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When life is a whirlwind

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Hi there! It's been a minute since I sent out my last email. Glad to be back at it, now that life's calmed down a bit. Because boy, has life been a whirlwind. Let me share some personal updates with you, to get you situated before we dive into this newsletter's topic. A month ago, I moved back to Cambridge. I'm embarking on a very exciting journey: that of my PhD in Polar Studies. The next 3 to 4 years, I'll be researching Antarctic futures in the context of climate change. How I ended up in this unlikely setting (not even my closest family saw a doctorate in Polar Studies coming!) is a topic for another email. Today, I want to talk to you about a phenomenon you may be very familiar with: overstimulation. I recently had a call with a friend from Greece, whom I don't get to speak to often. Our conversation started off - as they typically do in long-distance friendships - by talking each other through a long list of life updates. I told her about my move from Indonesia to the UK, and how my body is still adjusting to the dramatic climate shift. I told her about my visions for the interior design of my new home, the many societies I've been signing up to (fencing, dancing, music production, caving, improv, rowing, investing, etc), how I registered for beginner Arabic lessons, and a Spanish literature reading group. I told her about the many hundreds of new people I've met over the past 4 weeks, including the other Gates Foundation scholars, my college community (Jesus college), the people at the Geography Department, and the Scott Polar Research Institute community. I told her about the shared house I now live in, the remote sensing research group I'm taking part in, the long list of people I need to get in touch with to start planning fieldwork, my ideas for the no less than 4 different podcasts I want to produce. I told her about my desire to start a new band, the many socials I've attended over the past month to meet other musicians, the auditions I've done. I told her about the countless formals ('Harry Potter' style dinners at long tables in black gowns), the many receptions, pub quizzes, wine tastings, nature walks, and potlucks I've attended, and how I've managed to already build up a reputation for fashionability in a short time. I told her about my plans to build a little sound production studio in my new home. I told her about my efforts to find balance between running a business and starting a PhD... I guess it's not hard to imagine why the conversation with my friend lasted over 3 hours. But after sharing that long list of life updates, she asked me this powerful question: 'How do you feel?' The first word that came to mind, involuntarily, was 'exhausted'. It caught me off-guard, this response. Because all the things I've been busy with have all been incredibly stimulating and exciting. But everything combined, it's led to a dominating sense of overwhelm and a state of overstimulation. I've been feeling dispersed, distracted, and unable to focus. My appetite has reduced, and I'm having difficulties falling asleep because my mind keeps spinning uncontrollably.

For me, overstimulation feels like swimming underwater while holding my breath - in a marvelously mesmerizing world full of colorful corals and schools of fish. I love admiring it all, but eventually start running out of breath. I begin to long for a deep breath of fresh air, but am unable come up to the water surface.

So I stay submerged, I continue swimming, trying to go as fast as I can while taking in all in. But gradually, I lose my ability to process all the things I'm seeing underwater. So many impressions, but oh so short of breath.

Reading this email has probably been a tiring experience. Now imagine getting rid of all the punctuation.... no more comma's and full stops no more beginnings and endings of sentences but it all meshing together in one long breath it makes you wonder where the finish line is and you're rushing to get there because it's becoming too exhausting to continue and you can barely pay attention to what's going on anymore and now you're really desperate for air and well that pretty much describes my experience of the past 4 weeks That's a bad way to write. It's also a bad way to live. As gifted individuals, who experience everything deeply and intensely, we often need extra time to process all the impressions coming our way. This is why we get overstimulated more quickly than neurotypical people.

Here are some things I was reminded of during my past month of dealing with overwhelm:

  1. It's OK to rest. It's even more than OK: it's a necessity. Rest deserves to be a non-negotiable. I mean, oxygen is a life necessity, isn't it? If you feel out of breath, pause. Allow yourself to catch your breath before moving on to the next thing.

  2. Quality over quantity. This past month, I felt like I had to attend every social event because now is the time to network and form friendships. But I can tell you that this inner pressure, combined with a drained social battery, will not lead to you making your best first impression. Miss out on a few things, so that you can be more energized and replenished for the events you do attend.

  3. It's not all or nothing. Instead, meet yourself in the middle. If you're the kind of person that has 2 default modes (like me) of either doing it all or doing nothing, then you may need this reminder too. I had, unsurprisingly, signed up for way too many societies, sports, language courses, reading groups, etc. It's a wonderful thing to do many things at once, but if you start to feel out of breath, that's a sign it's become too much. Take a step back and reassess.

This past weekend, I reached back up to the water surface and took a long, deep breath. That breath involved journaling, pizza delivery, and Netflix in bed ;)

With renewed clarity, I understood that now might not be the ideal time for me to start learning Arabic. I also figured that fencing is currently not high on my priorities list, and that discussing Latin-American literature - while fun - is not how I want to spend my time at the moment. I'll still be rowing, singing, and salsa dancing, along with a bunch of other things. I'm not cutting everything out. Instead, I'm meeting myself in the middle. What about you: how can you meet yourself in the middle? Where in life do you currently feel overstretched, drained, overstimulated? Can you take rest, have some deep breaths, and reassess? Hope this helps! As usual, feel welcome to write me your responses.

PS. I'm giving a workshop 'SWEET SPOT' on giftedness and under/overstimulation on Saturday the 12th of November. In this workshop, we'll take a close look at how to achieve a sense of balance, and how to recognise your personal 'sweet spot'. There where you're neither under- nor overstimulated, but are feeling centered and balanced, with just the right level of stimulation.

Limited tickets available here:

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