The First Steps to Balancing Stimulation

Finding the Path between Under- and Over-stimulation

A small pile of delicately balanced rocks

Learning to self-regulate stimulation levels is a crucial task for ADHD and/or autistic people. Without this, we can end up understimulated to the point it's physically painful, overstimulated to the point we can't function, or ping pong between the two.

…but where the heck do you start? Well, let's talk about it.

The first step is recognizing our stimulation needs in the first place. While this differs from person to person, an oversimplified generalization is that ADHD'ers tend to end up understimulated more often than overstimulated, while autistic folks tend to end up overstimulated more.

Being understimulated can start as a sense of boredom or discomfort, and grow until it's physically painful. It often leads to cravings for sensory input and increases sensory seeking behaviours. If unmanaged, understimulation can become a debilitating sense of wanting to do anything while not being able to get yourself started on actually doing anything.

Overstimulation, on the other hand, can start as a sense of free floating anxiety or overwhelm, but can build until it's hard to function, speak, or process information. Overstimulation can lead to increasingly rigid thoughts and behaviours, increases in stress stims, and attempts to control or avoid stimulation.


While identifying stimulation needs in a specific situation can difficult, particularly for those of us who struggle with interoception or have alexithymia, once identified, small changes to our behaviour or environment can make a big difference in our ability to cope. For example:


1) Change your environment


This isn’t always possible, such as if you’re required to work in a large office, but when you’re able to, changing your environment can make a big difference. This could mean moving to a different environment altogether. For example, if you are a student and are feeling bored or understimulated studying for an upcoming test, you can try studying somewhere new, and see if this helps with feeling a bit more stimulated.


If you are at home or if you have your own office, you could also try making changes to the environment itself. For example, if you have noisy incandescent lights that always annoy you and leave you feeling overstimulated, you can try changing them for quieter, more efficient LED lighting. Or if instead you feel understimulated, you can try adding some extra stimulation by having music or videos on in the background. For example, if I’m doing a tedious task, I’ll sometimes leave YouTube playing quietly to remove some of the boredom. Sensation stacking in this way, where you layer different types of stimulation in order to focus on a particular task can be a particularly useful tool for ADHD'ers trying to manage tedious, repetitive, or boring tasks. Just make sure that the stimulation isn't more engaging and that it doesn't use the same skills as the main task you're working on, or else it may end up becoming a distraction instead!


Along these lines, another step you can take is:


2) Listening to music/podcasts


Music can be great if you’re feeling understimulated. I often find that if I’m stuck in the middle of a boring task, listening to music can help alleviate some of that boredom and understimulation. It can also help me sometimes with getting started with tasks, which is ironically something that can often be harder when we’re feeling understimulated. Similarly, podcasts can help, and I’ll often listen to podcasts while doing chores around the house.


Counterintuitively, music can also help if you’re feeling overstimulated. If there are lots of noises around you, leaving you feeling overwhelmed, putting some headphones on and listening to some of your favourite music can help with that overwhelm by giving you something to focus on. This is something I've found can help me greatly when I'm trying to get a task done but there are lots of things happening around me. It may seem odd to introduce more stimulation if you’re already feeling overstimulated, but it really can help, and it’s usually much easier than trying to remove all the noise that already exists.


The great thing about listening to music or podcasts is that with headphones, this is something that can be done almost anywhere. So, wherever you may find yourself, if you’re over or understimulated, this is likely to be an action you can take to help with that.


A person gently holding the noise cancelling headphones around their neck

3) Snacking (healthily)


This is something that can lead to bad habits if not careful, but healthy snacking is something that can help with focus and managing under or over stimulation. This can provide stimulation in multiple ways: taste, touch, texture, smell, etc. Something I like myself is having carrot sticks around for something I can easily snack on if I’m feeling understimulated. The crunchy texture of them can really help, and just the act of eating can act as a stim. Plus no one is going to tell you off for eating more vegetables!


Of course, if what you need is taste or texture, there are non-food options as well. I’m personally not a fan of chewing gum, but some people find that it can help them manage stimulation. Chewable stim toys are also a possibility, although they may not be suitable for, say, an office environment.


Talking of stims, this brings us to the next point:


4) Stimming/fidgeting


Stimming or fidgeting is something a lot of us do already, often without even realizing it, because it’s such a great way of managing stimulation levels. Stimming can involve all sorts of different physical activities, such as toe tapping, leg bouncing, humming, or fiddling with your hands and fingers. There are also a wide range of various fidgets that can help with managing stimulation. Also, don't overlook using everyday objects as stim toys! I'm frequently fidgeting with pens, and the advantage of this over over fidgets is that it's much less likely to raise eyebrows in something like an office environment.


If simple stimming isn't working for you, maybe you can try taking it up a level, which brings us to:


5) More intense physical activity


If you’re willing and able, more intense physical activity can also help manage stimulation. For instance, you could try walking, running, jumping, etc. This may mean having to take a break from whatever you’re doing, but it can often be worth it if you are feeling stressed or bored. Anyway, us ADHD'ers often get our best ideas when we're doing something physical!


Sometimes a brief spurt of activity is just what we need, and this helps not just while exercising, but it continues to help afterwards as we feel more regulated and our minds feel more relaxed. So, you get to feel better and be healthier at the same time!


A excitedly person jumping into the air

6) Acceptance


The last step we can take is perhaps the most important, and that's to accept that sometimes we're going to struggle with stimulation levels, and that's okay. We've all had times we've had to sit through painfully tedious meetings, or there's just been so much going on around us that we're completely overwhelmed. When this happens, don't blame yourself or get angry with yourself or think that you're a failure because you're struggling. I know I often feel bad if over- or under-stimulation is stopping me from doing what I feel like I should be doing, but playing the blame game with yourself just leads to negative spirals that make things worse.


Instead of getting angry or frustrated, be kind with yourself. Accept that you're in a difficult situation and that you're doing your best. Try to remember the other strategies mentioned in this article, and use any you think are appropriate and that might help. It can be hard to remember coping strategies when you're already struggling, but it gets easier with time, and practicing these strategies can help to make those difficult situations just a little bit more manageable.


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