If you’ve been to a large convention before, you’ve probably had an experience like this:
You’re midway through the weekend. You’ve seen some great panels, explored the expo hall, and played some cool games. But now, you’re getting more irritable. That once reasonable schedule now seems impossible to keep up with. And your third coffee or energy drink doesn’t seem to be helping.
Conventions are one of the most exciting parts of geek culture. But conventions also mean crowds, noise, and busy schedules. This intensity can quickly overwhelm even the most experienced attendee.
What Does It Mean To Be (Psychologically) Overwhelmed?
Psychological overwhelm is caused by making demands on our brain greater than the resources available to it. If you’re familiar with Spoon Theory, think of it as a situation where you’re trying to use more spoons than you have available.
Common situations that can overwhelm our brains include:
- Intense emotions and/or stress. These can be both positive (excitement, joy) and negative emotions (disappointment, frustration). Big events are known to cause us all sorts of intense emotions. Our brains work hard to manage these and everyone has a limit.
- Heightened physical demands without enough rest. Being on our feet all day without enough sleep or food is one example of this. If we’re demanding too much of our bodies with too few resources, we’re also taking away resources our brains use to help us manage stress.
- Too much sensory stimulation. Exhibit halls with lots of noise, people, and visual stimulation is one example of this. Just like emotions, every brain has a limit on how much of this it can handle before it needs to rest.
- Not enough transition time between events. Going from panel to panel without a break or trying to fit in every possible table of your favorite TTRPG are ways this can happen at cons. Our brains need time to rest and shift gears between activities.
Preventing Psychological Overwhelm
Conventions are a great example of “eustress”. Eustress is the expected and healthy levels of stress caused by an event. For instance, it’s normal to feel some amount of stress before taking a test, even if we’ve prepared for it and are feeling confident. That stress we felt helped us know the test was important and to get ready for it ahead of time. Conventions also come with an expected and healthy amount of stress.
Remember how being overwhelmed is a mismatch between demands on our brain and the available resources? Just like studying for a test, we can avoid this by building up our resources ahead of time. Here are a few common strategies:
- Sleep. Get plenty of rest before the event and try to get at least the minimum recommended amount of sleep for your age range, which the CDC outlines here. Don’t use excess caffeine to make up for lost sleep, as this can lead to harder crashes later.
- Food & Water. Brains need hydration and fuel to be at their best. Pack healthy snacks and a water bottle to carry with you. Set reminders on your phone or schedule times in your day to make sure you eat and hydrate.
- Medications. While fun, conventions are also a lot of work: you have to keep a schedule, complete timed activities, and interact with new people. If you have a medication you wouldn’t skip on a work day, consider not skipping it for a convention day. Set an alarm or timer on your phone to make sure you don’t forget.
- Sensory Tools. Everyone has a sensory input limit, so it’s helpful to bring tools to help with this. These can include concert earplugs, noise canceling headphones, stimming tools like fidget cubes, or a downloaded playlist of your favorite music to listen to.
- Schedules. Most cons publish their schedule in advance. Look it over ahead of time and make a plan for each day that includes breaks, meals, free time to decompress, and time for sleep. Avoid scheduling yourself for too many back-to-back events.
- Buddy System. If you’re going with someone you trust, talk ahead of time about ways you can help each other manage overwhelm. This can be as simple as holding each other accountable for getting plenty of sleep or as complicated as having a plan to help each other if you become overwhelmed.
Recognizing We’re Overwhelmed
Sometimes the schedule changes at the last minute. Maybe you’ve discovered our new favorite board game and are going all-in. Or you’re at an event for the first time and underestimated how demanding it is. Even with lots of preparation, we may still find ourselves overwhelmed.
But how do we know? Here are some common signs of being overwhelmed:
- Increased irritability.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Trouble making decisions, AKA “Decision Paralysis”.
- Increased heart rate and shallow breathing.
- Feelings of dread about an event you were excited about before.
- Increased difficulty with social situations.
Everyone handles stress differently! If you’re using the buddy system strategy, make sure to let your buddy know what overwhelm looks like for you. This helps you both know when to step in to help each other at the event.
If you find yourself experiencing overwhelm, that’s ok! This is your brain telling you it doesn’t have enough resources to match demand, and it needs your help to fix this. Here are some possible steps to take when you’re feeling overwhelmed:
- Take A Break In A Low Stimulation Space. This can be a designated low sensory room, your hotel room, a Take This AFK Room (if the convention has one), or even just a quiet corner of the venue.
- Basic Needs Check In. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Short on sleep? Forget your medication? Attend to these needs first. If you’re short on sleep, taking a 30-45 minute nap can help you feel more rested.
- Self-Soothe. Do anything that helps you feel calm and safe. Listen to some music, draw, use a fidget toy, do stretching or breathing exercises, or chill with a friend. Whatever it is that helps you to find that sense of calm.
- Check Your Schedule. You might need to make changes to better manage the demands of the event. No one can see everything at a convention, and it’s okay to miss some things.
- Take Your Time. Take as long as you need to rest before returning to the event.
Feeling overwhelmed can be intense, but with some preparation and planning, you can reduce how likely it is to happen to you at a convention and manage it like a pro when it does! Like all skills, this will take practice. Take time after each convention to reflect on what you did well to deal with the stress of the event and what you’d like to do differently for the next one. You’ll be thriving at conventions in no time!
For more convention mental health resources, make sure to check out TakeThis.org.
This article is not a substitute for medical advice or professional counseling. While we at Take This want to provide you with resources, we do not recommend or endorse any particular site, treatment, therapy, or resource. We provide these links at our sole discretion but have not necessarily vetted or reviewed any particular resource. We assume no liability for the use of the information or resources on these sites and encourage you to use your own best judgment when reviewing these resources.
If you live in the US and you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or call/text 988. If you’re outside the US, you can find local crisis lines at Suicide.org. If you’re even debating whether you should call them, you should call them. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline handles all psychological crises, not just suicide.
Brian Kunde (he/him) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over a decade of experience in mental healthcare, youth services, and LGBTQIA+ advocacy in the game industry. He’s most well-known for his time with GaymerX, where he worked to guide their community programming and build their consulting services for game developers. Through his previous consulting work, Brian has helped studios create more inclusive workplace cultures for LGBTQIA+ persons and craft more thoughtful LGBTQIA+ game narratives. He currently works as a private practice therapist in Texas specializing in LGBTQIA+ issues, geek culture and adolescents.
Brian can be found on Twitter here.