First: Stimulation is Good! We Need it!
Stimulation, in it’s many forms, is essentially good for mental health.
The benefits of mental stimulation, include:
Promotion of neuron growth
Decreased chances of dementia
But, Over-Stimulation is Not Good!
Too much stimulation has a negative impact on our mental health and well-being, and highly stimulating environments can be especially difficult for introverts and sensitive people, including people with autism.
We are all susceptible to becoming over-stimulated in a world that is becoming increasingly stimulating.
On any given day we can be faced with an near-permanent flow of social stimulation from our real-world environments, like education and work, but also via technology, like social media, texting.
On top of this, we might find ourselves consuming highly stimulating forms of entertainment when we come home, like video games, TV suspense, action movies, all on a variety screens, including TV, tablets, laptops and mobiles.
Even on transport home from work, we might find ourselves in the midst of a Twitter debate, which can get quite heated.
Finally, add to this the biological stimulation many of us are consuming, like caffeine and sugary foods, and our mind-body can go into overdrive.
On any given day we might not have five minutes when we don’t engage something stimulating. This can lead to reactions, physical, psychological, and social, like:
Loss of concentration
Stress & Anxiety
Withdrawing from others
Worse, once-stimulated we can find ourselves in the following vicious cycle or feedback loop…
The Vicious Cycle of Over-Stimulation
The vicious cycle of over-stimulation is pretty simple. The problem is that stimulation can cause stress, and many of us have a habit of reacting to stress by seeking more stimulation as a form of coping strategy, because it distracts us from our stress. This is a feedback loop:
So, maybe we have a stressful day at work. Because of this stress, we come home and play a few hours of highly-stimulating videos games - to blow off steam. Or maybe we are stressing due to exam study, so, once we finish cramming we spend a few hours binge-watching a highly suspenseful TV series. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with using distraction as a form of emotional regulation - and for sure, even mindlessness can be good for mental health - but, sometimes our strategies can actually cause more stress.
Maybe we play video games or binge-watch our TV series late into the night, so that getting to sleep becomes more difficult, because we’re too wired. Our coping strategy has distracted us from the stress, but it hasn’t helped us chill out and simmer down.
We’re now over-stimulated!
What Can We Do About It?
If we can get into a vicious cycle, then, we can get out of one. Here, though, it’s sometimes not as simple as saying “just stop” to a coping strategy. Usually our coping strategies are in place because they work. It’s unlikely we’ll stop using such coping strategies until we find more sustainable, just-as-good, or even better alternatives.
So, let’s look at the alternatives.
What we’re looking for here isn’t abruptly ending all stimulation once we notice we’re getting over-stimulated. That is, in a sense, an option, but it’s quite a radical approach. What might be easier in the beginning is finding a middle ground between actively over-stimulating experiences, and experiences that are still stimulating, but in a more soothing way.
Basically, we learn the art of the wind down. We don’t just jump out of the plane when we’re in the heights of stimulation - we use a parachute to help us come back down to earth.
Some examples of activities that encourage winding down, include:
A less stimulating video game (instead of an a shoot-em-up, maybe a more soothing game, like Minecraft)
A less stimulating TV series (instead of suspense, maybe a drama, or, instead of a drama, maybe a nature documentary)
Listening to sounds of nature (in real life, or, on Spotify)
A walk (no phone!)
A cup of non-caffeinated tea, with all tech turned off.
The list goes on. And it’s highly subjective! Everyone’s wind down will be different, so it’s important to give some time to figuring out your own.
Here’s a structured way to think about what might work for you:
Rate the stimulating things you do, and the less stimulating things you could do, on a scale of zero to ten, ten being highly stimulating, and zero, not stimulating at all. For example, in the above list, I might rate meditation at 2 on the scale, and podcasts as a 5.
Then, when over-stimulated, pick the activity that is a step or two down on the stimulation stage. So, if I’m on 8 (playing video games), I might step down to a podcast (5) instead of trying to drop all the way down to meditation (2). Podcasts become my parachute.
Use trial and error. Figure out what works for you!
And that’s it! Try it, and see if it helps reduce the amounts of over-stimulation in your life.
Hopefully this approach might increase restful moments, so that we can enjoy stimulation without getting too stressed!
Did you find this article useful?
What are some activities that might help you wind down?
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