What You'll Learn
- Viewing Overstimulation as a Cup, Not Just a Switch
- What Being an “Overstimulated Mom” Means
- Calming vs. Activating Sensory Inputs
- What Causes Moms to Get Overstimulated
- How to Notice the Warning Signals of Overstimulation
- Sensory Self-Care Strategies for Overstimulated Moms
Life with littles is full of sensory inputs—noise, chaos, touch, and mess. Many moms find themselves feeling overstimulated, leading to stress and overwhelm. We often talk about self-care in terms of bubble baths and massages—but what about sensory self-care?
Today I’m joined by pediatric occupational therapist Holly Peretz to discuss how overstimulated moms can practice sensory self-care.
Understanding My Own Capacity as an Overstimulated Mom
I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until my 30s. Looking back, I can see all the signs so early on. But I managed to find ways to function enough before having kids that my symptoms flew under the radar.
I’d learned how to mask my symptoms and cope with the way my brain worked. But once I had three littles running around, and the volume of tasks expontentially grew, and life started to feel very unmanageable.
One of the new experiences that emerged during this time was overstimulation. I would get so overwhelmed by the noise and chaos around me that I just wanted to hide in a quiet closet–let’s be real, parenting is chaotic.
After I received my diagnosis, this made so much more sense—overstimulation is part of life as a mom with ADHD. But whether you’re neurodivergent or not, moms often find themselves coping with overstimulation during the early years of their children’s lives.
It makes sense—early childhood is packed with stimulation, and it seems like between constant activities and toys that play loud music, we’re always being encouraged to invite even more sensory input into our lives—often without a break. So many moms struggle with this.
When I came across Holly’s work around sensory self-care, I was immediately intrigued. I’m always fascinated to hear about overstimulation from an OT perspective. I couldn’t wait to chat with Holly about what overstimulated moms can do to stay regulated and reduce sensory overload.
Viewing Overstimulation as a Cup, Not Just a Switch
We often think of sensory overload as a switch—we flip from calm to overstimulated and need to reset the switch. While Holly said that is a valid way to look at it, it’s also important to consider what happens in between. She looks at overstimulation throughout the day as a cup being filled that eventually overflows—and we can learn to let liquid out of the cup before it spills over.
Holly was drawn into the concept of sensory input for moms through her work as a pediatric OT and through her own experiences. While training in a course on sensory processing, she realized that many of her own “quirks” could be explained through a sensory lens.
For example, she often found herself wanting to leave crowded places early, while her husband enjoyed staying and talking. The conversations wore her down. But it wasn’t that she was unfriendly—it was that high-sensory environments impacted her differently.
Many moms go through this experience because having small children is often high-sensory by nature.
It can be hard to manage all of that sensory input while showing up and being “on” with no breaks. That’s why Holly developed a passion for sensory self-care and shining a light on the sensory experience within motherhood.
What Being an “Overstimulated Mom” Means
Defining overstimulation is an important part of understanding our own sensory needs. Sensory stimulation is when any of our five sensory symptoms are receiving inputs—we’re hearing noises, tasting things, seeing movement, feeling touch, or smelling scents.
Each of those inputs is designed to trigger something in us—and with each input, our sensory cup gets filled more and more.
Holly said that we each have a cup that’s our own size—and we each have a Goldilocks level of sensory stimulation that feels just right. When we have that level, we can concentrate and perform tasks at a high level.
But if we have too little or too much stimulation, it doesn’t feel good inside our bodies.
If we have too little or too much stimulation, it doesn’t feel good inside our bodies.
Holly pointed out that if we can become aware of our cup filling too high and practice sensory self-care strategies to reduce our stimulation, we can keep our cup from overflowing and heightening our nervous system.
She said that our systems really are brilliantly designed—one of the ways we can release sensory information from our cups is to use our sensory systems in a different way.
Calming vs. Activating Sensory Inputs
Some sensory inputs can be alerting, but some can be calming. Think about how you feel in a noisy, crowded room, versus how you feel when a white noise machine or music is playing. Both situations provide sensory input—but one is calming, while the other is alarming.
Some sensory inputs can be alerting, but some can be calming.
It can take a lot of self-awareness to determine our own Goldilocks level and figure out ways to release extra stimulation or use calming stimulants to our advantage. This can be even trickier with ADHD or neurodivergence.
