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Understanding Sensory Overload

be at peace

I’ve been in the U.S. for over a month now, and yet I still encounter situations in which I feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of activity around me. It’s not just in urban areas either – it can be simply driving through my parents’ suburban town. Sensory overload takes over and I struggle to focus on what I’m doing in the moment.

This isn’t a novel concept. When I did live in the U.S., I often experienced the same feeling, though I was less able to attribute it to the correct cause. Now that I’ve lived on a quiet island for nearly three years, I easily see the difference in lifestyle.

Even when I lived in Washington, DC, I would have moments of clarity in which I looked around and realized that everyone was in close proximity, yet they felt so distant. Cell phones occupy every spare second and advertisements bombard every single sense. It is impossible to avoid ads – they surround daily life and find their way into the most subtle of locations. The inundation is overwhelming.

At times when I lived in the U.S., I would look around and feel like everything was moving at warp speed while I stood in one place as the Earth slowly turned. Lights everywhere disturb the natural rhythm of the day. Blue light is emitted from electronics everywhere while traffic lights and neon signs create a background blotting out the sunshine. Sounds constantly throb against ear drums, from music to TV to traffic to continuous conversation. Silence is considered to be a wasted moment.

Even in the suburbs and in rural areas, the world spins at a constant rate while people try desperately to make it move faster. Buy bigger cars to move faster between more distant spaces to knock more items off the checklist. Go, go, go.

A single day is not enough.

We somehow have to live more life within the same amount of time.

I am a proud proponent of living life to the fullest – of taking risks and saying yes and pushing limits. But it feels like much of the constant motion and overstimulation I sense here is less for living life fully and more for accomplishing tasks and obtaining more. More status, more wealth, more stuff.

It took a move to a quiet Caribbean island to help me understand why I always had those fleeting moments of clarity living in the U.S. It took living by the ocean to teach me that the Earth will continue spinning, the waves will continue flowing, and the sun and the moon will continue dancing together each day.

It took me a while, but I now understand that constant motion and endless noise won’t fill me with more joy, love, empathy, or kindness.

I used to momentarily realize that all of the commotion and the lack of human interaction bothered me, but I realize now that seeing everyone looking down at their phones instead of up into the eyes of another human being is a deal-breaker for me.

I am that person smiling at you on the train in an effort to draw your attention back into the real world. I am the one saying hello as we pass each other on the sidewalk, hoping you’ll look up and be in the moment, letting go of the worries drawing your gaze to the pavement.

I am also that person who gets caught up in social media and just must read that email right away. I am not perfect so I, too, am to blame for perpetuating my own overstimulation. But I consciously try to change that behavior every single day.

I think part of my ability to understand this sensory overload now is my Irish-Colombian’s aversion to phones and the tether that comes with ownership of a cell phone. I’ve learned a lot from him, but one of my favorite lessons is that a phone is a tool – not a lifeline. It is okay to leave the phone at home. It is absolutely vital that you put it down to spend quality time with your loved ones. It is amazing to have entire conversations without electronic interruption.

I wish he could teach the entire world that lesson. But I am grateful that he taught me so that I’m able to realize during this trip to the States that I never again want to be that person. I am in love with being in each and every moment. I highly recommend you try it, too.

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