What can we do about overstimulation?

Published on Winchester Sun, November 7, 2019

It seems everywhere we go these days, there is something to excite our visual and auditory senses.

When we’re out in public, it’s nearly impossible to escape. Between advertising and forced entertainment, we are subjected to a relentless barrage of sights and sounds.

In the doctor’s waiting room, the piped-in music competes with the blare of the TV.

In the department store, the flood of advertising is accompanied by the din of dreadful pop music.

Many gas pumps now are outfitted with video screens.

People in cars feel the need to share their favorite music with everyone around them at full volume through open windows.

The list goes on on on.

It’s not just advertising, although that is the worst offender. Some of it is retailers and others trying to be helpful by providing us with entertainment to occupy our minds. Some of it is just people being unthoughtful.

This is not to mention most of us keep our faces buried in phones, tablets and other interactive screens for most of our waking moments.

But is this anything to be concerned about? Other than annoying us cranky Baby Boomers, is this overstimulation of our brains a real menace?

I did a quick Internet search for evidence of harm to individuals and society from overstimulation, and I admit the science is still in its infancy.

Other than a few studies showing possible links to increased incidents of autism, there isn’t much substantial evidence yet of the perils.

Yet, I believe it is unhealthy.

We evolved in a much different world. Nature did not equip our minds to deal with the torrent of competing forms of sensory input to which we now subject ourselves.

I find it difficult to cope with in my personal life. I find it incredibly distracting. It annoys me to the point of anger at times. I once shouted at a gas pump to shut up.

I’m trying to do something about it, at least in my environment.

While we can’t escape the bombardment of stimulation in public spaces, we can manage our exposure to it. We can condition our minds to tune it out.

Here are a few things I’ve been doing lately. You may want to give some of these a try.

Look for moments during the day when you can escape the stimulation and give your brain a chance to rest and recover from it. Find a quiet, dimly-lit place to relax.

Try meditation. Don’t let that word frighten you. It doesn’t have to involve years of training, dogma or hours of sitting and chanting.

My own meditation practice — if I may call it that — is much simpler. I merely sit quietly to allow my brain to settle down and clear away the mental fog. Try to avoid thinking about anything. A useful strategy is to focus on your breathing and nothing else.

A related practice involves merely taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly and reflect. It’s easy to get caught up in daily life we never pause just to think.

The scientific literature on meditation is mixed. One study noted benefits to a form of meditation known as mindfulness. But the same study showed similar benefits from any activity the participant found relaxing. These included reading, taking a quiet walk or just resting quietly.

Get out in nature at every opportunity. Common sense and science are in accord on this point: people who spend more time outdoors in natural settings are happier and healthier — mentally and physically.

When you know you are entering a space where you will be subjected to sensory overload, prepare yourself mentally. Just having the right mindset going in can help. Another thing to try is — with irony duly noted — using your smartphone. Bring along your earbuds and plug into some soft, relaxing music or even white noise. If you’re into meditation, you can do that, even while sitting in a noisy waiting room.

The bottom line is you have more control over this situation than you think.

If you are bothered by it, as I am, then do something.

Just don’t bother yelling at it. I can tell you from experience, it doesn’t work.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Twitter @PeteKoutoulas.

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