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7 Triggers of Over-stimulation and Over-sensitivity: How to Manage Them So You Can Be With People

NY Magazine

NY Magazine

We rode along the Dakota Trail near the shoreline of Lake Minnetonka. My man and I rode out front on his fun red tandem bike. My kids trailed behind us like teenage ducklings. We waved and rang our bells at neighbors we passed and strangers who smiled. The sun shone through the trees overhead and a cool breeze made the pedaling easier. This all sounds pretty damn good, right? It was, and yet, I barely kept my emotions in check. My nerves were shot and I pushed myself to be a happy trooper.

Why?

Trigger #1: External Conflict

For two weeks prior to the bike ride, I had been dealing with kid/money/schedule issues with my former husband. Though my ex-husband is a good man, I’d rather drink Drano than receive emails from him with subject lines like, Schedule or Child Support. These are matters divorced co-parents must tackle but nevertheless they are tricky topics that require a lot of tongue biting and grown-upness.

Often these matters crop up when things are going well in my life. My career is moving along. The kids are in a good place. I am in a healthy relationship. Then boom, we have to discuss finances or a change in the schedule. Sigh. It’s like delightfully floating on your back in the ocean and then someone throws a boulder on your stomach. You’re totally content but the weight makes floating really hard.

The back and forth emails and face to face discussions often add conflict and minimize cooperation. I so badly want cooperation. The overall tone is negative rather than collaborative, with each of us pointing out how the other is not living up to our expectations. The adrenal glands above my kidneys squirt out gobs of cortisol in response.

Trigger #2: Lack of Sleep

Due to the above conflict, my sleep quality declined to nil. I fell asleep, no problem, but the 2:45 and 4:19 demons woke me up with a desperate need to re-hash every word anyone ever said or could say. Just as I would drift to sleep a cold bolt of adrenaline would seize my mind and force me into thinking rapidly and negatively. I slept two hours the night before the bike ride.

A nice stop for lunch will make it all better.

No.

Trigger #3: Multi-caring

After riding for about six miles we arrived at a local bar/restaurant on the water. I planned this location for lunch because it was pretty and a manageable distance from where we got on the trail. Given that it was a Saturday, the place was hopping. Music blared and the scene was full of boat people (people who pulled up in their boats), party people (sometimes the same as boat people) and those like us, local families.

As we sat in the sunshine, looking at menus and waiting for our food, my man said this type of place is not his scene. It’s too crowded and the music is too loud. It’s a place to be seen rather than talk and eat. Well, OK.

Bees flew around our heads incessantly. My daughter is extremely fearful of bees. She told me every time one was near me or her.

We talked among ourselves but I noticed my middle son was quiet and no one was drawing him out. As an introvert, I know it’s fine for him to be quiet and observe but also as an introvert, I know it’s nice if someone notices you and gently brings you into the conversation. I tried to do that by asking him what he ordered.

My mind ping-ponged around the table checking the temperature on everyone’s happiness gauge.

Trigger #4: No Downtime

Once back home, I began to work on dinner. No real downtime between riding a bike for a few hours and jumping into dinner prep. Come to think of it, not a lot of downtime this summer, period.

Trigger #5: Multi-tasking/Interruptions

I noticed the apple cider/honey combination I had prepared before leaving was still too liquidy to be the syrup I needed to glaze the turkey breast, so I turned on the burner to let it boil down further. Meanwhile kids were asking me if they could have friends over, my man’s dog needed water, I was cleaning the turkey and getting the vegetables ready.

You guessed it. I boiled the glaze down to glue and had to start over.

Trigger #6: Being Scrutinized

Once the turkey was in the oven, my man offered to husk the corn. Great, yes, thank you.

He pulled out the recycling bin and remarked that we are not recycling yogurt containers properly.

I brought a bowl of green beans out to the deck and started to trim them while he husked the corn. He asked if I was putting the cut beans back into the bowl with the uncut ones. Yes. I wanted to minimize the number of bowls used.

He asked me if the water was on for the corn. I jumped up to put it on.

Trigger #7: Inner Conflict

I mentioned my man’s dog. He is the smartest sweetest Border Collie/American Eskimo mix. I truly love this loving animal but… his hyper-vigilant nature can stress me out a bit. Usually I can handle his restlessness but if I am already over-stimulated I absorb his anxiety like a sponge. I have to detach from him in order to avoid the stimulation. This makes me feel bad because I know how beloved he is by my man.

The next day meltdown

I managed to keep it together the day of the bike ride but the next night when my man arrived at my house the shit hit the fan. I was tense and so was he (probably feeding off of me). I had been dwelling on all the negative aspects of the last few days and projectile vomited them all over him. He left a few minutes after arriving. I was relieved when he left but knew it was going to hurt the next day.

I called a sensitive friend and gained comfort from her understanding and validation.

I had the whole evening to myself. Downtime to breathe.

I sent my man an email before bed in an attempt to explain my words and actions.

I was so emotionally exhausted I actually slept decently that night despite all the turmoil.

The next next day resolution

It did hurt a lot the next day.  I knew I had to take control of the reins of my over-stimulation.

I composed an email to my ex-husband. In it, I summoned all of my reasonable and diplomatic skills and did my best to meet him halfway and still maintain boundaries. I know I am better at persuasion than logic so I gave persuasive arguments for my way of thinking.

Action dissolves fear. Sometimes you have to meet conflict head on but softly.

After a long conversation with my man, I realized two things. 1. He never meant to question or scrutinize me. We simply speak a different language. He is more objective and logical. I am more subjective and feeling based. He is practical. I am intuitive. He is task oriented. I am people oriented. 2. We can be an unstoppable team if we work together and appreciate each other rather than judge each other. This is growth in a relationship — learning from your differences. I felt blessed to have a partner willing to listen and try to understand me.

Multi-caring and multi-tasking are two issues I am always going to have to deal with especially when my kids are around. In the multi-caring department I have to learn not to jump in and protect my kids or whoever I feel is being wronged. I have to let them learn to defend themselves. In kitchen multi-tasking, I know I do better if I cook alone before everyone arrives or if I accept help from others but we each work independently on our own part of the meal.

To sum up my methods of resolution for each trigger:

  1. External conflict: Confront it, but softly in your own way.
  2. Lack of sleep: Do whatever it takes to get solid sleep. If you have to take something I say do it. Not every night but when you are especially over-sensitive. Monitor and protect your sleep schedule.
  3. Multi-caring: Love generously but don’t fight everyone’s battles.
  4. No downtime: Protect your energy and time. Keep open time (hours not minutes) between activities to prevent meltdown. Talk to encouraging friends to regain energy as well.
  5. Multi-tasking/Interruptions: Work alone or ask for help but work independently within the task.
  6. Being scrutinized: Consider the other person’s perspective. They may assume they are being helpful. Explain the way you work best.
  7. Inner-conflict: Share openly and vulnerably how you feel. With some individuals, it is going to be difficult to explain your sensitivity because they speak a totally different language. The ones who are willing to try to understand are worth the effort.

Do you have any different triggers? Any other methods of managing them? 

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22 Comments

  1. Karen DeBonis June 21, 2017 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Brenda, this describes me to a “T.” Especially the multi-caring part. I struggled with binge-eating disorder for many years, and I finally overcame it when my boys were grown and moved out, and our beloved but hyperactive dog passed away. Only when I was able to stop multi-caring was I able to finally meet my own needs. I wished I had found you many years ago!

    • Brenda Knowles June 21, 2017 at 5:50 pm - Reply

      It is sad how difficult it is to say and believe that we matter. We need to be seen and heard. We need to feel loved. I’m glad you now have time to care for yourself. I hope you have a good partner or friend to support and cherish you too.

  2. […] 7 Triggers of Over-stimulation and Over-sensitivity: How to Manage The So You Can Be With People &#8… […]

  3. Anne from E. September 11, 2015 at 7:36 am - Reply

    Hi Brenda,
    for hard times that I cannot change immediately (job, family, etc.), I always find good support in Bach flower remedies. I cannot recommend a special kind of them as everybody needs to find her own mixture but if it comes to the worst, it is always helpful to have a small bottle of Rescue Remedy at hand.

    • Brenda Knowles September 12, 2015 at 11:59 am - Reply

      I’d never heard of Bach flower remedies so I looked them up. Interesting. Is Rescue Remedy something you ingest or something you put on your skin? I will keep in mind. Thank you Anne from E.:)

      • Anne from E. September 13, 2015 at 8:04 am - Reply

        There are several forms of Rescue Remedy (e.g. spray, cream, candies) but the classical way is the essence of more than thirty different wild flowers, diluted in water or alcohol (so you ingest it). They work like some kind of homeopathy for the soul, although you may feel the change also in your body, of course. If you are receptive to homeopathic cures, Bach flowers may work as well for you. Dr Bach developed the system with the deliberate purpose that everybody can use the essences without consulting an expert. There are some good books out there (e.g. from Mechthild Scheffer), and from there you can go on on your own. You can experiment with them because you can’t go wrong. When it is not the right essence, you simply feel no change. Actually, as everybody is different, sometimes I need a higher dose than indicated to feel an effect. I’m relying on their help for two decades now.

        • Brenda Knowles September 13, 2015 at 3:12 pm - Reply

          Good to hear Dr. Bach’s has worked for you and you trust it. The tonics sound wonderful. I’ll look deeper into them. Thank you.

  4. w1nt3l September 9, 2015 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Thank you for consolidating, what seems to be my life, into a single post. I can relate to every trigger you list and recall a situational example for each. There is a trigger that I have that isn’t listed and I’m not sure if I’m alone in this or not. I don’t like being told what to do when I’m well aware it needs to be done. The catbox is probably the perfect example I have of this. I explained that there is a huge difference between “I think the catbox needs to be changed” vs. “You need to change the catbox.” My frustration level goes through the roof with the second statement, which is typically the only one that I hear. This has been a trigger I have had all my life and it stems from being in a career where everything I do tracks back to something I was told to do. After handling that all day long, its the last thing I want to hear when I’m at home. Am I over-reacting with this or am I legitimate in my frustration? I’ve tried to ask that it be said as a suggestion rather than a command. I feel like I’m the bad guy for being this way.

    • Brenda Knowles September 9, 2015 at 7:41 pm - Reply

      I ask my boyfriend to soften his words when he tells me to do something or critiques something I’ve done. He gets in ‘mission mode’ and doesn’t realize his requests or observations sound critical or terse. The thing I like least about such phrasing is that it hints at me being incompetent. Perhaps that is true for your letterbox example as well? I think I have a problem with being told what to do in general.;) I never want anyone to have control of me. I LOVE freedom.
      Thank you for sharing your trigger. I’m sure lots of space2live readers can relate.

  5. Elisandra September 8, 2015 at 9:59 am - Reply

    I feel stressed just reading this. Lol.

    External conflict for me is my job. The job is difficult and exhausting to begin with, very busy, lots of people, lots of noise, and even physically demanding. But on top of that, they have a way of constantly adding/changing things, which is always stressful, and beyond that, annoying, because the additions/changes are without fail worse than it was before. On top of that, there’s like a monthly data entry mistake they make that I have to get resolved. Such as, they never got around to inputting my latest W4, or somehow my raise didn’t get in the system, or somehow my accrued vacation days didn’t get put in the system . . .

    This leads to . . . not enough sleep, because I can’t turn off my mind to stop thinking and planning how I will go about resolving the latest job-related complication, and rearranging my life to deal with it until it’s corrected. The only solution that helps a bit is to get up and write down a prepared phone conversation of exactly what I will say when I call HR, again. If I don’t do this, I could be lying there all night rehearsing and rewriting it in my mind.

    I can relate to the “scrutinizing”. The man I’m seeing right now does this. Most of the time I think he thinks he’s helping, but he’s not. He has HIS was of doing EVERYTHING. It works for him. But his ways don’t work for me, for various reasons, and if I attempt to explain why, he doesn’t get it at all. For example, I can’t get up an hour before work, shower, brush my teeth, throw on clothes, and rush out the door, like he does. He doesn’t need alone time, at all, and he is energized by his people-oriented job, and apparently doesn’t even need breakfast before he leaves, so we’re VERY different. When I try to explain all the reasons why I need more time than that before I leave for work, he doesn’t get it at all, because his way is the only correct way as far as he’s concerned. Having to debate this with him is exhausting, because he can’t grasp that his way is best for him but my way is best for me.

