It’s Friday at 5:00 p.m. The kids are trying to yell over a toy commercial that seems to be competing with their volume. An Amazon package has just arrived, so now the dog has joined the competition for loudest in the house.
Your phone rings; it’s your spouse wanting to know if they can grab anything from the grocery store on their way home. You impulsively shout, “I don’t know! I don’t care!” and hang up. It’s not like you to be so short, but it’s been one of those non-stop weeks with no end in sight, and your brain can’t handle one more thing.
This, is sensory overload.
We often don’t realize when things are adding up to create this climax of sensory overload. It could be things we otherwise enjoy: listening to the radio in the car, scrolling on the Internet when we have a minute, or even just chatting on the phone with a friend.
The lights, the music, and the excitement is all good and well in small doses. After a long day however, these otherwise innocent things can wreak havoc on our ability to concentrate, process our thoughts, and manage our emotions. Overstimulation can cause overwhelm, and once we hit that point, we end up in fight or flight mode.
Or in “mom terms” we scream at everyone or lock ourselves in a closet.
Our brains are constantly processing information all day long, both visual and auditory input. When we don’t give our brains a moment to “chill out” or as I call them, “brain breaks,” we start to feel foggy.
Unfortunately you can’t shut your brain off. Even when you sleep, it’s still working. But, you can slow things down to allow it time to recharge before the next lap to prevent sensory overload.
I want you to imagine for a moment you’re doing interval training on a treadmill. You’re sprinting at a 10, but instead of dropping to a 4 for recovery, you only drop to an 8. How well do you think you’ll do when it’s time to crank up to 10 again? You’ll barely have recovered and are now expecting to perform at your top speed.
Take a True “Brain Break”
When we take time for ourselves, we have to be diligent about making those moments count. Scrolling our phones or watching our favorite show is a great way to “check out” for a bit, but our brains are still working hard to process that visual and auditory stimulation.
In other words, you only went from a 10 to an 8.
So what does a 4 look like? Find a quiet space. This could be your bedroom, the bathroom, or even your car. Sit comfortably, set aside 5-15 minutes for yourself. Close your eyes, and take a few intentional breaths to calm the nervous system. This is a brain break, and the only chance your brain has to really recharge. If you are still having trouble quieting your busy brain, try “4 square breathing,” also known as box breathing, or some ambient noise.
You may be thinking, “I don’t have 5-15 minutes in a day for a brain break.” And some days this might be true. However, know that when we attempt to power through a task while mentally fatigued, everything takes longer, and we tend to make mistakes that cost us time to fix. It serves you better to take five minutes to combat sensory overload, to recharge, then go back to the task. You’ll find once your brain has had an adequate break, it works more efficiently.
You’ll also notice your mood has improved and you’re able to handle more stimulation, like shouting kids and barking dogs.
Instead of waiting until you reach sensory overload and that “fight or flight” mode, try implementing brain breaks as part of your daily routine. I try to fit one in everyday at lunch and some days in the parked car before I pick up my kids. By setting aside just a few minutes, you’re able to recharge instead of attempting to power through on empty. Taking care of your brain is not luxury, it’s a necessity and one your family will thank you for after a long day.