11 Ways to Cope When You’re Overwhelmed

An overwhelmed highly sensitive person

Knowing what triggers you — and having a plan for when you find yourself in a stressful situation — can help you feel less overwhelmed.

I know you, highly sensitive people (HSPs). I see you. I’ve been one of you my entire life. Every year, my school goal would be not to cry in front of the entire class. Guess what? I never made it.  

Recently, a friend of mine took a job at my former workplace. “Oh, you know Amy?” my old workmates said. “Does she still cry all the time?” I’ve been known to cry heavily and for hours just from a coworker’s passing remark. Yes, that’s right — one random sentence can set off a torrent of frustrated tears. (We sensitive types aren’t great with criticism.) And I’m now 45 years old. (I’ve learned that being an HSP doesn’t discriminate when it comes to age; we come in all kinds of ages.)   

I finally decided to identify as an HSP — and do more research about it — when I developed a sensitivity-related injury. When I asked the doctor what could have caused it, she said, “Something set you off.” I’ll say! You see, HSPs feel the world’s pain more than others. Stressors may include: an isolating and frightening pandemic, a contentious election, and racial and social injustice. So these unhappy events — combined with work pressure — landed me on a doctor’s exam table.

An HSP’s Day-To-Day Environment Can Impact Their Mental (& Physical) State 

My job surrounds me with funny, but loud, large, opinionated coworkers. I’m a frail 45-year-old who startles easily and craves a quiet and serious workplace. Meetings are equal parts entertaining and frightening — crowded into a small room and literally touching elbow-to-elbow sends my nervous system into overdrive. It’s a lot to take in, and very overstimulating. My small voice frustrated me to the point of physical injury. I developed excruciating, unexplainable, debilitating pelvic pain. There was no other explanation than stress.

Since I still need to make a living, I need ways to cope. Below is what I learned from my experience. Here’s hoping for a calmer, more hopeful, and healthier existence for you, too!

11 Ways to Cope When You’re Overwhelmed

1. Let go of others’ expectations of you, as well as your own.

Try your best to let go of expectations (yours and society’s), others’ opinions of you, and of the need to explain yourself. I recently learned I don’t have to be the office homecoming queen, beloved by all. I don’t need to engage in every controversy, every conversation, every piece of gossip. If I try, I absorb too much and I get mentally and emotionally flooded.

Also let go of the idea that you have to be everyone’s best friend, of the pressures to be “popular,” and the need to fold yourself into what everyone else is doing. It’s okay to hole up in your HSP sanctuary and read books on Friday nights instead of attending rock concerts. Let go of the need to educate everyone on your experience, too — it’s not your job, and you’ll only exhaust yourself.

2. Know your triggers, such as a certain coworker’s critical comments.

Identifying what “sets you off” may keep you out of the doctor’s office! Precise self-awareness of your specific triggers will help you pivot, avoid, and/or more effectively handle them. Know that a flare-up (tears, upset stomach, and so forth) might occur if you choose to engage with your trigger. Identify the trigger — like a contentious coworker — and choose neutrality. An attitude of observation, curiosity, and detachment will go a long way toward a productive reaction. 

3. Create a coping process, or plan, for your triggers.

Once you figure out what bothers you (see #2), it’s important to create a coping plan. For example, I struggle with strong smells — lingering cooking smells can keep me awake at night. So now whenever we create a strong smell (oil spilled in the oven, fried onions, garlic, you get the drift) we now open the windows for 10 minutes (yes, even in the winter!) as a matter of course. Since HSPs tend to suffer from chemical sensitivity, our noses are sensitive to all kinds of smells, chemicals or not! Plus, fresh air goes a long way toward restful sleep (which HSPs need more of anyway from all the stimulation we experience all day). 

For us HSPs, a simple event like a work birthday party may be both desirable and overwhelming. So create a plan to spend a certain amount of time there, to seek out calming people while there, eat healthy food, and so on. Maybe you have an overwhelming coworker —  you’re not glued to your chair (this isn’t second grade!) — so make a plan to find a quiet room for a few minutes or leave the building to have a look at the sky. Have the plan at the ready: “When abc happens, my coping process is to xyz.”