    • Brenda Knowles September 9, 2015 at 7:29 pm - Reply

      I am like you when it comes to nagging little details that need to be fixed or remembered. If one of my kids helps me around the house but only does the job halfway then I have to remember to get on them to finish it or remember to do it myself. It sits in the back of my mind irritatingly buzzing until it is taken care of. Your idea of dumping everything down on paper is perfect! It allows your brain to stop munching on it. It’s very frustrating when you have to rely on others to do work for you correctly. When they don’t, it’s extra work to pick up the pieces. When I worked in hospital consulting we often had to rely on manufacturers and installers to make and install equipment correctly and on time. So many mess ups. I nearly went insane. I love working for myself now. So much simpler and I choose to do things with the big picture in mind rather than lots of little details. Details stress me out.
      There has to be a mutual appreciation for differences in a loving relationship. Wayne Dyer said relationships are cooperation not competition. Amen. There doesn’t have to be a right way and a wrong way. Just different. Different not better or worse. I hope your man evolves to understand this. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  6. Catherine North (@NorthCat75) September 7, 2015 at 2:50 am - Reply

    Thank you for this, Brenda, it’s very useful advice. Being scrutinised is a huge trigger for me, as is lack of sleep. Okay, and all the others too! 🙂 I almost always get an attack of depression/anxiety during extended family holidays like Christmas, when the weather is bad and I’m stuck in the house with relatives and no spare room to escape to. I’m learning a lot from you about owning your own temperament and explaining to others why you need space, instead of putting up with it until you end up in tears in the bathroom (that’s happened to me way too many times…)

    • Brenda Knowles September 7, 2015 at 10:19 am - Reply

      I’ve had many bouts of tears in the bathroom, usually the shower.;) Holiday time is stressful. Lots of ‘togetherness’. I am still working on owning my temperament but I have enough bad experiences in the past where I allowed everyone else’s way of being dictate my own to remind me that I have to protect and honor my own nature. Amazingly, when you are your true self, you attract others like you or others willing to learn about you. With my boyfriend, there were lots of tears and emotional incomprehensible words but eventually the water ran clear and I got my feelings and message across. I’m just glad he’s patient enough to stick around and listen.:)
      Our nature is valuable. We offer warmth, compassion and insight. We just have to remember that. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  7. Sydney Girl September 6, 2015 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    You sound like a wonderfully introspective person in a equally wonderful relationship with someone who challenges you in the most healthy of ways.

    “He asked me if the water was on for the corn. I jumped up to put it on”
    I am curious why you didn’t say have a look? Have you ever asked yourself why you have such a high sense of urgency? I can see a message for you from your partner rather than over stimulation or introversion.

    Thanks for letting me learn about myself through reading your life. Your truly a great writer.

    • Brenda Knowles September 7, 2015 at 10:09 am - Reply

      It is slowly dawning on me, how much I learn from my relationships. My current beau is especially good at fostering my growth. He challenges me but also is extremely supportive and encouraging. I believe I do the same for him.
      My sense of urgency is probably a response to an old lingering need I have to appear competent at all times. I was on edge before that day even started. Every little thing was registering as monumental. I just needed some breathing space to regroup but didn’t find it. My boyfriend actually said later when we hashed over that day, “Why didn’t you just say, ‘I’m waiting to put the water on until closer to the turkey being done’?” He would have backed off and not thought twice about it. Little miscommunications. Again, another chance to learn.
      I am so grateful for the positive and challenging man in my life. I love the way we work and learn together. Refreshing.
      I am happy my experiences help you learn something about yourself. That is why I love writing. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. 🙂

  8. Brett de Villiers September 5, 2015 at 4:38 am - Reply

    How fortunate to have another Sensitive person around who can listen to you when you’re in full meltdown mode… I envy you.

    • Brenda Knowles September 5, 2015 at 11:56 am - Reply

      It is a gift. I actually have several friends, mostly through my writing group, who understand. Yes, they help validate me and even keep the meltdowns at bay. Do what inspires you and you may find more sensitive friends too.:)

  9. Karen September 5, 2015 at 1:27 am - Reply

    I’d like to reply both to the original post, and to Orange Rhino:

    Post: Brenda, thank you for this detailed examination of a subject that is very important to me. I feel inspired by your approach of looking at each element of an overstimulation episode and considering how to cope with it. The last one is particularly pertinent.

