Ahhh, the holidays are upon us, the cheer is splattered all over the place, the music is blaring, the lights are shining. You wait for this time of the year all year, and now you or your little ones are acting like crazy people–short tempered, more tired, more emotional, or just overwhelmed. Maybe you/they don’t feel or act this way all of the time, but you HAVE felt that way and I am going to offer some tips on how to regulate yourself when overstimulation strikes!
Now that I am an occupational therapist with extensive experience in sensory processing, I realize that I get totally overstimulated. I will illustrate that in a sec, but first let me briefly explain sensory processing. Simply put, our brain organizes and makes sense of everyday sensations that we come in contact with. Sometimes, or for some, that sensory input gets mis-interpreted by the brain and your body can’t make sense of it, and it over-reacts to it, or under-reacts to it. For example, let’s say you grip your pencil with white knuckles while you write. Your body is not giving you adequate feedback about how much force you need to grasp this pencil, so you grasp it tightly and don’t realize it until your hand is dead tired after writing three sentences. Or, let’s say you despise the noise of clanging dishes because it feels loud and aversive to you; your brain may be misinterpreting this ordinary sound into something noxious and painful (maybe I know this from personal experience, but I will leave you to wonder…).
What is overstimulation in the context of sensory processing? Well, once again, and very simply put, that would refer to the idea that your brain is overloaded with sensory input, resulting in your body having difficulty regulating its emotions and behaviors (and self-regulation refers to how you respond to the sensory input and regulate your emotions or behavior). What does this look like? You might be overwhelmed in crowded places, such as amusement parks, because of all the sights, sounds, smells, and sensory input from the rides (bumpy movement, fast movement, directional changes in movement, etc.) and feel yourself becoming more short tempered during your visit. Or, during the holidays, you might find all the visual and auditory stimulation from the environment to be overwhelming, resulting in feeling anxious, overly tired, overly wired, or more emotional than usual.
So, what does overstimulation look like in the context of the holidays and your kids? I will illustrate for you in the context of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (yep, I use context a lot here). It’s Christmas Eve and your kids get the concept of Santa this year. They know he is coming with gifts, they feel the buzz in the air from the excitement, you have a brightly lit tree, you have had extra sugary treats and rich foods, and maybe you have stayed up later than usual due to holiday parties and events. Everyone’s tank is a little more depleted, their bodies a little more taxed. Overstimulation is also to blame, resulting in difficulty self-regulating, which can look like misbehavior, extra-silly behavior, or difficulty regulating emotions (think crying over spilt milk). Now, on Christmas Eve you go to bed an hour later than usual, despite trying for an earlier bedtime because you reminded them that Santa was coming. But they just couldn’t fall asleep from the excitement. Then they woke up early because IT’S CHRISTMAS! and you woke up early in anticipation as well. Now everyone runs to the tree and the excitement of Santa’s visit and the shiny gifts under the tree gets everyone riled up. Paper is flying all over, the kids are ripping open everything in sight, moving from one thing to the next until all gifts are open. Wow. Did you have your coffee yet? Nope. Too busy making sure one kid doesn’t open the other kid’s gift, resulting in a melt-down. WHEW.
Fast-forward to later in the day. Now it’s time to get together with the rest of your family. There are more gifts. There are more treats, rich foods, and more excitement. The turkey isn’t ready, so dinner is an hour later. Dessert is after that. The family is enjoying their time together and the night is again a late one for the kids. The bedtime routine is now two hours later than usual and the kids virtually pass out two hours past their typical bedtime. This is the crash from the overstimulation. If you or your child are sensitive to sensory stimulation, it might take you weeks to fully recover from the holidays. This is totally okay. But how do you recover? How to avoid the effects of overstimulation? Ah, dear friend, let me share with you my top tips for avoiding, mitigating, or recovering from, Holiday Overstimulation.
Be aware of it. Recognize that the holidays can be exciting, nostalgic, exhausting, and overwhelming. All of those things are valid and real. Identify what it is for yourself or your children.
Say no. Ahh, the ever not-so-popular declining of an invitation. Sometimes you have to eliminate an obligation from your plate. Sometimes that means missing out on an event which starts an hour past the time your kids are actually asleep. Make the best choice for you and your family and own it. It’s okay.
Get more rest. This may be in the form of going to bed a little earlier when possible, enjoying a lazy morning of TV and playing quietly, taking a family nap midday, or simply putting your feet up for a few minutes in the afternoon before the rush of dinner and bedtime.
Simplify. This might mean you buy pre-made dinner and sides. This might mean that you don’t bake 8 dozen Christmas cookies for the neighbors, and you make cards instead. It might mean you don’t send out Christmas cards. It might mean you only put up half your decorations. You have to decide what to simplify and what you are willing to let go of (maybe baking those cookies is your favorite tradition, so you don’t let that one go).
Tell your kids about it. Tell them that you are taking an extra rest, you are taking a longer bath with a drop of lavender essential oil, you are planning a quiet afternoon of craft making, all in the spirit of mitigating the overstimulation. Okay, so you don’t say those words like that maybe, but you can tell them you are taking it easy because even though it’s an exciting season, it also makes our bodies and minds tired.
Take a break. Like, go in the bathroom and wash your hands, take a deep breath, and just sit down. When I was nursing, I really enjoyed the quiet retreat of nursing for 20 minutes in a separate space so that both myself and the baby could have a breather from the overstimulation of the day.
Be mindful. Okay, so this is the pot calling the kettle black, but when you find yourself overwhelmed in the moment by all the stimulation, take a deep breath and notice what’s around you. Make it as simple as looking out the window and noticing the clouds, recognizing the lovely smell of pie baking in your oven, or stopping to just hug your children and tell them how much you love them.
Do what makes you all feel better. This means you have to recognize what sensory overstimulation does to you, and how you self-regulate. For some, it means reading a book, going for a walk, or hitting the gym. For your kids, you will need to facilitate this for them. Maybe for them it means riding their bike, playing in the sandbox, putting together Legos, becoming engrossed in a tea party, or even wearing their PJs all day and not going anywhere. It might mean that for the whole family you take extra care to drink more water and serve mostly healthy meals as often as you can, to balance out the fun treats. Just do what makes you feel better.
Enjoy the holiday season my friends, and remember, overstimulation is a real thing, and it will creep up on you and bite you if you aren’t paying attention to it. Hoping these tips help make it smoother sailing for you!