When I gave birth to my second child, little did I know the new challenges I would face. As time passed, I found myself touched out and overstimulated with the addition of a new human in the house. Sometimes it feels like too much, all at once. And boy, there’s something about stepping on Legos that just throws me right over the edge.
Sensory overload is a real thing.
Overstimulation occurs when our sensory system gets flooded with input in a way that we are unable to effectively process. At this point, our nervous system essentially reaches its maximum threshold of information. The amount of sensory input is perceived as a threat, and our body initiates a protective survival response – fight, flight, or freeze mode.
Overstimulation might look and feel different for each one of us. Signs of overstimulation can include heightened anxiety, irritability, frustration, lack of patience, difficulty focusing, and feeling like you’re about to “snap.”
To help our kids through big emotions, we need to help ourselves first. One way is to use strategies from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is a type of therapy that provides skills for managing intense emotions.
Below are a few distress tolerance strategies from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that you can start to practice today:
Practice Mindfulness of Thoughts
So often we over-identify with our thoughts. When we’re overstimulated and believe every thought to be true, we may react based on our emotions, rather than with an intentional response. Consequently, we may act in a way that is not aligned with our values.
Something important to remember is that we are not our thoughts. Rather, thoughts are something we experience. Becoming mindful of our thoughts can create more space between the stimuli and the response.
To practice, first notice thoughts as they come into your mind. As a thought comes into your mind, say “A thought has entered my mind.” Label the thought as a thought, saying, “The thought ‘I just can’t take it anymore’ arose in my mind.” Practice using a gentle, nurturing voice.
You could also practice mindfulness of thoughts using imagery. Imagine a leaf that has dropped off a tree into a beautiful creek flowing by you as you sit on the grass. Each time a thought or image comes into your mind, imagine that it is written or pictured on the leaf floating by. Let each leaf go by, watching as it goes out of sight.
Part of tolerating distress is learning to accept reality. Accepting reality does not mean you like or approve of how things are in the current moment. It simply means you are acknowledging what is. When we fight or resist the facts of the current moment (i.e. the Legos sprawled all over and no time in this moment to pick them up) – for example, by telling ourselves “It shouldn’t be this way” – we can add more suffering onto our experience.
Willing hands are a way to practice accepting reality with your body. Our hands communicate with our brain, and our body connects to our mind. (I practiced Willing Hands during labor to help with keeping an open, relaxed, accepting attitude towards the sensation I was experiencing at that moment).
To practice Willing Hands drop your arms down from your shoulders; keep them straight or bent slightly at the elbows. With hands unclenched, turn your hands outward, with thumbs out to your sides, palms up, and fingers relaxed. This can be practiced standing, sitting, or laying down just the same by keeping your hands relaxed, and unclenched, and turning your palms up to the sky.
Using Cold Water, Step by Step
And if you’re looking for something to help quickly, this skill might be for you. Hold your breath, put your face into a bowl of cold water, or hold an ice pack or zip-lock bag of cold water to your eyes and upper cheeks.
When you do this, it tells your brain you are diving underwater. This causes the “dive response” to occur, which could take 15–30 seconds to start. Your heart slows down, blood flow to nonessential organs is reduced, and blood flow is redirected to the brain and heart. (Please consult your healthcare provider before using these skills. Very cold water decreases your heart rate. If you have any heart or medical condition, have a lowered base heart rate due to medications, or are on a beta-blocker, please consult your healthcare provider).
This response can help regulate your emotions and move your body out of the fight or flight response. This strategy works best when you are sitting quietly (if Blippi needs to be your babysitter so you can get your head back on your shoulders, know that it is okay)!
Remind yourself that the intensity of this emotion will pass! Though overwhelming, each moment is temporary. Offer yourself the same grace and compassion you would for your children. And ride the wave of intensity back to a more regulated place. You got this, mama!