New York Stimmy: Sensory Overload and Public Stimming

Old drawing from 2010 done during my first visit to NYC. Pencil, digital color.

New York City has been exposure therapy for me in every way.

When I first moved here, I took my hometown mentality with me. I was embarrassed of my stims, convinced other people would notice, stare, and ~think things~ about me. As though that mattered.

But the city is essentially one big sensory violation. Eventually, I had to stim to survive, and through trial-by-fire I began to embrace stimming for what it really is: a life-saving coping mechanism.

The first eight months I lived in the city I barely left my apartment.

Everything I’d ever known about coping with overload was turned on its head. Taking a walk to calm down was no longer a viable option. Stepping outside meant stepping out onto a busy street, filled with honking cars, bustling crowds, and the smells of garbage and dog pee. Sirens here have to be louder than normal to be heard above the chaos, so every passing ambulance felt like an air horn inside my head. Visual stimuli fills every surface: sidewalk billboards, trash and gum littering the ground, rushing people. Everywhere I look, no surface is uninterrupted. Even the trees are hung with plastic bags blown in the wind. Now, when I visit my home town, the first thing I notice (after the quiet) is how… still… everything looks. The textures, colors, shapes, and movements in the city are overwhelming to me.

And based on how even native New Yorkers avoid looking up in Times Square, I think it’s not just me.

Moving here was quite a shift, to say the least. Stepping outside my apartment meant an instant sensory assault. Walking to the subway was like walking through a crowded convention. And the subway itself felt like some sort of combat training simulation: A roaring monster comes barreling down the tracks, the breaks scream and throw sparks, the doors open, and you’d better know where to stand because if you didn’t plan well enough you’ll be shoved aside by the waves of people exiting and entering. The lights inside the car flicker and sing, the train knocks side to side, booming echoes bounce off the tunnel walls. And of course the person sitting in the next seat is always pressed up against you, smelling of perfume, fast food or both. And that’s only if you were lucky enough to get a seat; otherwise, you’re standing up, swaying back and forth, inner ears sobbing in confusion. Then, finally, the illusion of relief when you reach your stop and exit the train, only to emerge out onto the street and back into the chaos above.

I couldn’t live like that, with every moment a fight to keep my heart even and my stomach in the right place. I needed a way to focus, to cocoon myself.

I started by wearing headphones and listening to music wherever I went. That’s what I did in Massachusetts when I dealt with a crowded university. But during those early days, that only made it worse. Loud music became just one more type of input for me to process. Instead, I invested in a jumbo jar of disposable earplugs, the kind used for target shooting. And, still self-conscious about stimming in public, I started to search for stim toys I could use without drawing attention. I lucked out when I rediscovered my kindergarten friend, the tangle. I bought a fuzzy tangle toy, the perfect size to fit in my pocket. I could just keep my hands in my pockets, and stim away without anyone the wiser.

Now, nearly two years later, I’ve given myself over to the New York crowd anonymity. I still carry my tangle in my pocket (in fact, the first tangle has long since retired; I wore it out to the point where the joints just won’t hold together). But now I no longer worry about people—gasp—noticing me stim.

I bounce my foot, crack my knuckles, rub my thumbs between my fingers, massage my face. I even throw in some rocking and finger wiggling on hard days. If I need to cocoon myself out on the sidewalk, I count my steps, watching my feet and avoiding all the cracks. It makes me walk “like a crazy person,” because I have to walk in a disjointed, uneven way to make sure I get the same number of steps for each unit of sidewalk. But I don’t care anymore.

My tolerance to overload is miles higher than it once was. In part because of exposure: I still notice the stimulation, but it takes more to hurt me now. But the other, perhaps larger part is that I don’t fear “what might happen” if someone notices me stimming.

New York does wonders for scopophobia, and my tolerance for social anxiety has increased as well. I welcome self-regulation, and I know that no matter how bad it gets, I can do what I need to help myself. I don’t fear reactions anymore.

A few weeks ago at a party, I needed a bit of re-centering, so I started pacing back and forth across the room.

A stranger asked, “What are you doing?”

I said, “Pacing.”

He said, “Why?”

I answered, “Because it feels good.”

Before moving to the city I would stim for self-regulation, but I saved that for private. I waited for the safety of a bathroom, or my car to flap, wiggle, and screech. I primarily used to stim for fun. But the city has given me a gift. Tough love, in a way. Now I’m That Girl on the subway, massaging my temples and humming to myself, or hopskipping to avoid cracks.

I guess it’s true what they say about New York.

If you can self-regulate here, you can self-regulate anywhere.


  1. Even as a native New Yorker I think the city is a crazy sensory overload. Listening to loud music makes it way worse for me too. Tangles are the best! (I always manage to lose them though) Despite the craziness I still love New York and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.


  2. I’m finding that the older I get, the less I care about what people think of me. I worry more about saying the wrong thing or reacting in a socially unacceptable manner, as I still have a tendency to do that. As for the rest, I look at it as practice for my “eccentric old lady” phase to come. 🙂


  3. Your post is very apt for me and resonates, as I was born in London, UK. Being an Aspie that has severe sensory issues, for large parts of my life this has been very hard indeed. In my early twenties it was truly a living hell, as I had undiagnosed autism and was under mental health services, stuck in social housing and I had no insight into my executive dysfunction or sensory processing problems, only that I was different from everyone else and couldn’t cope with certain things. My life was completely restricted to only a few miserable activities. It was really, really awful.

    I think that to cope with this unknown cruel handicap, I just decided I was very different, end of story. This did me damage in the long-term, as I have had to re-assess the ways in which I am not at all different from other humans. But I know about my autism now, so now I know why it was so horrible and why things were the way they were, but I still suffer from severe PTSD from that period of my life.

    I am actually still in London, because I had to be for social structures that I needed, and though things are far better for me now than they were then, I do still aim to live in a small town or village as my life’s ambition. Once I get there, I will never live here again !!

    But, yes- I have my compensatory strategies as well. Thanks for sharing yours.


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