Highly Sensitive Refuge
An overstimulated highly sensitive person

13 Signs You Are Overstimulated

When you’re overstimulated, all noises get to you, from the hum of the air conditioner to the small talk around you.

About five years ago, I was the president of a large national nonprofit. As part of the volunteer gig, I traveled around the country, networked, attended conferences, ran board meetings, gave speeches, shook hands, and kissed babies. Well, I didn’t really kiss babies, but you get the idea. 

I loved the role and felt like I served the organization well but, to this day, I’m surprised I pulled it off. Why? Because at the end of each meeting, event, or activity-filled day, I was physically and emotionally drained. I wanted to hide in my hotel room and never come out, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to “rinse and repeat” on cue. 

At the time, I thought that meant I wasn’t up to the task of being president. Now that I know I am a highly sensitive person (HSP), I realize that I experience things a bit differently than other people. For an HSP, my reaction was completely normal and acceptable. I was overstimulated and needed time alone to quiet my overloaded nervous system. If I had to do it over again, I would schedule more downtime and do less networking, so I’d have more energy to power through. 

HSPs Have a More Intense Reaction to External Stimuli 

As an HSP, I know I’m not alone. HSPs make up one fifth of the population, or more. In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron writes that everyone has a unique state of arousal or stimulation. This includes their reactions to different sensations, like sight, sound, smell, touch, pain, and taste, to name a few. Because HSPs are more intuitive and sense subtleties others might miss, our reactions to external stimuli are often more intense: It’s like we have secret powers. For example, one person might love all the sights, sounds, flavors, and activities found at a state fair, whereas another can’t handle the large crowds, bright lights, or overpowering smells. 

Not sure if you suffer from overstimulation? See if you relate to these signs.

13 Signs You Are Overstimulated 

1. Music is not just “loud” — it pulsates through you.

Most of us probably enjoy listening to music… on our watch. But when we hear it coming from somewhere else, our HSP senses go into overdrive. For instance, your next door neighbor’s stereo is so loud you can practically feel the base pulsating through your walls (and veins). You try headphones and ear plugs, but you can still “feel” the music.

2. You avoid social gatherings.

If you find that you’re avoiding parties and other large gatherings because you become overwhelmed, which is common among HSPs, it may be because you easily become overstimulated. All the loud voices and laughing, hugging and touching, uncomfortable social situations — and you can’t control any of them. If you do attend such events, you tend to leave early, or you can be found in a quiet corner by yourself.

You’re staying in so much, in fact, that your friends keep asking why you don’t come out to play and go out more. They might even think you are avoiding them specifically, or that you’re boring. Nope, just setting boundaries. Although it’s tough for many HSPs to set boundaries, it’s necessary for self-care, especially when it comes to getting the alone time you need to recharge.

3. It’s hard to multitask when it comes to things like listening to multiple conversations at once.

You find it challenging to listen to more than one thing simultaneously, like trying to have a conversation with someone while watching TV. I just can’t, and it’s maddening to even try! The same goes for multiple people speaking at one time. It gets overwhelming!

4. You change your outfit several times since you’re very sensitive to fabrics.

Do you change your outfit half a dozen times in the morning, because some fabrics are itchy or uncomfortable? If you don’t, you know you’ll be miserable all day. This is a big one for me. During the pandemic, when I wore a mask everywhere, I found that some masks are soft and smooth, while others are itchy, even after washing. Now before I buy masks online, I first check the fabric type.

5. Sleep with the TV on? No way! 

You can’t fall asleep with the TV on, because the light is too bright, and the sound is too loud at any level. My ex-husband used to watch TV with headphones at night, but the light bothered me. I tried a sleep mask, but having the mask too close to my face was irritating, too. (Ironic now that we’re wearing masks all the time!)

6. You need white noise to help you fall asleep.

Speaking of sleep, if you’re an HSP, you probably need white noise to block out all sound to fall asleep. And sleep is important for highly sensitive people because of our exhausted, overstimulated senses. Thank goodness for Spotify and Alexa — they have a countless number of white noise selections!

