Stimulus Overload in a Quiet Town
By: Kristen Jezek
Stimulus overload occurs when people are experiencing an overwhelmed nervous system to the point where they begin to shut out certain things in their environment to focus their attention (Schneider, 2012). It is easy to assume this type of overload is present only in major cities where people are flooded with traffic noises, commutes, excess of people and stimulating billboards, sounds, and smells. What people don’t realize about this type of stimulus overload is that it is not limited to overpopulated cities such as New York or Las Vegas. These distractions can occur in seemingly small towns where not much goes on. The tendency for human beings to start to shut out “unnecessary” stimuli when overwhelmed with information is beneficial for survival and quality of life, except for when it crosses the line to being blatantly ignorant to the needs of vulnerable people around us.
An example of this stimulus overload, even in regular everyday life can happen in something as innocuous as a snow storm. Recently there was a large snow storm in the Cleveland area (suburbs) and cars were trying to get to work during rush hour. While the plow trucks knew that there was a storm coming, I don’t think they were prepared for as much snow came down, and not in this inopportune hour when so many cars were on the road. With so much going on with people trying to pay attention to the roads, the cars in front of and behind them, and their impending work day, people undoubtedly experienced some stimulus overload. There was a woman on the side of the road who had hit a tree and was sitting in her truck. Perhaps because people were so busy and overloaded with stimuli, no one had attended to her for almost 30 minutes. My boyfriend stopped his truck to make sure she was okay and simply walked up to check if she needed anything or if someone was on their way for her. She said she had been sitting there for almost half an hour (with her young child in the backseat) and no one had stopped to check on her. Furthermore, she had no cell phone with her and the police and road vehicles were distracted dealing with multiple accidents and road blocks due to snow. Because she had hit her car on the tree, there could have been damage to her vehicle (which should be turned off to prevent further issues) or damage to her health or the health of her young son. After an accident, timing is of the essence and when you are stuck in the cold that window of time is even shorter. When he stopped to check on her, he let her use his cell phone and contacted the police to make sure they were on their way to help the young woman. If he had not stopped to check if she was alright, who knew how long she would have sat there with her infant son in the cold! Being left in the cold in a smoking vehicle could have meant death for these two members of this town. In these cases, sensory overload can be incredibly damaging even in environments that are not constantly overloaded (such as cities). Whenever a person is overwhelmed or even in an unfamiliar situation, stimulus overload can take over and valuable opportunities to help others can be hindered.
What can be done to deal with this type of stimulus overload? Firstly, understanding that to be overwhelmed with stimuli is not limited to big cities can help combat the situations where you find yourself burdened with multiple pulls on your attention. Furthermore, the prevalence of smart phones, radios, or unnecessary electronics or distractions should be eliminated so to make room for more important matters on attention, such as other people needing assistance or making sure you can pay attention enough to what you are doing to remain safe. With an ever-increasing media age, stimulus overload is possible everywhere with a click of a smart-phone device. The best offense in these situations is a good defense against the overloading stimulus of non-essential material. The difference in where you place your attention could literally be the difference between life or death for you or someone else.
1) Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.