4 *Other* Things That Can Overstimulate Introverts

After the reception that my post on being seen as an introvert received, I realized that it needed a companion piece, digging deeper into other causes for the dreaded “introverted hangover.” The overstimulation that comes from not social situations, but the anticipation of a series of social situations, is a real energy spender for those of the introverted persuasion. This understanding ties in with one of the biggest misconceptions that persists about temperament: that it is based solely on reactions to social stimulation.

But as Adam Grant recently dispelled in his Psychology Today piece about introversion myths, it’s far bigger than just the people around us. The world is loud, and there’s more competing for our attention than just our peers, coworkers, and others we interact with on a daily basis. So today, I’m devoting this space to demystifying five things besides people that wear introverts down over the course of a given day.

IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr

IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr

But first, a primer: Jerome Kagan of Harvard University exposed infants to a variety of strong stimuli to gauge their reactions; test scenarios included recordings of voices on tape, the sound of popping balloons, colorful mobiles, and isopropyl alcohol with its trademark acrid scent. The reactions that the infants had were categorized as high-reactive (yielding screaming and vigorous arm waving), and low-reactive (calmer and less affected overall by the changes to the environment). You can read more about this study and its results in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012).

Now, which reactions would you ascribe to which group? I’ll give you a moment.

Contrary to how they may be as they grow, the louder and more demonstrative babies, the “high-reactives,” were more likely to be characterized as introverted later on; their low-reactive counterparts were more likely to be extroverted. Why? The high-reactives had a more violent reaction to these disturbances to their natural environment, were more affected by what was invading their comfortable space. Comparatively, low-reactive extroverts managed that disruption better because it bothered them less and the energy required to manage the change was less.

I can absolutely see myself in the screaming, arm-pumping anguish of the infants Kagan describes in his study. And if you ever doubt this, I invite you (read: please don’t ever do this) to pop a balloon near me. But there are far less dramatic things that prove disruptive to my, and other introverts’, natural energy flow. Here are four of the most common ones:

Decisions
I was delighted to see Michaela Chung cite decision-making as a major introverted energy drain, a stimulus that I try often to explain to others but words fail me. Michaela, I’m so pleased that words did not fail you!

Normally, picking a restaurant to eat at is fun. But when you’re doing so three or four times a day it can feel overwhelming. This is because every decision we make takes mental energy. The hamster only has so much juice, so the more energy we sink into making choices, the less we have for other things […] This is why so many introverts (myself included) love routines. Routines and rituals eliminate choices. They put certain parts of our day on cruise control, allowing us to free up mental space for other more important things.

As I often say, a lack of ease in such an activity should in no way excuse someone from having to do it. Michaela didn’t just decide to not eat because the decisions were hard. But recognition of such a challenge simply means finding ways to manage the energy associated with the activity. I do this by doing as much research as possible leading up to a decision, as well as asking around amongst people in the know (rather than consulting my social circles for opinion-based answers) to get as much information as possible.

Caffeine
Yeah, this one bummed me out too. I thought the reason I wanted to move a house twenty minutes after a cup of coffee was because I’m a small person, but it’s far more serious than I could have imagined. Jessica Stillman wrote in Inc about how introverts should carefully time (though not swear off, thank heaven) their java because it hits them harder than it does extroverts, who are better equipped neuroscientifically to endure the rush of energy that caffeine provides.

Volume
Fun fact: I carry a set of high-fidelity earplugs on my keys. I keep them on hand mostly for concerts, but they also come in handy on public transit or walking in busy areas, particularly after I’ve had a hectic day. I’ve always been sensitive to loud noises (see also: the balloon thing, non-choreographed fireworks), but never fully understood why. As with so many other things in this post, I learned later that it was an issue of overstimulation- this time from Arnie Kozak (and Hans Eysenck):

Another experiment had extroverts and introverts play a difficult word game while listening to headphones that produced random noise. The participants got to adjust the volume of these noises and, not surprisingly, the introverts preferred a lower volume (55 versus 72 decibels). Both groups performed equally well on the task. When the volumes were switched, performance decreased for both groups dramatically. The overstimulation of the loud noise led to lower performance by the introverts, presumably because they were overwhelmed. The extroverts too, had difficulty performing, presumably because they were understimulated and bored.

I like this example in particular because it paints extroverts not as the stronger side of the introvert, capable of handling more than their weaker counterparts, but as beings equally dependent on energy management to thrive. Just as introverts must be careful of situations that provide too much stimulation, extroverts must be equally attentive to existing and cultivating scenarios that don’t leave them with too little stimulation.

Hunger (and Temperature, and a few more!)
Marti Olson Laney, author of several books on introverts (including specialized books about introversion in children, and introversion in romantic relationships) explains this best, and I’m incredibly grateful to her for it:

Introverts use an entirely different neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, on their more dominant pathway. Acetylcholine is another important neurotransmitter connected to many vital functions in the brain body. It affects attention and learning (especially perceptual learning), influences the ability to sustain a calm, alert feeling and to utilize long-term memory, and activates voluntary movement. It stimulates a good feeling when thinking and feeling. Introverts require a limited range of not too much or too little dopamine, and a good level of acetylcholine, to leave them feeling calm and without depression or anxiety.

[…]

The activation of the parasympathetic nervous system means that introverts:

  • May have trouble getting motivated or moving; might appear lazy
  • May be slow to react under stress
  • May have a calm or reserved manner; may walk, talk, or eat slowly
  • May need to regulate protein intake and body temperature
  • Must have breaks to restore energy

So what did I get from all this? In addition to being a justification for (a) my otherwise inexcusable angry-hunger and (b) my extensive cardigan collection, I learned when reading Laney for the first time (and again, later, as I put together the neurological explanation of introversion for my own book) that what’s going on in my head is entirely different from many of the individuals who I surrounded myself with yet occasionally failed to understand. It’s a wonderful relief to feel understood, and my extensive reading of Laney’s work helped me get to that place.

So there you have it. To supplement Cain’s book title, introverts are seeking to find their power in a world that can’t stop talking, or caffeinating, or presenting choices, or being loud. What methods have you found to help yourself manage these moments of high energy expenditure? And to my E’s reading, what are you doing to make these moments easier for the “innies” among you?

 

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