7. Temperatures really affect you.

HSPs also feel temperatures more so than others. When you’re hot, you’re really hot. When you’re cold, you’re really cold. I always dress in layers, so I can adjust to my comfort level accordingly. 

8. You avoid shops that are heavily scented.

You avoid shops that are heavily scented, including the department store fragrance counter, bath and body stores, and candle shops. Being sensitive to smells like this could be a sign of chemical sensitivity, which is common for HSPs. When I was in my early 20s, I worked in a perfume store, and I loved it. Now, however, I can’t even wear perfume or use scented anything, like lotion or shampoo.

9. You can’t watch anything gory or violent.

You find true crime shows and horror flicks too gory, loud, and gruesome to watch. This is because your highly sensitive soul would prefer something that won’t overstimulate your senses as much, like feel-good shows.

10. You prefer more low-key social activities.

When it comes to socializing, you prefer quiet game nights with close friends to meeting at a noisy bar for drinks after work. The same goes for networking: You’d rather meet someone one-on-one and really connect with them versus go to a networking event and have a bunch of eclipsed conversations.   

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11. You loathe your office’s open-space floor plan. (Where’s the peace and quiet?)

You can’t concentrate when lights are too bright, noises are too intrusive, or you are interrupted frequently. Even though your company’s open-space floor plan is supposed to boost productivity and foster relationships, as an HSP, it distracts you, because you can see and hear everything

Instead, you need quiet to focus when multitasking. For example, I need complete quiet when I’m writing. I shut off my email, close down my social platforms, and put my phone on Do Not Disturb mode.

And, of course, you can smell the broccoli your colleague just steamed in the microwave. Blech! (Let’s hope we can all keep working from home.) 

12. Noises really rattle you, from background noise to ringing phones to fireworks.

No matter what the noise is — background noise (is that an air conditioner?), your cell phone ringing, or fireworks — noises really rattle you… especially when they’re unexpected. Similarly, you are annoyed by the noise on an airplane and public transportation — people chatting, babies crying, the sound of the engines (which are kind of important). They’re just too much for your highly sensitive soul.

Instead, you crave a peaceful environment. You sometimes even turn off the music or podcast in your car because you need, and relish, the sound of silence.

13. You need a quiet, comfortable space to recharge (often).

Not only do you want to recharge and reset in a quiet, comfortable space, but you need to. It’s the number one way for us HSPs to regain energy and to prevent the dreaded HSP hangover. Setting up an HSP sanctuary in your home can really help — whether it’s a spare room or corner of a room to call your own.

Ways to Quiet the Inner Chaos 

HSPs get overloaded when our nervous systems are overreacting to external stimuli. But, luckily, there are some ways that’ll help you hit the reset button.

  • Know your triggers. Write down the things that set you off (like any of the above), and brainstorm solutions. This way, when you are overstimulated, you’ll be prepared. For example, if the lights and noise in a grocery store are too much for you, you can wear sunglasses and noise-cancelling headphones. 
  • Build self-care into every day. HSP or not, we all need self-care. HSPs, though, are more likely to thrive when they’ve taken some time for themselves through exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, being creative, or some other activity that soothes your sensitive soul.
  • Create home and work environments that maximize comfort and minimize overstimulation. I recently got Smart Bulbs for all my lamps. I can turn the lights up or down, depending on my mood. I also surround myself with things that make me happy: pictures of my family, fun artwork, a slinky, and a Magic 8-Ball. I’m not even kidding. Sometimes you need to be kind to your inner child and be playful.
  • Accept your propensity for overstimulation. Sometimes fighting what we can’t change magnifies our discomfort. For example, the more I focus on my neighbor’s music, the more it annoys me. So I ended up going into a different room in my house and turned on the TV, so I couldn’t hear or feel the music anymore. 

While our highly sensitive selves get overstimulated more easily, luckily we can find ways to manage it. The most important thing to do is whatever works best for you.

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