There’s a name for this phenomenon that so many of us are experiencing: it’s called stimulus overload. The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines this as “The condition in which the environment presents too many stimuli to be comfortably processed by an individual, resulting in stress and behavior designed to restore equilibrium.” Yes, I’d say too many stimuli to be comfortably processed is a pretty fair summary of the past 9 months.
So, what’s a human to do? Social media is full of half-joking references to too much drinking of alcohol and eating of pizza, but we know that’s not really helping (and can just make everything worse). Here, then, are four simple, self-supportive things you can do to lower your stress and restore your equilibrium:
Ration your intake. I’ve been spending way too much time on social media (twitter, specifically) and reading the news online. I’ve noticed myself seeing something that upsets me…and then looking for all the articles I can find on that topic. It’s not helpful. In fact, it’s anti-helpful.
What I’m trying to do instead is just take in the facts (here are the number of COVID cases in the US today, and in my locality; here are the people on Biden’s COVID task force; here’s the best scientific advice about what to do to slow the spread) and stop there – not keep going into the swirl of speculation, outrage, debate, conspiracy and craziness that surrounds those facts.
I’m discovering that it’s a hard habit to break, even though it’s fairly recent in origin: I’ve developed it just over the past four years, and it has ramped up dramatically in this year of the pandemic. But like any habit, the easiest way to break it is to replace it. A mentor of mine once told me, “The best way to stop doing something that doesn’t serve you is to start doing something else that does.” So, I’m not only limiting the time I spent on various social media networks and new outlets, but then when I recognize I’ve gone down the opinion and outrage rabbit hole, I have an alternative path to take, which is my second suggestion….
Focus on what you can affect. Most of us spend a good deal of time agonizing about things over which we have no control, especially when we’re in the midst of significant changes that add to our stimulus overload. Instead of indulging in that kind of ongoing useless unhappiness, ask yourself, “How can I have a positive impact on this situation?” Getting curious about finding the answer to this question will often reveal some practical step you can take.
For instance, I feel strongly about the need to address racial justice in this country on a systemic level and had been spending a lot of time wrapped around the axle of simply feeling terrible about how people of color are too often treated. When I asked myself this “How can I…?” question a few months ago, it yielded lots of useful answers: I can work with my partners to make sure my company is hiring and partnering with people of color; I can find and support organizations that are working for equity and inclusion; I can support and vote for candidates who are committed to making changes in our society. I’m doing these things, and it’s both making me feel less frustrated and overwhelmed and, I believe, having a positive impact.
Do one rejuvenating thing. Today I was talking with a dear colleague who has spent the past three weeks with others from our organization conducting a virtual leadership and management development program for high-potential mid-level women in media. At one point, they asked the participants to share one thing they had been doing to support and calm themselves during these wild times. They were amazed at the diversity of response – from reading to skydiving (yes, skydiving), baking to running a food bank, playing with their dogs to feeding animals at the zoo.
My take-away from this was: only you know what calms, soothes and rejuvenates you. And it may well be something another person would find boring, stressful or just plain strange. So without thinking about what you “should” do, or what “ought” to make you feel better, pick a few things that you simply enjoy doing, and that make you feel relaxed or energized and happy (and of course, that don’t hurt or negatively impact someone else), and do them. One of my “rejuvenating things” is to read regency romance novels while exercising on my elliptical trainer. Odd, yes. But personally delightful.
Stop catastrophizing. Finally, one way to take care of yourself when you’re being bombarded by change on every level: don’t make it worse than it is. We tend to feel awful emotionally and physically when we’re stressed (anxious and confused, heart racing, palms clammy, slightly nauseous) so our mind assumes even worse things are just around the corner, and our self-talk predicts disaster. A frown from our boss, when we’re already stressed, can cascade to an internal monologue that goes something like this, “Oh my god – he hated my report. He’s probably going to fire me. Wait, he’s definitely going to fire me…and first he’ll bring the whole team together and tell them how terrible I am…” It’s a vicious cycle of stress promoting negative self-talk, which makes us feel even more stressed, which worsens our self-talk…you get the picture.
Fortunately, you have the power to break this cycle. When you hear the voice in your head predicting dire things, simply stop, take a deep, slow breath, and ask yourself, “Is that accurate? What facts or evidence do I have to support that?” Often, just stepping back and questioning your negative self-talk will take you out of panic mode and you’ll be able to look at your situation in a more balanced way. You remember that your boss actually said the report was helpful and well-researched, and that he just wanted to explore one aspect of it with you that he didn’t completely understand (and therefore the frown).
We’re all at the affect of tremendous change (read: stimulus overload) right now, and it’s probably going to continue. So having some simple, tried-and-true ways to support and nourish yourself is key. I hope these four ideas resonate for you – and I’d love to hear about anything else you’ve done that is helping you through these unprecedented times. Here’s to a better future…