There’s no singular context, but every context is valid and can have negative consequences.

Externally, overstimulation could involve too many people, social stresses, academic fears, social media, current events, and so on. Being surrounded by countless news feeds and social comparison online is a gateway to becoming mentally burdened. Struggling with this type of overstimulation could be experiencing a family loss while also flunking three classes. It could look like seeing fifty tragic events on your instagram feed within twenty minutes. It could look like being unable to stop working due to a capitalist culture that promotes “the grind” over taking care of oneself. 

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Being a woman, stories and articles covering violence against women are particularly difficult to digest. Posts detailing ideas that attempt to overturn women’s rights are also frustrating to read – it reminds us of how prevalent and problematic misogyny and sexism is (and will be for a long time). Seeing obscene amounts of unrealistic beauty standards in entertainment and social media is damaging to countless women’s self images, and may cause warped self perceptions and future psychological illnesses. Again, the contexts are limitless. 

So, what are the risks associated with overstimulation? When we don’t give our minds and bodies a break, our minds and bodies will force us to. This means we may become exhausted (mentally and physically) due to being in constant overdrive. Emotional distress, persistent anxiety, isolation, shut down, and physical tension are all examples of potential risks. We are not created to run on empty – yet we try our best to squeeze in that extra mile. Not slowing down, unplugging, and unwinding can impede our abilities to move forward in the future.

So why do we do it? Why do we keep going when overstimulated and overwhelmed? The answer could be that we often do not realize the state we are in. Societal expectations, particularly in “fast paced” cultures involve workaholism and an expectation to keep producing. If everyone around you is doing it, so can you, right? Absolutely… wrong. We all have differing levels of absorption and sensitivity. Events or feelings that may overwhelm you may not do the same to me. 

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We also might not be in a state where we can address overstimulation. It may not be financially feasible to take a break from a job, or mentally possible to overcome a social media addiction. Additionally, it could be incredibly difficult to control anxious thoughts due to psychological differences. Being at a practical or internal disadvantage can thwart attempts at recovery even when we are aware of our state of being; this is not to precede a solution, but rather draw attention to the fact that “slowing down” and cutting things out can be a privilege.

So what can we do about it? Acknowledging that it exists and that it’s okay is paramount. Once we are aware of it, moving forward becomes easier. We can cater to our needs better, and create a plan to remove those areas of our lives that are becoming a bit too much. Taking it slow in the sense that we allow ourselves to step back and breathe can be a significant help.  Asking others for help, or seeking professional help are also viable options. Chances are, people around you have experienced the same thing in a different way. If the particular stimulus cannot be removed, then fashioning ways to reduce its effect or the attention we provide to it may ease our burden. 

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Regardless of what weighs on you, becomes a painful congregation of stressors, or a snowball of many little things, you are allowed to stop and take care of you. The world will keep spinning and our society is obsessed with “going and going and going”, but your health comes first. Delete that app. Cut off that unhealthy relationship. Talk to someone you trust. Or honestly, go sleep for 12 hours just because you need it. You don’t always have to be working – or your body might just stop working. 
So listen to your mind and listen really close – is it telling you to take a break?

About the Author

I am a second-year sciences student at the University of Alberta studying psychology and sociology. I’m a Pakistani-Canadian and a Muslim, as well as a local spoken word artist! I enjoy writing and reading and painting - artistic expression makes me feel at home. I love poetry - especially performing it - as it lets me put words to the feelings of others (and myself) that often go unspoken.