Helping Introverts Cope with Overstimulation
We live in a noisy, overstimulated, fast-paced world: conditions in which extraverts thrive, but for the roughly half of the population who are introverted, those same conditions are cause for dismay, if not worse. At some stage, you may be asked to help a frazzled, introverted client regain balance.
What are the signs and symptoms of an overstimulated introvert who’s struggling not to go over the edge: do you know? Does your client recognise the situation for what it is? What will you advise the client to do? This post lists the symptoms, explains the science behind them, and offers some basic tips to help the introvert come onto an even keel.
Definitions and synonyms
First, let’s clarify that, when we say “introvert”, we aren’t necessarily talking about someone with no social skills, nor someone who hates people. Rather, we distinguish between the extravert and introvert personality preferences by noting that extraverts recharge around people and introverts need to be alone to do that. In fact, the converse is also true: introverts get drained by being around people too much, even if they are people the introvert cares deeply for.
You might have heard some of the terms that people have used to describe the sense of overwhelm they feel when they have been overstimulated: “Introvert hangover”; “Introvert burnout”; “social exhaustion”. All of the phrases paint the same picture: that of a drained, physically and mentally depleted person who feels like just about anything is in the “too hard” basket.
Signs and symptoms
Introverts notice these signs and symptoms in themselves.
“So super-tired that my brain feels like mush” is how one introvert described it. Some report that they can’t think straight. Others compare their brain muscle to a marathon runner who collapses while coming across the finish line, except that, for most people, life goes on and cannot be halted just because the person is overextended.
Loss of language
Well, we don’t mean total loss of language, but often the right word escapes, replaced sometimes by a sound-alike interloper that doesn’t mean anywhere near the same thing. Pauses between words are elongated, and the slight slurring of words upon serious exhaustion sounds to any normal ear like the person is drunk – even if they haven’t had a drop. Small talk, or any ordinary conversation, dials up to somewhere between unendurable and impossible.
The person feels thoroughly annoyed, with everyone and everything: all the time, as every normal interaction becomes grist for the mill of an angry response. How dare the six-year-old ask where his lunchbox for school is! Can’t the husband see that making a bid for connection with conversation is totally over the top when introvert hangover is happening? “Frazzled” is too weak a word here.
Sadness and/or depression
Depressed, anxious, negative thoughts run riot through the burned out brain, and often, sobbing ensues: for no ostensible reason, except that life has lost its sparkle. The introvert desperately desires someone to come along and say, “That’s ok, dear; I’ll do it. Just go home/to your room/to your office and let me handle it.” Introverts at these times acknowledge a huge wave of self-doubt washing over them – drowning them – as they pessimistically question decisions they’ve made, projects they have organised, or anything they could blame themselves for. Some say they get overly cynical.
Some people note that they associate introvert burnout with headache, muscle ache, dizziness, or upset stomach.
Trapped and “attacked” by the environment
Those “caught” at a social event when the intense sense of overwhelm comes on begin to feel anxious and start plotting how to escape, regardless of how many hours are left until the event finishes. At this stage, the environment seems to go on the attack, with lights seeming way too bright and noises way too loud. Many introverts go quiet at this stage. If this is noticed, others may begin to ask, “Are you ok?” “Why are you so quiet?”
When they feel really overextended, some introverts complain of feeling like they are disconnected from themselves and their surroundings, as if things are happening in a blur. Their mind processes things in slow motion, and they feel like they are “zoning out”. The problem is that, on the outside, this mental state and energy level tend to look like rudeness, snobbishness, or lack of interest. Most find this state hard to explain, but they are certainly aware that they don’t appear to be acting like their “normal self”.
Why introverts get this way, and why they adore solitude
Is there some science behind this very real experience for introverts?
Colin DeYoung, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, proposes in his paper on introversion that introverts are less responsive to the rewards in the environment around them than extraverts are. That is, rewards such as social status, social affiliation, money, sex, and even food are less rewarding to introverts, who are less engaged, motivated, and energised by them. In fact, some of the rewards that energise extraverts feel like punishment, or at least exhausting irritation, to introverts.
An example offered is that of the typical house party: a crowded room full of people with music and noise blaring from massive speakers, bright lights, and shouted conversations going in every direction. With all this to pay attention to, the extravert sees multiple possibilities for reward, and is delighted. The level of stimulation is just about right. For the introvert, though, it’s too much stimulation: too many people, too much noise, and too many conversations. He heads home to watch a movie on television, in the presence of just his flatmate. For him, this level of stimulation feels about right.
A less active dopamine reward system . . .
