No one, including mental health experts, knows for sure what causes anxiety. It’s thought to develop from a combination of factors including genes, ongoing stress, and traumatic life events. According to PsychologyToday.com, there’s a growing body of evidence that overstimulation can be a major contributing factor to anxiety, especially for those who are particularly sensitive to external stimuli.
Few people would argue that modern life provides a nearly overwhelming amount of sensory bombardment in the form of noise, crowds, traffic, clutter, and the demands of ever-present electronic devices. Let’s take a look at how overstimulation can trigger stress and anxiety — and steps you can take to tame the assault on your senses.
We undoubtedly live in a noisy world. We are continually deluged by sounds that did not even exist 100 years ago — vehicle traffic, television, leaf blowers, muzak, and smartphones. The problem has gotten so bad that a World Health Organization report labeled noise pollution a “modern plague.”
While noise pollution does not cause mental disorders, it’s been found to contribute to anxiety, stress, emotional instability, mood swings, neurosis, and psychosis. Noise increases blood pressure and stimulates the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. It activates the brain’s amygdala, the part of the brain sometimes referred to as the fear center.
Excessive noise at any time is mentally exhausting. But noise at night is doubly so, since it prevents you from getting the restorative sleep you need to keep your brain healthy and running smoothly.
Take time every day to experience quiet. Research shows that silence has measurably relaxing effects — even more so than listening to relaxing music. As little as two minutes of silence reduces heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. If there are no quiet places for you to retreat to, consider getting a pair of ear plugs or invest in a set of noise canceling headphones or ear buds.
If you feel overwhelmed by clutter, you can attest to the fact that it causes stress. A poll conducted by About.com found that one-third of their readers avoid going home because their house is so messy that it causes them stress. UCLA explored the relationship between clutter, families, and stress and found that women especially are stressed by clutter. The amount of stress they experience at home is directly proportional to the amount of stuff their family has accumulated. So, simply put: “less stuff = less stress.”
Clutter robs you of mental energy, leaving you feeling anxious, tired, and overwhelmed. Your environment is a direct reflection of your psychological state, so if your living space is a mess, it’s likely you do not have your mental house in order either.
Most organization experts recommend decluttering one small area at a time, starting with the ones that bother you the most. However, Marie Kondo, author of the New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, disagrees. She’s found that tackling clutter piecemeal rarely works and recommends a decluttering marathon instead.
Another one of Marie’s tips that sets her philosophy apart is that she believes you should surround yourself only with items that “spark joy.” You can learn more about her Japanese art of organizing on her website KonMari.com.
If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to control clutter, you may wish to employ the help of a professional consultant. You can find one in your area at FindMyOrganizer.com.
Research has confirmed what most of us suspect anyway — that trying to do more than one thing at the same time is stressful. Most people start to feel significantly more stress, pressure, and frustration after only 20 minutes of interruptions.
Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, believes that constantly checking emails, texts, and Facebook constitutes a neural addiction. Switching tasks literally uses up energy and nutrient stores in the brain leaving you feel exhausted and disoriented.
Levitin reports, “Repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain.” Multitasking is “a powerful and diabolical illusion,” he adds. “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.”
While anyone at any age can get addicted to busyness, it’s particularly prevalent among “generation Y” — those aged 19-28. Research done in Australia concluded that having too much to do is driving the country towards a health crisis as excessive busyness takes its mental and physical toll.
49 percent of young people report high levels of stress and 44 percent don’t get the minimum 2.5 hours of weekly physical exercise because they are too busy. University of Sydney psychologist Dr. Andrew Campbell believes that this generation’s inability to switch off will result in an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as relationship problems.
Stress from multitasking doesn’t occur just at work. Even multitasking for fun, such as watching YouTube while texting or listening to music while playing a video game, is linked to anxiety and depression.
Two of the best ways to retrain your brain to diminish an obsession with multitasking are mindfulness meditation and the Pomodoro Technique. Mindfulness is a simple form of meditation that strengthens your brain’s ability to stay in the now.
The Pomodoro Technique is a surprisingly simple but effective concentration hack. Basically, it involves setting a timer, then working in short, concentrated bursts. During this time you give the task at hand 100 percent of your attention and do not check emails, answer your phone, or allow yourself to be otherwise distracted. Tell those around you not to disturb you unless your hair is on fire!
The internet obviously is a fantastic tool, but it’s easy to get sucked in and spend way too much time on it — especially on social media sites like Facebook. Several studies show that using Facebook is stressful and contributes to anxiety, worry, and insomnia.
Overuse of the internet is linked to psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, social isolation, and insomnia. It’s arguable as to whether internet use is genuinely addictive.
The American Journal of Psychiatry has urged that internet addiction be included in the next update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Internet addiction disorder is defined as excessive computer use that interferes with daily life. Since the average American spends 11 hours every day using electronic media, that definition clearly applies to a lot of us.
Internet addiction can reveal itself in different forms — as an addiction to video games, porn, shopping or gambling. If you are unsure whether your internet use has become problematic, you’ll find free validated internet addiction quizzes developed by internet addiction pioneer Dr. Kimberly Young at NetAddiction.com.
Lastly, there are apps that can help. For example, Freedom is a highly rated app that lets you block distracting websites or the whole internet while you work on other tasks.
For Introverts Only
Introverts are usually defined as people who would rather be alone than socialize, but this is not precisely true. Some introverts are quite adept socially and enjoy being with people.
However, unlike extroverts who gain energy by being with people, introverts need time alone to recharge. Introverts are easily overstimulated by intense or prolonged social interaction. Introverted children do not thrive in open classrooms and adults do not perform their best in open office spaces.
The brain structure and function of introverts is different than that of extroverts. Introverts have more gray matter in their prefrontal cortex, the areas of the brain linked to memory and decision making.
Introverts’ brains utilize neurotransmitters differently as well. Dopamine is the chemical in charge of the brain’s pleasure-reward system and acetylcholine is the brain chemical linked to learning. According to Christine Fonseca, author of Quiet Kids: Help Your Introverted Child Succeed in an Extroverted World, extroverts feel good when their dopamine reward system is activated, while introverts feel pleasure when acetylcholine allows them to turn inward and focus intensely on just one thing. This can explain why introverts get pleasure from reading a good book while extroverts would rather be at a party.
Knowing yourself and understanding that you are an introvert is the first step in avoiding too much stimulation. If you are an introvert, you will be more easily overwhelmed by stimulus in general and will be happier engaged in activities that are less, rather than more, stimulating. When you do socialize, seek out small groups or one-on-one interactions in low-key settings. You will enjoy yourself more and experience less stress than when in crowded places or at large gatherings.
Overstimulation is a modern problem. While you can’t control your external environment all the time, you can take active steps to bring peace into your life and strengthen your resilience to overstimulation when it occurs.
This article was brought to you by Deane Alban, a health information researcher, writer, and teacher for over 25 years. For more helpful articles about improving your cognitive and mental health, visit BeBrainFit.com today.