For example, my husband and I have completely different capacities for stimulation. I actually need more stimulation than him—a boring or quiet environment does not feel good to me. But I also overflow my cup easier.
Other factors can impact our capacity as well. We might have a lower threshold if we are experiencing a particularly emotional day, coping with sleep deprivation, or dealing with chronic pain.
Holly said that when it comes to both us and our children, it’s important to figure out our own cup. What is our threshold? What is our ability to take in sensory information? What environments trigger or calm us? How does our particular situation, such as work deadlines, affect our cup’s capacity?
Tuning into the way we respond to our environment and different sensory inputs can help us understand what we need in terms of sensory self-care.
What Causes Moms to Get Overstimulated
Holly said that a key component of our capacity is whether we’re working on particular tasks. We might have a much larger capacity for noises and chaos when we’re on vacation than we do when we’re trying to get work done from home. The pandemic often set us up for work interruptions, which can fill our cups too much very quickly.
When Holly first began working in this area, she surveyed moms to find out what was most triggering for them.
She was expecting to hear about feeling touched out or noise—but overwhelmingly moms pointed out interruption as one of the most overstimulating events.
Overwhelmingly moms point out interruption as one of the most overstimulating events.
Interruption can push our cups to the brim over and over and over, especially if we’re stressed about time crunches or deadlines.
Holly said that it’s easy to think that we need to control the environment around us if we’re feeling overstimulated, but approaching the situation holistically is often more helpful.
For example, we might want to keep our kids out of our office to stay calm—and that can be a valuable intervention. But we also want to notice why we’re feeling activated and think about what we can do from our perspective to release some of the pressure throughout the day.
Holly pointed out that stimulation can also stay with us, even for up to eight hours after experiencing an input. So even if we move to a different environment after receiving a lot of input, we might struggle to calm back down or feel regulated again.
There are also many overstimulating situations in parenthood that we can’t avoid. That’s why it’s important to also build self-care sensory strategies.
How to Notice the Warning Signals of Overstimulation
Holly pointed out that we live in a very different society than generations before. We often have many more sensory inputs and stimulating things and activities in our environment.
And sometimes overstimulated moms even turn toward stimulating things to try to cope. For example, we might scroll on our phones as a way to numb—when in reality, phone usage can be very alerting and stimulating.
Noticing when we’re approaching that overflow threshold and having strategies in our toolbox that can use sensory inputs in a calming way can help us intervene before we hit the overstimulation point.
We often don’t realize we’re overlooking our body’s warning signals. It’s as if all of our dashboard lights are going off but we just keep driving until the car breaks down.
We often don’t realize we’re overlooking our body’s warning signals.
If we continue to overlook those signs, we might find ourselves avoiding potentially fun situations with our children, experiencing burnout, or battling an ongoing struggle with overstimulation.
But if we can learn to make adjustments when we see the lights flash, we can keep going more efficiently—and enjoy motherhood more in the process. Noticing early activation signs, like clenching or tightness, heart rate increasing, warmth or flushed faces, can help us put action into place earlier to stay calm and grounded.
Sensory Self-Care Strategies for Overstimulated Moms
So what can we do to release sensory pressure? What activities even count as sensory self-care? Holly gave two concrete examples (which she calls her sensory mama ninja tricks). These can be helpful to pull out when you feel like your cup is getting full.
The first is oral sensory stimulation. Holly said that something as simple as eating crunch foods can create a calming affect. We see this in babies, who often use a pacifier or nursing to calm down.
Eating salads, crunchy vegetables, or other snacks that activitate our oral senses can be a valuable act of self-care. Other ways to stimulate our oral senses could be to drink a warm liquid or something cold like ice.
The second sensory self-care act is activating our proprioceptive system—which is the feedback from our muscles and joints. This involves acts like pushing, pulling, squeezing. Holly said that squeezing our hands together, pushing against a wall, or using a stress ball are great ways to activate this system.
These self-care acts can also apply to kids who experience sensory struggles, along with ensuring that they are getting plenty of movement for their bodies.
Holly also pointed out that general self-care is valuable—not necessarily pampering methods, but real self-care like prioritizing our own time, setting boundaries, moving our bodies, taking space for ourselves, and putting our own needs on an equal playing field with everyone else’s. These things can be very beneficial for our overall sensory cup.
If you struggle with sensory overload, our mom therapists can help you learn self-care strategies and form an overstimulation plan. Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today.