Overstimulation leads me to either shut down or have a meltdown — sometimes both. I have known this for a while but had a hard time figuring out how to reduce overstimulation. Some things cannot be avoided, while other things could be cut out. I know it is easy to feel overwhelmed by trying to take an inventory of which things were overstimulating me the most and which things I could do without. Sometimes things were overstimulating me and I didn’t even realize it. I hope this list will help you come up with some ideas, and if you have any other suggestions please add them to the comments.
1. Invest in the best noise cancelling headphones you can afford, and wear them whenever you need to.
I bought myself a pair of noise-cancelling headphones three years ago for my birthday. At the time, I was living in an apartment with an upstairs neighbor who came home every night at 3am and stomped across the floors until time for me to get up for work. I also had another neighbor who allowed her toddler to scream outside my bedroom and living room windows for much of the day. The noise was literally making me crazy. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and I felt extremely annoyed all the time. I was feeling so much anxiety and frustration that I began having dreams about choking these people. Several people I knew swore by noise cancelling headphones and suggested I buy a pair. I had a difficult time deciding on a pair I could afford that would also be comfortable, since I didn’t want them to be so tight that I would feel like my head was in a vice. I eventually found a pair on Amazon that cost about $50 and worked well without squeezing my head too much. Even though I have since moved to a quieter neighborhood, I still wear them to reduce overstimulating noise even when I leave the house to go the store or wherever. An added bonus for wearing them at the store or coffee shop, etc., is that people don’t approach me to make conversation — another anxiety moment I like to avoid.
2. Avoid places with bright florescent lights whenever you can.
Florescent lights, like the ones in many department stores and office buildings, overstimulate me and give me headaches. If you work in an office with florescent lights, obviously you will need to go to work and can’t avoid showing up for your job. But there may be other ways to avoid bright lights. One of the most stressful things for me is shopping, because between the noise and lights and all the people and decisions, I am a mess by the time I get home. I’ve found that I can avoid going to many of these places by ordering things from Amazon. For example, I buy all my t-shirts, underwear, socks, office supplies, and books on Amazon to avoid going to someplace like Kmart or Target. I also get my groceries delivered from Peapod. I save money this way and also save my sanity. Even if you can only eliminate an occasional trip to the store, it’s worth a try.
3. Cut down on overstimulating foods and beverages.
I love to drink coffee, and I honestly never realized how much coffee overstimulated me until I suffered some gallbladder trouble and had to cut coffee out of my diet for a while. Without coffee, I felt less irritated all the time. I have since gone back to drinking coffee, but I try to limit myself to a few cups of regular and only drink decaf the rest of the day. Sugar doesn’t seem to have a big effect on me. I have experimented with eliminating sugar from my diet entirely and didn’t see a difference in how I felt. But I know some people who are overstimulated by sugar. For me, alcohol did not do me any good. I cut alcohol out completely and felt more stable with my energy and moods. It will probably take some experimenting to determine which foods and drinks affect you the most.
4. Be honest with yourself and others about how much socializing you can handle.
I’m an introvert by nature and socializing gives me anxiety. My family knows this but still invites me to social functions. It took me years to be able to admit to my family that I am not equipped to spend a lengthy amount of time at a bbq, family party, kids events at school, etc. The way I look at it now is that if I am not going to enjoy something, then I don’t go. Or, if it is an important occasion, I might go and only stay less than an hour. The bottom line is that we have to take care of ourselves. Even after explaining it to others what it is like for us, they might not understand. I did an experiment for one year where I declined every social invitation, including holiday gatherings. A few people were disappointed, and a few family members tried to lecture me, but otherwise it was a positive experiment. I learned that the world would not end if I did not show up, I did not feel that I missed out on anything by not going, and I felt much less anxiety and had fewer meltdowns by not forcing myself to go.
5. Turn off the television.
I used to have a bad habit of keeping the tv on all the time. It ran in the background most of the day, and I would fall asleep with the tv still on. I found out by accident, after my tv broke and it took me a while to save up enough to buy a new one, that I felt much more calm without having the television on. I’m not saying people should never watch television. If you’re interested in a program, that’s one thing. But if you want to try an experiment, limit your tv time and see if you feel better.
6. Put down your smartphone.
I am an iphone addict. I could sit up all night playing iphone games, checking my social media accounts, texting, etc. After my last iphone broke, I barely knew what to do with myself until my new one arrived. Having to do without a phone for a day taught me another important lesson about how much less stressed out I felt by cutting out the overstimulation of being on my phone all the time. Some iphone games are not only overstimulating but addictive and stressful. I decided to give up on candy crush as it was making me feel increasingly angry. I also decided to cut down on the overall number of apps on my phone so that I would not be tempted to constantly be checking Twitter, Facebook, etc. Sometimes I will take a day or weekend break from social media by uninstalling the apps from my phone and then add them back later. If you’re addicted to your smartphone or are just constantly looking at it, you may be overstimulating yourself without even realizing it (as I was). Another thing I have started doing is turning my phone off at night and keeping it in my bedside drawer. I used to keep my phone turn on, where it sat on the table next to my bed, because I used my phone as an alarm clock. The light of the phone was disrupting my sleep, so I bought a cheap alarm clock on Amazon and started turning my phone off at night. I sleep a lot better now.
7. Limit your computer access.
This is a hard one. I use my computer for work, for school, and for entertainment. If I shut off my laptop, it’s tempting to reach for my phone to play a game, watch a movie, or check my social media. If I can’t use my phone, I’m tempted to turn on the television. However, the more time I spend being stimulated by the light of the computer screen (or phone screen, or television), the worse I sleep and the more stressed and annoyed I feel. I’ve experimented with this quite a bit, and what works best for me is to only use my computer from 9am-5pm. If I need to do something online after 5pm (like order something from amazon or look something up), I use my smartphone. After I do whatever I needed to do, I force myself to put my smartphone back in the drawer. I try to read a book instead, or do a jigsaw puzzle or a wordsearch book, write by hand in a notebook, or engage in some other hobby. I’ve found that if I avoid technology for a few hours before bed, that I sleep better. I’ve also found that the more I limit my technology use throughout the day, the calmer I feel.
8. Plan in advance whenever possible.
Obviously some things can’t be planned, but I try to plan out my activities for the week on Sunday. I try not to schedule more than I can handle in one day. If my schedule is too full, I may need to say no to some things. I’ve found that I do best when I only have a few stressful things to do each week. For example, if I had a doctor appointment scheduled for Tuesday, then I would not schedule a social even for later that day or sometimes even the next day. I’ve also found that I can cut out a lot of stress each day by planning things out in my schedule book. I’m currently in my last year of college, and although I go to school online it’s still stressful. I have major papers due every Monday with other homework due on Thursdays. I therefore plan to finish my major papers on Friday and get my homework done by Wednesday; sometimes things come up, but I try to get things done early in case my computer crashes or an emergency comes up. I also plan out what I will eat for the week, so that I have my meals ready and don’t have to stress about making a trip to the store. I work from home now and don’t know what will come up each day, so I can’t really plan for that. And luckily, working from home I can wear whatever I want. But when I worked in an office I also planned out my clothes for the week each Sunday so that I did not have to stress about what I would wear or make extra trips to the dry cleaners, etc.
9. Avoid talking on the phone as often as possible.
I hate talking on the phone, and I know many people with aspergers who also get stressed out by phone calls. If you’re like me, you might get stressed just by the idea of having to talk on the phone. There are so many other ways to communicate these days, including text and email. I prefer email, because I don’t have to look at my phone all the time to see if I have a new email. Email can usually wait a day or more, while people expect an immediate response to a text. I ask everyone to please email me. The added bonus of email is that the person has put their request or information in writing so that I can save it for later. If people tell me information over the phone, I am so stressed out by the fact that I hate talking on the phone that I am likely to forget what they said. Figure out what method of communication works best for you. If you hate the phone like I do, ask people to email or text. Sometimes people still call me, but I mostly ignore their calls and wait to see what their voicemail says. If they don’t leave a message or if it isn’t urgent, I don’t usually call them back. I have pretty much trained everyone to understand that I am not interested in talking to them on the phone. Cutting phone calls out of my life has helped me to be more relaxed about having to deal with people.
10. Limit your time with people who trigger you.
This one may sound mean. There are some people who I know that as soon as I get around them, they’re going to trigger me to have a meltdown. I have learned from experience that there are certain people who like to criticize, or talk too much, or just generally annoy me. Depending on who the person is, I will sometimes cut the person out of my life and feel a huge sense of relief once I have done so. Other people can’t be cut out entirely, but it is possible to limit my time around these people. This is much more difficult if the person lives with you and you are stuck in the situation (I’ve been there). However, if you have a choice, consider limiting your time spent with these people you know to be triggers.
Although it didn’t take me long to type out this list, it probably took me a few years to figure this stuff out for myself. I’m sharing this list in hope that maybe it will help you save some time in reducing overstimulation or give you ideas you hadn’t thought of already. But maybe you’re overstimulated by different things, and some of the things on my list don’t bother you. If that’s the case, I would love to hear from you about what overstimulates you and the different ways you have found to reduce overstimulation and sensory overload.