7 Things to Do When You’re Overstimulated and Can’t Get Away

An introverted woman sitting outside

When you’re overstimulated, find a mini-escape, like going out to your car for something you “forgot.”

The TV is too loud. The kids are stomping up and down the halls. It sounds like a Tasmanian devil is doing dishes in the kitchen. I’ve already mentally calculated that it will be another 32 hours before I can get out of the house alone… and it feels like an eternity. 

Sometimes, it’s mornings like this with the kids — or weekend work retreats with a team of rowdy coworkers or roommates who have impromptu visitors that never seem to leave. 

For us introverts, there seems to be no shortage of times we find ourselves overstimulated. Our need for alone time runs deep, and when that need doesn’t get met, things can get a little… overwhelming

Most of the time, we can find an escape route — hiding in our bedrooms or slipping out of the work party early or calling in a back-up babysitter for a quick solo trip to the coffee shop. But what about the times when there is no out? No getaway car waiting out back? What do you do when you’re overstimulated and can’t get away? 

For introverts, these are the things nightmares are made of. But there are ways we can manage these types of situations. Here are a few tools you can add to your arsenal for the next time you’re trapped in a never-ending office finance meeting where everyone is incessantly clicking their pens and yelling over each other while you slump down as low as you can in your lumpy desk chair, hoping no one asks you to speak.

7 Things to Do When You’re Overstimulated and Can’t Get Away 

1. Find a mini-escape, like going out to your car for something you “forgot.”

Okay, so there’s no way you’re getting out of this, but can you get away just a little bit? Maybe you can retreat to the bathroom or step outside for a moment or pretend you left something really important in your car and you need to look for it… ASAP.       

Always look for one quick way to remove yourself from the situation, even if just for a little bit. Then you can use that time to get yourself together and create a game plan for getting through this impossible ordeal (like helping your coworker in the copy room instead of sitting in on the stressful marketing meeting with your boss).  

2. Name the feeling you’re experiencing. 

When you find yourself in an overstimulating environment that you can’t escape, it’s easy to begin to feel overwhelmed — and it can quickly escalate into panic. It’s important to learn how to practice emotional regulation. According to Psychology Today, emotional regulation is the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. And a quick way to kick-start this practice is to name the feeling — identify what’s going on in your body and brain. 

It might sound like, “My jaw is clenched, people are speaking too loud, my chest is getting tight, and my breathing is shallow.” It’s not about fixing anything in this moment, but about noticing and observing how you feel. This helps break the fight-or-flight response we often feel when we realize we can’t get out of a stressful situation. 

3. No matter where you are, practice deep breathing.

When we’re overstimulated, our hearts race and our breathing becomes shallow. A great way to counteract it is by practicing mindfulness and taking some deep breaths. Slowly breathe in for a count of four and then allow a controlled exhale for the count of six. Counting as you breathe is a good way to redirect your focus from the stimulating environment. 

Practice this breathing technique until you can feel your body and mind start to calm down. At first, you may want to excuse yourself from the situation you’re in and do this in the bathroom or outside — or even in your car. But, after a while, you can master doing it at your desk or even in the weekly meeting you so loathe. 

4. Get out of your head and into your body.

If possible, stand up and stretch. Physical movement is a quick way to draw our attention inward, get energy moving, and release tension that we inevitably have been holding onto. Combine the deep breathing with stretching and you can buy yourself a few moments of peace. As you feel your nervous system calming down, you’ll be better equipped to manage the chaotic situation you’re in. Research, too, shows that it’s “meditation in motion” and helps increase endorphins, which will help lower stress.

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5. Use a positive mantra, like “I am safe” or “I am brave.”

A mantra is just a word or phrase that you can repeat to yourself, out loud or in your mind, that holds a specific meaning for you. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am safe — even when I feel overwhelmed by what’s going on around me. In moments like that, I use the mantra “I am safe” and repeat it over and over again as I practice deep breathing and light stretching to settle myself down and focus on the present moment.

You can use any word or phrase that feels grounding and helpful to you. If you have to speak in a work meeting, you can say “I am brave” to yourself beforehand. Or, if you have to be in an overcrowded room, you can say “I am expansive” to find that extra breathing room within yourself when you can’t get it in the room. Whatever the case may be, make it your own!

6. Use visualization and go to your “happy place.”

You’ve heard people talk about going to their “happy place,” right? It’s not a bad idea when you’re stuck listening to Aunt Edna ramble on about her inner ear infection while Uncle Joe yells over the TV from the living room, and the smell of White Castle frozen burgers burning in the microwave overwhelms the house. 

At this point, deep breathing may be a challenge — even though I’ve already rolled the tension out of my shoulders and repeated my mantra about 526 times. Nothing is working, so I mentally go to my favorite place… the beach, with a light breeze and warm sunshine and nothing but the sound of the waves and a few birds flying overhead. Sounds silly, but it works! When you can’t physically get away, use your imagination and visualize away. It can help boost your mood while also decreasing anxiety and overwhelm.

7. Stay off your phone.

It’s so tempting to jump on social media and scroll as a way to escape what’s going on right in front of us. But when we’re dealing with overstimulation, turning to your phone can actually make it worse. It might distract you from the wild toddlers tearing up your house, but your brain still has to process all the tiny bits of information and images that you’re scrolling through. 

In reality, all you’re doing is adding stimulation on top of stimulation. When you’re already stressed out, reading your cousin Paul’s political opinions probably won’t help. Plus, when you avoid distracting things like social media, you’re better equipped to practice being present, breathing deeply, and calming your nervous system. So put that phone down, take a few deep breaths, and walk away. 

Create a Game Plan Before the Game (So to Speak)

Use these tools to create a game plan, of sorts, for the next time you find yourself in an environment you can’t get out of right away when it seems like too much. Try to practice these things during calm times first, so that when you feel yourself getting overstimulated, you already know what to do. Being stuck in an overstimulating situation can feel impossible, but with the right tools, you can navigate through it in a positive way. If I can do it with two kids under four, so can you!

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