Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person practicing a breathing technique

3 Things I Keep in My ‘HSP Mental Health Toolbox’

Since highly sensitive people get overstimulated easily, it’s important to have a “mental health toolbox” at the ready, your go-to “tools” for when the going gets tough.

I don’t know about you, but I hit my emotional saturation point in this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic a long time ago. Probably in June 2020, when I was jobless. Then a new job came along, in the countryside far from my urban life, where I wasn’t hearing much about political jousts and COVID-19 daily tallies. I was too busy working in the field, and a good Wi-Fi connection was hard to find, which came as a relief. Surrounded by nature, I started feeling more human, a feeling that had been missing from my life for quite a few months prior. That job wasn’t easy: I had to adjust to a new rhythm, new surroundings, new work colleagues — which are all challenges for sensitive people — but the work made sense, and with sense came some peace.

The field job came to an end and life took me, once again, on a roller coaster ride: back in my urban apartment, a relationship came to an end (despite my efforts to stop the derailment), loneliness set in with weeks of isolating following COVID-19 regulations, and I was jobless once again. Christmas was spent far from home, surfing the net with its constant swirling of highly emotionally charged content.

For a non-HSP, this avalanche of changes would already have been hard to deal with. Being an HSP, I felt past the point of overwhelm. Overwhelmed squared. How on earth could I even begin to process what had happened in the past year, caught between four pasty-white urban walls?  Emotionally and psychologically, I couldn’t process anything new. Thoughts would freeze mid-way as they were beginning to form in my brain, and each day there was this complete confusion as to what problem I should tackle and unravel first.

Introducing My HSP Health Toolbox

This past year+ has been rough for a lot of people, and it’s not over yet. HSPs tend to feel things more intensely, and detect minute details and incoherences. For those of you out there that are experiencing constant information bombardment — combined with either significant life changes or the wear and tear of a disrupted life routine — I hear you. If my friends, family, and my support network hadn’t been there to talk things through on a regular basis with me, and if I hadn’t had a safe and quiet place to live, I’d be in a really bad place right now. All that external help was crucial, but I also needed to help myself, big time, in order to keep my head above water.

When mega overwhelm hits, how can we, as sensitive types, bring our bodies below that overwhelm threshold, to a place where there isn’t so much brain fog, pressure, and fatigue happening? Wherein we’re not constantly feeling mentally and emotionally flooded?

So what do I do? I open my HSP Health Toolbox, which, thankfully, I’d been filling up well before the pandemic, job loss, and heartbreak hit. Having tools to self-regulate — without the use of medication — is very empowering. (However, medication is sometimes necessary if overwhelm turns into crippling anxiety or depression over several weeks. You need to go see a professional then.) 

But if you want to give free and natural self-healing techniques a try to reduce overwhelm and overstimulation (especially if your wallet can’t handle getting professional care at the moment), here are some techniques that have been the most useful to me these past months so I can stay on top of my mental health as much as possible. They’ve helped me be more clear and functional in my daily activities. Note that I’m not a doctor, nor a psychologist, nor any sort of registered therapist — just a human doing the best I can.

3 Things I Keep in My HSP Mental Health Toolbox

1. The Wim Hof Method breathing technique

The Wim Hof Method actually has three main parts to it: breathing, cold therapy, and commitment. Since I’m not a fan of cold showers, I just focus on doing beginner breathing exercises and have been doing them consistently for the past few months now. Many free Wim Hof YouTube videos guide you through the cycles of the breathing exercises; plus, they are short (11 minutes for beginners), and are translated into many languages.   

A dear friend of mine introduced me to the Wim Hof method and I can’t thank her enough. The daily breathing exercises have allowed me to significantly lower anxiety immediately after the breathing exercise (temporarily), increase lung capacity (very noticeable and durable change), and, most importantly, have helped me with ongoing insomnia issues I’ve been battling for years. 

Subjectively, I can tell you I’ve had 90 percent success with reducing my sense of overwhelm almost immediately after doing these breathing exercises. For difficulty sleeping, or getting back to sleep, the Wim Hof breathing exercises have relaxed me enough to fall sound asleep within minutes when I first hit the hay, and put me back to sleep very quickly if I wake up in the middle of the night. (Overwhelm is aggravated by lack of restorative sleep, and highly sensitive people need more sleep than others.) One of Wim Hof’s famous lines is, ‘’Breathe, M***** F*****!’’. I’d like to alter that a bit and say to HSPs out there, and as a reminder to myself, ‘’Sleep, M***** F*****!’’