4. Take care of your skin and body.

Do everything you can to create comfort in your life, especially around areas that you can control. Do you have a worrisome toothache? Make an appointment with a dentist so that bodily pain does not add to an already overworked nervous system. Have clean clothes ironed and laid out to avoid rushing and increased anxiety in the morning. At night, take care of your body. The last thing you need is dry, itchy skin keeping you awake. Also be mindful of your environment, like in your bedroom: Wash your sheets weekly to ensure you aren’t sleeping in a tangled, greasy mess. By prioritizing rest and renewal, you’ll be better able to take on the stresses of the day.

5. Have a mantra ready to recite when you need it.

One of my biggest sources of frustration (and subsequent tears) is being misunderstood. People meet the 45-year-old me and do not know my past struggles. Flip comments reveal assumptions that are simply not true, and hurtful. It isn’t possible to explain my entire life to a virtual stranger (i.e., a new coworker), which leaves me frustrated and upset. 

One source of solace is others’ experiences, and, in particular, mantras. My favorite is, “I contain multitudes,” by Walt Whitman. It is a reminder that I’m more complex than meets the eye. Find inspiring quotes and have them ready to say in order to remind yourself that your sensitivity is simply a biological reaction to a sometimes jarring and unempathetic world.

6. Seek comforting solutions to help you wind down each day.

Each day, do something calming for your body and soul. HSPs find repetition soothing, like taking a walk (nature is best, but a treadmill will do!). Create a cozy vibe while knitting to a cracking fireplace (courtesy of YouTube). Practice mindfulness and visit a seaside cafe in your mind (also courtesy of YouTube). Delve into an old favorite book or your comfort show (reruns are especially calming to HSPs because there are no surprises; we know what’s going to happen). A warm bath or shower can really rinse off the day, too (pun intended). Follow all this up with fuzzy (but comfy!) socks and a soft robe and… voilà!

7. Ask for help (even if you don’t want to).

Being told you’re “too sensitive” gives me pause. Is it a license/excuse for someone to mistreat you? Ask yourself: Do you need to set boundaries and speak up? Is someone gaslighting you? Yes, if someone is trying to make you believe something about yourself you know not to be true (i.e., you’re “overreacting”) — when the truth is, they are being rude/selfish/mean. Solution: Ask for help. Meet with a trusted friend or loved one. A third-party ally will help you sort through the situation and the emotions.

8. Employ a relationship ladder: put people on different “rungs” depending on how close you are (or are not). 

I like to think that everyone is equal — and they are, as humans. But as relations of yours, they are not. Envision a ladder. Mentally placing people on different relationship “rungs” allows you to categorize how important their opinion is to you. In your estimation, dropping those who do not have your best interests at heart down into a less-important category — i.e., rung — will diminish the power they have over your emotions and your happiness. This way, an offhanded comment by someone who does not know or love you will not affect your inner peace.

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9. Limit people’s access to you and don’t ruminate.

We often feel pressure to do things and talk to people who do not add to our well-being, who negatively affect us with careless comments. Yet we still seek their company, we get hurt, and then we ruminate for hours, days, and years. Flip the narrative. Instead of striving to “fit in,” go along with the crowd and limit others’ access to you. In this way, you take back the power. Repeat this in your mind as you walk away from those who do not wish you well: “Access to me is limited and not available 24/7. I control it; others don’t.” 

10. Identify — and lean on — your inner circle, those closest to you.

The writer Toni Morrison once had to endure some tough working conditions. Upon relaying them to her father, he had some sage advice: “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.” The same adage can be applied to school, or to a group of friends or activities you no longer relate to. Where are your inner circle of people? Where are you most welcomed, most loved, most comfortable? Identify these places and people and embrace them.

11. Use timing to your advantage and go places when they’re least crowded.

Trader Joe’s is one of my favorite stores, yet notoriously packed. To circumvent any overwhelm, I simply time my visits. I get there as the store opens or I do not go at all. The same goes for our State Fair. Many of my friends do not go because “it’s too crowded”… but not if you go very early or very late! That way, parking is a cinch, and the buildings and walkways are uncrowded. I’ll also go more than one day (only for half-days), in order to see everything yet avoid the crowds. Driving past the long lines at the entrance gates, having already had my fun, is a terrific feeling. So no matter what it is, use timing to your advantage. I bet it’ll reduce your sense of overwhelm!

Fellow HSP, please realize you are not alone. I’m working on these steps, too; we highly sensitive types will constantly be working on regulating our nervous systems toward a greater state of calm — and it is possible. Come back to this website, read (and reread) the articles, and connect with other HSPs online and in the comment section below pieces. Sure, we can do this alone — but together is even better. In any case, here’s to brighter days ahead for us all!

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