If You're Feeling Overstimulated By Life Right Now, You're Not Alone

All the sounds, the sights, the smells — it's natural to feel overwhelmed as you return to the office and large gatherings. Here, experts share what it means to feel overstimulated and what to do about it.

Woman Overstimulated at Work
Photo: Getty Images

Recently a rather unconventional image went viral on LinkedIn. In the snapshot, an employee sits underneath her desk as she works on her laptop.

"Whenever I do this at work, I get weird looks," admits the employee in the accompanying caption. But, she mentions all the things her co-workers don't see (e.g. noise, bright ceiling lights, and constant movement happening in her vicinity). "In a word, overstimulation," she writes.

As a person who's worked remotely for the majority of my career, this post resonates with me hard. I think back to when, after years of remote working, I accepted an in-office job. I knew returning to in-person work would be an adjustment, but I wasn't prepared at all for how difficult it would feel to be surrounded by people, with multiple conversations happening simultaneously, people walking in and out of the office all day, office temperatures that always felt either too cold or too hot and the sounds of 20-some co-workers typing at once. It all felt terribly distracting and overwhelming. And in reading that LinkedIn post, I realize that what I was experiencing was possibly overstimulation, too.

Now, as people return to office environments and large social gatherings after two-plus years of pandemic living, I suspect a lot of people will feel something similar — and an expert agrees.

"For some people [the return] definitely will [trigger overstimulation]," says Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of How Can I Help? podcast. "You can more easily control your environment at home and there are many factors in an office [or large social] setting that can cause overstimulation for someone who is sensitive to it."

But how can you decipher whether your feelings are truly overstimulation? And if it is, how can you address the issue? Here's everything you need to know about overstimulation, from what it is to how to deal with it in your own life.

What Is Overstimulation?

"Overstimulation is a descriptive term used to explain the feeling of overarousal in the mind or body that can occur, especially for sensitive people, due to the impact of their environment on them," says Dr. Saltz. It's essentially a type of sensory processing issue — i.e. difficulty handling or processing information your senses take in (sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell), according to the Child Mind Institute.

"No one receives [overstimulation] as an actual diagnosis," adds Dr. Saltz. "Rather, it's a symptom." In other words, overstimulation is not an official medical diagnosis recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), the catalog of psychological conditions widely used by clinicians to diagnose patients.

But that doesn't make it any less real. In fact, anyone can become overstimulated, though certain conditions, such as anxiety, ADHD, autism, and more, may affect the likelihood or severity of the symptom.

For people with anxiety, "being overstimulated may make them feel more anxious and so much so that they feel panicked, [but] some anxious people don't have a problem with being highly stimulated," says Dr. Saltz.

Folks with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) may also be more susceptible to feelings of overstimulation, as those with the condition tend to already have trouble paying attention. Additional sensory information can compete for their brain's attention, making them more susceptible to becoming overstimulated, according to PsychCentral. "People with ADHD have difficulty focusing on one thing when there is a lot of other stimulation going on, such that they tend to take in everything rather than filter some stimulation out. Taking all of this in can make them feel overstimulated," explains Dr. Saltz. But, just as with anxiety, this isn't the case for everyone with ADHD.

Those with autism may be at greater risk of overstimulation as well, says Yon Na, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and consultant at Yon Na Consulting LLC. "People with autism experience stimuli differently than those who do not have autism," says Na. "So as a result, neurodiverse people may have a lower threshold for stimuli, so their reactions are likely more severely felt than those who do not have autism."

Overstimulation Causes

As the name suggests, the main cause of overstimulation is, well, stimulation. "Basically any place there is a collection of numerous sensory inputs (noise, smells, lights, people, physical sensation) all at once ongoing can make people feel overstimulated," says Dr. Saltz. (

When it comes to specific locations that can bring on overstimulation, office settings (especially those with open floor plans) can be especially triggering.

"[On top of that], just the amount of information employees have to process and filter through — whether it's via email or Slack or text, all of these different methods [of communication] contribute to overstimulation," says Na, who adds that feeling as though it's impossible to prioritize all the information you're receiving is one piece of overstimulation.

"There are a number of settings where people may feel overstimulated," says Dr. Saltz. "These can include school, concerts, parties and social gatherings, amusement parks, etc. Basically any place there is a collection of numerous sensory inputs (noise, smells, lights, people, physical sensation) all at once ongoing can make people feel overstimulated."

Essentially, when the brain is forced to take in too much information, it can affect a person in some very real ways. "The brain can process only so much information (that we are consciously aware of) at any given time," says Na. "When the brain becomes overly stimulated due to one or more of the senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting), our decision-making process and subsequent actions might not be ideal...We might become severely agitated [or] lash out at [someone]."

Overstimulation Symptoms

"People may use words like feeling overwhelmed, panicky, anxious, uncomfortable, agitated, [or] restless to describe this feeling," says Dr. Saltz. "This can include feeling literally uncomfortable in their skin. It can also cause a person to feel agitated [and] overwhelmed and they may shut down or check out, thereby seeming unresponsive to others. This can also appear as if they are very nervous and withdrawn."

The distinction between overstimulation and those other states people may experience (such as feeling overwhelmed, panicky, or agitated) comes down to the environment, explains Dr. Saltz. When you remove yourself from an environment that leaves you feeling overstimulated, those feelings should improve.

People may feel both physiological and emotional responses during periods of overstimulation, adds Na. "[Overstimulation] is two-fold, really," says Na. "From a physiological standpoint [you] might [sweat] a little bit, or your cheeks get flushed. [Mentally, you may] feel a sense of anxiety and not be able to focus."

The inability to focus is a hallmark indicator of overstimulation. "Part of not being able to focus is because there's so much processing going on inside your brain," adds Na. "It's different from nervousness. You can be nervous [when overstimulated], but the key difference is that it's hard for you to focus [when you're experiencing overstimulation]." If you're dealing with overstimulation, you may feel as though your breath is quickening — or even like you're holding your breath, she explains.

How to Find Relief from Overstimulation

"There are quite a few methods someone can take to help reduce feelings of overstimulation," says Dr. Saltz. For starters, you can limit the number of interactions you make in a day (think: avoid scheduling dinner with friends on days with multiple meetings). You can also set up your workspace in a "relaxing way," says Dr. Saltz. This could mean minimizing the amount of clutter on your desk, listening to calming or quiet music, dimming the lighting, and even using noise-canceling headphones, she explains. (

Don't be afraid to separate yourself from a triggering situation, too. Suddenly feel like everyone's talking in the meeting at once? Step outside for a breath of fresh air and, in turn, some calm. Talking walks periodically throughout the day can also help lessen overstimulation, says Na.

Whether in a work or social situation, communicating your boundaries is key. For example, if you're struggling to focus at work due to overstimulation, a conversation with your supervisor might be in order. Approach your manager with a clear argument as to why overstimulation is affecting your performance, and work together to find a solution to help you minimize the issue (and, as a result, potentially maximize your productivity), suggests Na. Similarly, being open with your friends about your triggers can foster a conversation about activities you guys can do together that won't leave you feeling overwhelmed.

When it comes to combating overstimulation, you might just have to get creative and try a few tactics to see what works — not just for yourself, but also within the culture of the space. The move demonstrated in the LinkedIn post is a prime example of creativity where handling overstimulation is concerned — and as long as it works for the employee who posted about it, it's a good tactic, according to Dr. Saltz.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles