Creative Overwhelm: Combating Overstimulation in the Creative
Something I don’t think we talk about enough is the fact that creatives spend so much of their time observing the world around them, building inner worlds within themselves, and then develop ways to integrate the two. We don’t get overwhelmed or tired or drained from being over productive or busy, we hit a point of overstimulation that we can’t even begin to communicate. Today I want to explore the idea of overstimulation in the creative and how that presents in our creative processes and creative works.
A little bit of background on this one - I had just come back from a work conference, which was fun and exciting, and I came back to a super busy clinic schedule, a sick co-worker, and on top of that, I wanted to jump right back into my blog and my book and content creation all without missing a beat. Well, by day two I was having a slight breakdown on the phone with my husband while at work in the middle of it all. I felt like I was exhausted, out of control, basically on the edge of disaster. This, of course, was not the case. I was in the thralls of burnout, but not a hit the wall kind of burnout. I came to the conclusion that I was physically, mentally, and emotionally overstimulated. This episode got me thinking about some other periods of burnout in my life, and they were not ones that could have been dispelled by a period of rest. They were precipitated by periods of overstimulation. I was not doing too much, my productivity output and expectations were at my normal level of functioning, but I was not doing a great job of managing the amount of stimulation I was taking in from all of the activities I was participating in.
I really believe that as creatives, this is the rewriting we need to do when we talk about rest. Rest doesn’t have to mean unplugging or stepping away. Rest can still look like engaging with our creative practice, but we need to switch off our propensity to internalize external stimulation, which is difficult to do because we draw so much inspiration from our environments. I’m finding that it’s not about being overwhelmed with projects, or ideas, or even people, rather, it’s being overstimulated by taking too much of it in; I can still do all of the things, but I can’t draw every bit of detail into my own inner world.
Things that have been Overstimulating to me lately
Being “on” for others - This is a massive drain for me because it requires so much of my attention to engage with, read, and plot the correct response to everyone around me. From working with the public each and every day to having to keep everyone's schedule in my brain so I can remind and support those in my life who need it, not to mention keep myself on track with what’s going on, being turned on to everyone means taking in a lot of feedback at all times. This Overstimulation of awareness and engagement leads to social exhaustion and, lately, headaches that just don’t quit.
Keeping a mental checklist - I hold all of the schedules and to dos in my brain. I have an agenda that I try to dump all of the things onto each day, week and month, but somehow I add more things onto that invisible list in my head. It is something I run through constantly, and I now have this annoying habit, that when I think about a mental checklist item it checks itself off even though I haven’t done it. My brain gives me a checkmark for remembering to remember the thing, but accidentally crosses it off in the process, meaning I still forget to do the thing I’ve reminded myself not to forget to do.
A constant narrator in my head that is particularly good at long guilt trips and walks around shame square - This ties into the second part of being on for others, but I tend to hold things in my head. I have a running narrative in my head that is constantly talking, reminding me of the schedule, keeping appointments at my fingertips, juggling dinner dates with friends and plotting time to create inbetween social engagements and in time for self imposed deadlines. This constant feed of activity that runs in my brain is a source of mental load and noise that never shuts off. So whatever else is going on in my external environment is competing with this constant brain noise. And then when I fail or forget anything there is a tirade of guilt and shame.
Things that are Overstimulation that we may not recognize as being overstimulating as creatives
Constantly having auditory and visual cues - I don’t know about you, but I tend to create with a lot of background noise. Sometimes this works for me, but other times it just adds to this AAAHHHH of stuff going on, but because it is such a habit of mine to have I don’t think to turn it off. We, as creatives, can also clutter up our spaces with inspiration boards, pictures, art, items, all things that bring us joy, but can also be a source of consternation when our eyes are constantly jumping from one thing to the next and have no blank space to land on. By cluttering our eyes and ears we are overstimulating ourselves while we are trying to focus and create in a place of peace.
Chaos and mess in the environment - Again, this is a tendency of mine, to my husband's constant annoyance. I am a piler. I have piles of notebooks, reference guides, writing materials, loose papers, and other creative gadgets strewn about all of our rooms. I make these nests of comfort, which can also include cups, chip bags, cans of Coke, and sweaters. I then carry these piles around with me wherever I go. I can function in the mess and the chaos for a time, but then, all at once, I am so overwhelmed and overstimulated by the environment I have created that I can't actually clean it up until I sit in it for another few days, unable to be productive because of the clutter. For me, open space on the table means I’m not working on anything, and that makes me feel guilt and shame because I have so many projects I should be working on. The mess is a symbol that I am working on things, but it gets to a point of hindering progress. I think many creatives share this trait of creative nesting, or surrounding ourselves without tools and dropping things to pick up new inspiration as it strikes, but in that mess of creative chaos we end up losing sight of the joy because the mess takes over the work.
“Fitting it all in” - All of my guilty habits are coming out today; flitting from one thing to the next and the next and the next all in one creative session so I feel connected to every piece of work I have on the go is so toxic. I love having different pursuits and projects, but when I spiral and am unable to appropriately manage them in my day, I overstimulate my brain with too many different areas of focus, and Iend up getting much less done than if I had just focused on one dedicated thing that day. I think many multidisciplinary creatives and prolific creatives face the same issue. By trying to fit it all in, we end up firing our brain in too many directions and come up short in all areas.
The By-products of being an overstimulated creative
Distraction - Whether you call it shiny object syndrome or simple distraction, allowing our focus to be pulled away from our creativity during a creative session is a sign of overstimulation. It is a sign that there is too much going on in your external or internal environment. It can also mean that we feel overstimulated and so instead of facing the overstimulation we distract ourselves away from the issue at hand.
Procrastination - Another sign of overstimulation in the creative brain is procrastination. When we have too much input coming in, we tend to put off doing things because we have too much to sift through in the moment, and that takes our attention instead of the work we are doing. By pushing something off until tomorrow we think we are giving ourselves a break and room to breathe because we feel overstimulated and are therefore unable to give.
Full Shut Down - This was me. A full system wide shut down. My body stops working and I am in pain. My brain can’t bring anything into focus. I sit down and I cry. Crying is not a signature of sadness. Crying means you have too much of something inside and it needs to come out one way or another. It is, at its core, an expression of overstimulation. If you notice periods of emptiness in terms of creativity and an inability to do anything tied to a creative project, your body could be fighting overstimulation and literally shut down all operating systems to calibrate.
Mindless Consumption - Do you ever catch yourself reading or bingeing a show without taking anything in? Or rewatching a movie over and over so you don’t have to pay attention or completely missing your epic playlist? If you mindlessly consume content you typically enjoy, your brain could be telling you it needs time to tune out because it is overstimulated and incapable of adding anything to that mental catalogue.
Reducing overstimulation in the creative life
Creating a calm space - Leave blank spaces on your walls and surfaces. Surround yourself with specific and limited pieces that bring your joy and inspiration. Have an open area for movement or a window nearby to remind yourself to step back into space and breathe. Holding space of emptiness can be a game changer when it comes to combating overstimulation. This could look like a redesign of your creative space, tidying up the workshop table or building a stand by blanket fort to insulate yourself in when you feel the grip of overstimulation take hold.
Noise cancelling headphones - Instead of drowning out visual and mental overstimulation with auditory stimulation, try noise cancelling headphones to truly drown out sources of distraction and unnecessary stimulation. Unnecessary sound is now one of my biggest pet peeves, and some silence is always the best remedy. I use the bath as a place to really get work done because I don’t bring in any additional stimulation in with me - no T.V, radio, phone is on the counter, candle is burning and there is no clutter to crowd in. My focus and productivity are way better, and my joy is increased when I know I can actually be present with my work. It may not be noise cancelling headphones, but silence in a room with a closed door can work just as well.
Stretch and movement breaks - Making sure that you are not locked in a zone of too long is critical to combating overstimulation. Sometimes too much focus is a bad thing that can lead to overstimulation if you can’t pull yourself away from a piece. Setting time boundaries and alarms for movement and stretching breaks forces you to release tension that can build up during a session and alert you to signs of overstimulation early before it consumes you. Getting out for a walk or stepping away from your desk to stretch or change position makes you take inventory of how you’re feeling and gives you a chance to take a break you didn’t know you needed.