Many people with social anxiety are thought to experience overstimulation. Although one could argue that feeling overstimulated is a result of anxiety, it also could be that the overstimulation is actually causing your anxiety. So which came first the overstimulation or the anxiety? In most cases, it will help to take an objective look at your situation. Were you always anxious in social situations or did this result from engaging too much? Many different factors can contribute to feelings of overstimulation including: how often you exercise, sleep patterns, stress from work, and other environmental stressors.
What is overstimulation?
Overstimulation is defined as a state of over-arousal or being stimulated to an excessive degree. There can be various genetic factors at play that make people more prone to feeling overstimulated and social anxiety, but environmental factors can also play a role. In order to engage in socialization and feel somewhat normal, the level of physiological stimulation must be lowered. By lowering the stimulation of someone with extreme social anxiety, it is hypothesized that they will be better functioning and more comfortable in social situations.
Some researchers hypothesize that chronic overstimulation can lead to a phenomenon called “adrenal exhaustion” over a period of time. Although most people with social anxiety will not develop exhaustion of the adrenal glands, if anxiety becomes extreme, it may happen in some cases. Some have used the words “psychological burnout” and “sensory overload” to describe what it feels like to be overstimulated.
How overstimulation can cause social anxiety
1. Brain: Overstimulation can produce a fear-based response within the brain. The fear centers of our brain – primarily the amygdala. To a certain extent, feeling fear in dangerous situations can be helpful. Unfortunately for people with social anxiety, their brain views socializing with other people as dangerous – this becomes a problem.
2. Fear response in body: Not only is there a fear-response in the brain, the body has its own ways of dealing with overstimulation. The sympathetic nervous system becomes highly engaged, the pupils dilate, palms sweat, etc. This is a primal response that many people have evolved from now that humans in developed countries no longer have predators to deal with.
3. Speeding up brain waves: A natural response to being overstimulated and social anxiety is fast-brain wave activity. People may experience copious amounts of beta brain wave activity and have deficits in mid-range alpha brain waves.
4. Increases in cortisol: Cortisol is a “stress hormone” that is produced by your body and interferes with both learning and memory. People that suffer from chronic overstimulation need to reduce their stimulation and thus naturally reduce high cortisol levels.
5. Increases epinephrine: The body produces adrenaline when faced with “fight-or-flight” situations. If a person has anxiety as a result of overstimulation, the body may produce excessive amounts of epinephrine (adrenaline). People may report feeling adrenaline rushes.
6. Increases in dopamine: Some hypothesize that people with increased dopamine tend to be more anxious. It is thought that by increasing dopamine in people suffering from understimulation that they will behave normally. In individuals with overstimulation, it is thought that they already have too much dopamine. This is up for debate though because some people actually find benefit in a dopamine-increasing drug like Adderall for anxiety disorders.
7. Decreases in serotonin: Decreased amounts of serotonin can make it difficult to reduce stimulation. By taking a medication such as an SSRI, we are allowing the brain to reuptake serotonin and help produce feelings of calmness and relaxation. This helps us find a more appropriate, balanced level of stimulation.
Social anxiety and overstimulation treatments
There are various treatment options that you may want to explore if you have social anxiety as a result of overstimulation. Prior to using any treatment though, you may want to determine whether a simple environmental change could help you reduce your stimulation. If you are in a fast-paced, highly-stressful environment and don’t have time to take care of your mind and body, something as simple as a job change and/or relocation may help your anxiety.
- Anxiolytics: Anti-anxiety agents such as Buspar can work wonders for people with cases of anxiety.
- Benzodiazepines: This class of drugs can produce a profound sense of relaxation within the brain by slowing motor activity. These work primarily with GABA – a chemical messenger that helps reduce cortical excitement. Some even believe that GABA supplements can help with anxiety.
- Exercise: The act of exercising helps reduce adrenaline and can decrease cortisol levels over the course of time. It also helps the brain calm itself down and the body physically relax. Read more about the psychological benefits of exercise.
- Meditation: This can be a powerful way to help relax the mind and body when feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed with social anxiety. This is just one of many natural cures for anxiety disorders.
- SSRI’s: It is thought that by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, social anxiety can be overcome or better coped with. People that are overstimulated tend to have less serotonin than average so an SSRI-class medication is often prescribed.
- Relaxation techniques: Examples of relaxation techniques that could be used to help you overcome feelings of social anxiety and overstimulation include: deep breathing, self-hypnosis, and yoga. Relaxation techniques help slow the heart rate, brain activity, and teach people how to relax.