April 28, 2021


Minute read

Why These Two Types of Overstimulation May Be The Reason You Can’t Focus

Do you sometimes find it difficult to focus? Of course you do. I know, because we all do!

Concentrating on one task, sensation, conversation, or emotion can be challenging. You may not realize it, but the challenge with focus really comes down to one thing. But, of course, it’s not quite that simple because that one thing is actually two — and you can’t really address them directly.

I’ll explain in a minute.

But back to the challenge with focus. Imagine your average work session at your desk and all the things that stop you from focusing.

Perhaps your back is a little achy. You feel thirsty, so you grab for your water. But wait, a song is playing that brings back the memory of when you and your partner got together (or broke up), spiraling you down a rat-hole of memories. Then you realize that you’re hungry, and so you begin thinking about lunch.

What is all of this? Stimulation!

Fortunately, we live in a vibrant, colorful, cacophonous world — it’s what we love about our human existence. All of this stimulation is just part of the deal.

But it can also derail us if we’re not careful.

Our Overstimulation Problem 

We are barraged by technology from the very moment we open our eyes. We grab our phone, check our messages, read emails, and respond to notifications all before we’ve even had a chance to decide how our day is going to go.

And this overstimulation comes in many forms.

There’s the addiction to the immediate dopamine hit we get from checking our devices. There are the societal norms tempting us to spend time, energy, and money fitting in. And then the overload of processed foods, coffee, and alcohol we consume stimulate and rev-up our nervous system even more, forcing it into overdrive.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that all this overstimulation is at the root of our focus challenges? Not really.

But as I said, that’s not the whole story.

Breaking Down the Two Forms of Stimulation  

Researchers have found that there are, in fact, two types of stimulation that primarily inhibit focus.

The great news is that you will know what they are. The challenging news is, well, they’re challenging items to learn how to manage since they’re always around you.

But the way I like to think about them is this: you need to accept that these two types of stimulation are in the car with you, but you get to choose if you’re going to let them drive.

So what are they? Sensory and emotional stimuli.

As I’ve already alluded to, these two dynamic forms of stimulation appear everywhere in our lives. While individually they can inspire us, engage us emotionally, and even enhance our productivity, when we allow them to dictate our actions they can be incredibly detrimental to our focus, progress, habit loops, and even our relationship with others and with our own mind.

Understanding each type of stimulation, therefore, is essential if you are to assert control of your life and be able to focus effectively.

Sensory Stimulation 

Sensory stimulation is the stuff you sense.

It includes that mosquito bite you got last night, the aching of your back, the fact that you feel hot or cold, your throbbing headache, the feel of air flowing in through your nostrils, the soothing material of your pants against your skin, and even the sensation of your tongue moving back and forth on the back of your top teeth.

As you continue to go through the rest of this article, take note of how often you squirm and fuss or are engaged with sensory experiences of any kind — whether you think of them as pleasurable or not.

I bet you’ll be surprised by just how much sensory stimulation is happening.

Emotional Stimulation 

If sensory stimulation is the stuff you sense, emotional stimulation is the stuff you feel.

In my experience, it is often the more challenging to navigate and reduce.

Throughout the span of your day, you will see or experience hundreds of things that may  activate an emotional response. 

A photo, a scent, or even a single word may bring you back to a moment in time, viscerally tempting you to relive it.

Now, I’m not saying that a little reminiscing is bad — I love intentionally spending time remembering small, beautiful, and vivid moments. But when these emotional stimuli trigger you, rather than you intentionally seeking them out, they serve as a distraction and inhibit you from focusing by causing you to experience guilt, excitement, or longing.

You may even be emotionally stimulated right now.

Overcoming Overstimulation and Improving Focus 

The more you respond and react to either sensory or emotional stimuli, the weaker your mindfulness muscle will become — and it’s your ability to be mindful and intentional that is the key to improving and sustaining focus.

And if constantly responding to overstimulation sounds like you, don’t feel bad. This happens constantly to all of us — to different degrees, perhaps, but constantly and to everyone.

The answer, therefore, is not to eliminate all stimulation — that’s a fool’s errand. Instead, you need to understand why and how your brain reacts to it so that you can develop coping mechanisms that will keep you on track.

As you might imagine, that process is far more than I can cover in the few words I have left in this article — in fact, we’ve developed an entire program that dives deep into the neuroscience of focus to help our community address these challenges! — but let me point you in the right direction.

What we have found is that there are a set of foundational practices and activities that rewire your brain to help it manage overstimulation and enable you to create and sustain focus. They are:

  1. Establishing Your Purpose: Having clarity about what you want to achieve is essential to your focus, after all, that’s why you want to focus in the first place!
  1. Routine: Establishing a series of daily activities that help you realize your clearly-defined purpose helps squash any impulsive decisions, or un-helpful habituations.
  1. Allowing For Space: Practices such as non-sleep deep rest (NSDR), meditation, breathwork, and others, help to protect and preserve your nervous system, and allow you a fertile ground to upon which to build your daily routine.
  1. A Nourishing, Qualitarian Diet: You are absolutely what you eat. Certain foods, nutrients, and eating patterns help to super power your brain, boost an essential brain compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and improve your ability to concentrate, increase neuroplasticity, and just optimize cognitive function.
  1. Regular Movement: Movement, in general, has a huge impact on how your brain functions. Particular types of movement, performed in certain ways however, can optimize the release of neurochemicals and hormones that pack a big focus punch.
  1. A Healthy Relationship With Technology: As a tool, technology can help you focus, but its just as likely to become a tempting way to distract yourself from the important things in your life.

Some of these practices may seem ordinary, obvious, or like routines that you’ve already established. And yet, it is absolutely how you implement and integrate these practices that make all the difference!

We also believe that its most important to start at the beginning — with your purpose — which is why we kick-off The Focus Factor with a special exercise — one of the many exercises we’ve included in the program — to help center yourself around your purpose.

Get Our Free Exercise Guide to

Know Your Purpose.

Taken straight from our 6-week neuroscience-based program, The Focus Factor, this simple, yet powerful exercise will help ground you in what really matters and supercharge your focus!

Get it now for Free!

This simple, yet profound exercise is a great way to help ground yourself in what really matters to you — and is one of the foundational secrets to supercharging your focus!

Enjoy it, put it to use, and kick your life focus into gear!

Image credits: Jr Korpa and Ryoji Iwata.

About the Author: Laura Araujo

Passionate about accessible education and evidence-based wellness, Laura founded The MAPS Institute, an educational wellness editorial and platform. Aside from her passion for research and educating, Laura is a classically trained vocalist, sound therapist, and a practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga and Restorative Yoga. She is the creator of the MAPS (Mindfulness, Activation, Purpose, and Surrender) philosophy and is in continual pursuit of helping her students and herself find balance amid the chaos around and within them. When not sifting through Nature Magazine, complaining about their paywalls, she enjoys trying new wine varietals, experimenting in the kitchen, riding her bicycle (sometimes cross-country), and spending time with her husband Charlie, cockapoo Miles, and expected baby girl, Ella.  Click here to follow the MAPS Institute on social media.



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