The feel-good transmitter dopamine could be at the heart of the difference between the two. Controlling the brain’s pleasure and reward centres, dopamine helps us to notice rewards and take action to move toward them, also reducing the cost of the effort it takes to socialise. But extraverts get a reward that introverts don’t: they have a more active dopamine reward system and as a result are able to tolerate the tiredness that comes with socialising (yes, that’s true even for the extraverts).
. . . or a greater sensitivity to it?
In her book, The Introvert Advantage, Dr Marti Olsen Laney explains the extravert-introvert difference around rewards a little differently. Basically, she says that introverts are more sensitive to dopamine than extraverts, and thus require less of it. If they get the same amount as an extravert, it is too much, and they get overstimulated. Extraverts, conversely, have a low sensitivity to dopamine and thus require much more of it to be happy. Activity and excitement increase dopamine production, which is why extraverts enjoy socialising and staying busy.
Advice to your introvert clients
There are no surprises here. The highest need of a burning-out introvert is to get some calm, peaceful time alone. Your clients, however, are unlikely to want to pay you to merely hear that; they know it, deeply. So let’s build on that basic idea a bit.
Getting “alone” time in the middle of a crowd/event
If your client finds she gets overwhelmed in the middle of Aunt Maggie’s family dinner with a bunch of chattering (extravert) family members accelerating the energy levels, could the client start carrying some dishes back into the kitchen? While there, perhaps she can stay for a few precious minutes and rinse same dishes, or stick them into the dishwasher. This is both an escape from the profusion of noises in the dining room and also an opportunity to be alone (sort of) for a couple of minutes to deep-breathe and regenerate. At large parties/events introverts tend to be good at finding a less noisy corner and having a quiet conversation with just one person there – or going out onto the veranda for “a breath of fresh air” (and quiet). If your client does not have a good arsenal of self-soothing techniques for these times, help her to build it up, as so many of the techniques can be done even in the middle of people.
Working with work and leisure rhythms
Work is another issue. Your client may not be able to do anything about all the scheduled meetings, but some introverts make sure they go outside at break times to imbibe fresh air and solitude. Even a walk to the lunchroom to get another hot drink can buy a few much-needed minutes to escape a super-charged environment. Once home, the individual needs to be serious about doing something that boosts energy and mood: reading a good book, quietly watching a favourite program, meditating, or playing a musical instrument. Walks in nature are much favoured by our inward-turning friends. Mostly, encourage your introvert client to work with his natural energy cycles, hustling to get things done when energy is high, and using times of lower energy to restore himself.
Choosing a compatible life
Introverts probably shouldn’t choose occupations where they have to interact with people every minute of every day. That said, we don’t always have our ideal job, so being able to satisfy the need for some alone/silent time while doing work tasks may be a medium-term goal to pursue for the person. In terms of leisure and social hours, you can ask your introvert client how wide a social circle he keeps. The more friendships he has, the more time it requires to nurture them. While social networks are incredibly valuable to our wellbeing, it is also important to acknowledge that to have a friend, we have to be a friend. Thus, it could be unhelpful for the introvert to add guilt about not having time to nurture all the friends and still have sufficient solitude. Even in intimate relationships, introverts need some time without the significant other around: like, really alone.
The need for calm and solitude is valid
This point about guilt may be the most important of all. Your introvert clients can action all of the foregoing tips and still be overextended if they don’t do one crucial things for themselves: recognise that their needs as introverts are 100% valid. A world where everyone acted as extraverted “life-and-soul of the party” would be unfulfilling. Now more than ever, our introverts can help a noisy, too-fast, overwhelming world regain balance through their willingness to listen more than speaking, to be calm when others are over-excited, and to acknowledge the validity of occasional solitude for everyone. You can help them carry the torch for this message by affirming the healthiness of their drive to be alone, and showing them ways to do it – with no apologies.
- Dembling, S. (2017).What happens when an introvert gets overextended. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 16 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Granneman, J. (2017). 17 signs that you have an introvert hangover by Jenn Granneman. Introvert, Dear. Retrieved on 16 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Granneman, J. (2018). Why do introverts love being alone? Here’s the science. Introvert, dear. Retrieved on 16 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Michaela, (n.d.). Introvert burnout: 3 sneaky signs you have it + how to avoid it. Introvert Spring. Retrieved on 16 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Power of Positivity. (n.d.). 5 tips for introverts to deal with social exhaustion. Power of positivity. Retrieved on 16 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Wong, R. (2017). Introversion and burnout: Why they tend to go together. Sensible Health. Retrieved on 16 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink