There might be a very good reason you feel down after big days. And there is a good chance is has less to do with reality and more to do with how your mind is processing reality. Don’t get me wrong, it is a real feeling you confront, but it might not be based on reality. Let me tell you why…
Big days are different than normal days. They are usually defined by increased excitement and increased sensory input or even sensory overload. For example, have you ever gone to a big Fourth of July celebration? Did you go to a big party with lots of people, games and fireworks? Did you see bright flashes of light and hear large bangs all around you? Did you stay up longer and experience more than your average day?
If some or all of these experiences happened, there is a good chance your brain experienced some level of sensory overload or at least you experienced increased, prolonged sensory stimulation. This might have been traumatic to you or it might have been incredibly enjoyable. The pleasure of the day is really not the issue. Instead, the issue is the simple fact that you experienced a day that is different than most days. Your exciting day was a sensory anomaly, it was an exception to the rule of “normal” living.
You might not have stopped to contemplate the sensory uniqueness of that day, but your brain totally noticed. In fact, for some of us, our brain not only noticed, but it aggressively confronted the unique day by behaving differently. However, most of us didn’t even notice that something neurological was happening; which was the goal of our brain, to make things feel pretty much normal. So what happened?
When the brain is overstimulated or faces more sensory stimulation than normal, it adjusts or compensates. With so much going on, our brains instinctively protect us by lessening the impact of that stimulus on our bodies. To put it simply, the brain sort of steps back from the stimulus and begins to tune out or tone down what it receives. Just as we instinctively move back from a fire that might burn us, the brain pulls back from stimulus that might overwhelm us. It’s as if the mind goes within itself to protect us from freaking out.
Consequently, on a day like the Fourth of July, we might think we are fully experiencing the bangs and flashes of the fireworks, but our brain has actually already pulled back a little bit to make the experience tolerable. We see the flash and we hear the bang, but our brain is not processing the intensity of this event in the same manner as a normal day. It’s as if our vision and hearing is muffled. The brain hears less and sees less to keep us from freaking out. Or maybe it would be better to say that we see and hear fine, but we process in a protective way that dampens the overall effect of the day.
This process of dampening how we viscerally experience a day is something that seldom goes noticed while we are engaged in an exciting event. The event has enough excitement that we are not able to realize that we are actually not fully experiencing what is happening. Which is a good thing, because as mentioned before, if our brain didn’t pull back a little, we’d probably freak out.
I am extremely thankful that I have a brain that is able to compensate for me. I’m thankful that my brain can limit the stimulus I’m confronting so that I can sanely process the more exciting moments of my life. Even so, there are some downsides to this compensating. One downside is how I feel when the super exciting, sensory bombardment is over. When the firework show is over and I’m home in bed, I often feel the other side of sensory compensation which feels a lot like sadness, disconnect and depression. It is such a feeling of contrast that I used to confront the following question after most every major event in my life: Why do I feel so bad after such a good day?
After confronting this conflicting reality, I began to investigate the pattern until I came to some rather practical conclusions. To discover these conclusions, I’d like you to take a self-discovery journey with me.
Cycle of Sensory Overload
The first step on our journey is to take inventory of the events that leave you feeling depressed, sad and disconnected. Remember, this is a journey concerning sensory overload, there are many other reasons for depressed feelings that will not be addressed in this post. This is just one very specific facet of life that influences many of us in profound ways.
With this in mind, I’d like you to take inventory of the days where you end up feeling disconnected at day’s end. For me, I found a pretty powerful pattern. In my life, the following events almost always lead to a certain amount of sadness or disconnect at day’s end:
-Rock concerts (Christian or secular)
-Disneyland and Disney World (We are Disney junkies)
-Anything fireworks related
-Big family outings and active vacations
-Just about any big, special event with lots of activity
As I listed these events, I began to see a rather clear pattern. Whether or not I had a fun day or a conflict free day, I still felt disconnected at the end of sensory exciting days. In contrast, I realized that on more boring or mundane days, I had less of an emotional swing. It’s the extremes in emotional contrast that gave me some insight into what is really happening.
For my life, the pattern and process is rather straightforward. On days with a tremendous amount of sensory excitement, my mind deals with the excitement by compensating and taking in less of the sensory bombardment. In other words, my mind protects me by taking in less of the chaos around me. Whether it’s good chaos or bad chaos, my mind filters more of it out. This is a wonderful gift to me when I’m in the middle of too much stimuli. However, at the end of the day, when the excitement has waned and the stimuli has waned, my mind is still in its protective mode; it is still taking in less stimuli. It’s as if my mind has put in earplugs during the fireworks, but forgets to take the earplugs out once the fireworks have ended. It’s as if my mind took a step back from reality for protection, but it doesn’t step back into reality once the excitement is over.
It has been my experience that it takes the mind a while to recover from overstimulation. The brain doesn’t quickly step back into normal functioning and regular processing. Instead, it stays a little deadened, or might I even say, shell shocked from the day’s stimulus. This leaves me feeling kind of empty, distant and disconnected at the end of really wonderful days. It’s as if the sound has been turned down, the room has turned gray and I’m processing my life more as a spectator than a participant.
I used to think that this distant, disconnected or depressed feeling was a sign that even the most meaningful days were not enough to provide me with genuine happiness. I wrongly assumed that my feelings were a sign of something wrong with my personality, spirituality or purpose in life. I assumed that my disconnected feelings were pointing to some greater troubling truth about existence. I used to think these things, before I noticed the clear pattern in my life that accompanies sensory overload.
When examining my disconnected feelings, I realized that big events, with lots of stimuli, almost always led to my emotions feeling deadened at the end of the day. I also realized that this feeling would eventually pass within the next day or two, regardless of whether or not I deeply processed the psychological or spiritual importance of the day. Eventually, after sleep and some normal living, the feeling would subside and my mind would get back to processing and experiencing existence “normally.”
This is the profound truth I discovered in processing why I feel depressed, sad or disconnected at the end of really fun days. I feel down, because my brain takes a little bit more time to get back to normal after confronting non-stop sensory bombardment. My seemingly incongruent feelings are actually a very natural response to days with, dare I say, too much excitement. In light of this revelation, I try to remember the following truths at the end of an exciting day.
Remember at the End of an Exciting Day
My feelings are not reality: If I feel disconnected, it is most likely an issue of overstimulation.
I don’t need to process my life, at least not today: Instead of trying to process my life after a big day, I just let myself feel a little disconnected, knowing that this feeling will pass. There will be time to process later, if needed.
I need to build boredom into my schedule: On vacation, it is important that I allow for time to sit and do boring, low stimulation stuff. It is important for me to just abide, rest and be. If I fill every day with a big event, I will find myself deadened by day or week’s end.
It’s all right to feel this way: This might sound simplistic, but it has been incredibly freeing to understand and embrace this stimulus cycle. Instead of feeling fearful or condemned, I am able to walk through the cycle with a positive view of myself and a better view of the day. I am able to celebrate the day, regardless of the mixed feelings.
I share how I feel with my wife and kids: Now instead of hiding my feelings for fear of ruining the day, I let them know when I am feeling disconnected. None of us has to be afraid, because we know it is just a feeling that will pass with time; it does not define the day.
I share this to encourage anyone who struggles with this same issue. I want to remind you that I am talking about a very specific pattern relating to overstimulation. This post is in no way an attempt to speak to the real complexities of depression, anxiety or any other psychological struggles. Instead, I am sharing a perspective that might help some of you understand why you feel certain ways and certain times.
Although awareness of this cycle has helped me greatly, I want to encourage each of you to feel free to get help for any issue that causes you real struggle. There is no shame in getting the best medical and spiritual counsel necessary to live a victorious life. If you have psychological needs, you should not hesitate to pursue the best care that will lead you on a path of true hope and healing.
As for me and this pesky issue of feeling disconnected, I’ve found a real peace in becoming more aware of the amazing ways in which my brain processes the world around me, especially on days with lots of fireworks.
Check out Doug’s new book, The Community of God: A Theology of the Church From a Reluctant Pastor
I like what you say about boredom. In our age, we’ve lost the ability to become bored. One could argue that the over-stimulation you’re talking about is less and less relegated to big events and is now becoming the norm.
Personally, I’m working more on allowing myself to become bored, which I feel is necessary for creativity to flow well.
I agree…and it is actually really hard for me to simply abide and disconnect from all the unnecessary stimuli and creative busy work.
Great post, Doug. I’ve come to recognize that I’m an introvert who is easily tired from too much (for me) interaction and sensory input. My danger is hiding away from everyone too often. God is calling me out of my hermitage! 😉 And even though I think God is telling me to interact more, it’s very good for each person to recognize that down time is needed.
Thank you for reading and sharing! So true.
Great story. I recognize a lot here. What do you do after a week of stimulation and when you feel (I) disconnected for a long time after that. Say a few weeks? 🙂
Well, I think that is probably something I would get help with from a counselor, trained professional or at least from others familiar with depression. I know for me diet is crucial along with other seasonal factors. Thanks for reading Hannah!
Reblogged this on lovetruthpeaceblog.
Really good article thank you – makes s lot of sense to me. I’ve known for a while that I can feel overstimulated by intense sensory input, but I never considered it was the cause of feeling disconnected after an enjoyable day. I think understanding this will really help me and I agree that it’s best to accept that it’s ok to feel this way. 😊
Thanks for reading a commenting!
thank you Doug. I do suffer from depression but as a Christian I’ve been surprised that after a ‘good’ day of praying or worshipping or fellwoship, I wake up with a sense of dread as if the good had never happened. Now after reading your piece it seems to me that my brain turns the switch really low after ‘unusual good’ days. And I do feel the need for some ‘meaningless days’ at the same time that everyone else seems to want more excitement in their lives. Thank you again and I always appreciate reading what you have to say; you model speaking the truth in love and give me hope
love in Christ,
Thank you for reading!
Oh my God! The article explains my confusing life.
May GOD bless you a thousand times over for sharing. I have suffered with this for 30 years. Have been on countless antidepressants which help for awhile. My son is embarrassed by this and does not want me around his children. He said I am like Jekel and Hide.