    My personal meltdown episode that I’m trying to solve involved a heavy dose of absorbing anxiety from a friend, and enduring a lot of bickering between her and her husband, while travelling with them. I love them and love travelling with them, but in two days I was having migraines and snapping at strangers. After a lot of thought, I’ve realized that I must talk to them about it, or stop travelling with them (getting together at our houses or going out to dinner do not create the same vibe).

    Orange Rhino: I also don’t get lonely! I don’t lead the life of a hermit; I live in a city and come into contact with people every day. But, by choice, I spend a great deal of time alone.

    For the past 8 months, I have lived abroad and travelled extensively. Although I had a list of people to contact, I did not do so, and ended up spending long stretches entirely solo. For the past three months, for example, my social contacts have consisted of two dinners and one afternoon tea with other people; three days with members of my family; one week eating breakfasts and dinners with other guests at a table d’hote; an average of one Skype call per month with a friend; and several emails per week with family and friends.

    Other than that, all my sightseeing, meals, and everyday life I have been on my own. And I have absolutely loved it. I am going home today, as it happens. I am looking forward to seeing all my friends in person. However, I am quite apprehensive about readjusting to more frequent and more intense interaction with other people. I feel like it’s a muscle that I haven’t exercised in a long time.

    I am struck by one element of your schedule: working out twice a week for 5 hours at a time, twice a week. I am experimenting with different ways to organize my time, and this is the first time I have thought of departing from the “hour a day” ideal. You’ve given me some inspiration. Thanks!

    • Brenda Knowles September 7, 2015 at 9:58 am - Reply

      I think you are wise to talk to your friends about the bickering while you are traveling. It is never easy to approach good friends with issues they might find hard to hear but in order to keep up your pleasant traveling relationship it has to be broached. I suggest leading with vulnerability. Use “I” sentences, like “I feel horrible when you two bicker because you are two of my favorite people in the world.” You may even help their relationship.:)
      Your solo traveling sounds deeply fulfilling and reflective. It will most likely be an adjustment when you get back to ‘reality’. Take it slow. Establish new boundaries if necessary. This is your life. Live it in a way that honors your nature. Your true friends will seek to understand and work with you. I’m glad you found Orange Rhino inspiring. I love the community on space2live. 🙂

      • Karen September 7, 2015 at 12:22 pm - Reply

        Another great suggestion (“I” sentences) — thanks, Brenda!

  10. Orange Rhino September 4, 2015 at 6:20 pm - Reply

    I’m so thankful that I can do the part of my work that involves interacting with about 175 people this semester in two consecutive nights, then spend five days at home in total solitude, resting, researching, writing and, of course, doing the house work that I cannot stand when I have anything to ponder deeply. I enjoy the crush of eager students that come to ask questions after lectures, but absolutely relish the other five days alone. Twice a week I work out alone for about 5 hours each time, summoning the endorphins that make being around people a pleasant experience when the people are done in extreme moderation. I have not been lonely in over twenty years. Creative ideas on their way to print make weekend visitors unwelcome, though I am always introverted and polite. This is how I cope with an extroverted world that will not leave me alone very much, Of course people call me antisocial, except at work, but antisocial people hurt others. I don’t, and think I’m close to the schizoid line, as I go everywhere alone and would have it no other way. Im a pacifist that can scare away unwanted guests and have a blessing that makes alone time worlk-and-get ahead time. My success in my field is far beyond that of those with whom who i have relationships, and a surprise to people who went to better graduate schools.

    Does anyone out there never get lonely also?

    • Brenda Knowles September 5, 2015 at 10:51 am - Reply

      It sounds like you have an extremely deep awareness of who you are and what you need. You don’t harm anyone and you say you are not lonely. You have learned what drives you and what keeps you satisfied. I imagine it is not easy to keep others at bay because they simply do not understand your behavior. I know people question me when I desire a day to myself. Are you content with your life? If so, more power to you.
      I hope others respond to your question about never getting lonely. I would like to know as well. I need space and time to myself but I also love having close intimate relationships. It’s a delicate balance I am always adjusting. Thank you Orange Rhino for sharing your perspective.

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