Note: Never do the Wim Hof breathing exercises while driving or when in an unsafe environment. They must only be done sitting or lying down, and never forced. I chose not to do the daily cold showers, which are part of the complete Wim Hof Method, because I loathe cold showers. I’d rather stand outside in the middle of the snowy winter in shorts and a tank top for 30-60 seconds a day rather than take a cold shower. Maybe I’ll eventually work my way to tepid, then cold showers, but right now my nervous system is too overstimulated to deal with cold water. 

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2. Emotional Freedom Technique (also known as Tapping)

The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), created by Gary Craig in the 1990s, stimulates acupuncture points that have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, usually combined with spoken sentences. For example, you might tap a pressure point, like the beginning of your collarbone, while saying, “Even though I am [afraid], I deeply and completely accept myself.” Overall, EFT can lower stress and install new thought patterns in the brain. 

There’s a broad range of approaches in EFT, which makes it such an interesting and powerful tool to work with. Some websites will discredit this emerging therapy, due to too few scientific studies or inconsistent results, placing it under the placebo effect. But new studies out of Australia might be bringing more scientific validity to EFT (see Dr. Peta Stapleton’s TEDTalk). 

For me, EFT has produced good results when it comes to lowering my sense of overwhelm and anxiety. Many EFT practitioners have their tapping sequences on YouTube for free, to help with a variety of life ‘’road-blocks,’’ and some therapists have their clients do it, too.

All you do is follow their lead. The beauty of EFT is that the tapping rounds can be done without saying a word — the important thing is for you to stay connected to how you feel while you’re doing the tapping. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or you can’t even put in words how you’re feeling, it is perfectly okay to do tapping which focuses on this ‘’bad’’ or ‘’stuck’’ feeling without elaborating. Often one or two rounds of tapping are enough to feel a decrease in stress.

I suggest you do your tapping in a private place that feels safe for you. If you’re in a house full of people and you’re having a “too much information, can’t deal’’ moment, a well-timed bathroom break or a trip to the basement to do some laundry could give you the privacy needed to do a few rounds of silent tapping and bring the overwhelm down a few notches.   

If you need some guidance, there are scripted EFT YouTube videos specifically for overwhelm. Chances are, you can find an EFT practitioner with a personality and script that feels right for you. As an HSP, you might be bothered by small details while watching videos: if the tone of the voice doesn’t suit you, if there’s an annoying clicking in the background, if something’s not quite right, don’t force it. Change videos, change scripts, or learn the tapping points and just sit by yourself and experiment. The beauty with EFT is that Gary Craig makes it a point to encourage people to be creative with EFT and try it in various ways. The main thing is that it brings you relief. It has brought a lot of relief to me.

3. Sun technique: 30 minutes of daily, actual sun exposure

Okay, this isn’t really a technique because it’s such a natural thing to do! Rather, it was a natural thing before the pandemic came along (frankly, it was natural before computers and video games came along, but that’s another story). Retraining myself to be human and soak up some sun outdoors has been a game changer for me. The simplest things can be the most profound. The confinement has clearly shown the difference in my thought process if I had my minimum dose of sun exposure each day or not, even if the weather’s overcast.

I have been supplementing with vitamin D pills, but I’ve found that supplements don’t have the same effect as poking my head outside for a half-hour each day. I found 30 minutes per day to be sufficient in our Northern winter climate, but this will vary from person to person. Of course, use sun precautions and sunscreen that lets some sunlight enter your body safely. UVB sun rays play the essential role of triggering chemical reactions needed for your body to produce its own vitamin D, which is the best vitamin D you can get. UVB rays can’t reach your body through most glass, so having a window between you and the sun doesn’t work. You have to go outdoors! Plus, sensitive people love nature anyway!

My head feels less “full” and “weighed down’’ with sun-produced vitality. I find myself more capable of sorting out which thoughts are important, which are less important, and start doing a thought cleanup process naturally. Most importantly, my overstimulated sensitive senses calm down, which is the whole idea.

As I take steps to get my nutrition and movement routine back on track, now that my overwhelm has resorbed, I’m going to do my best — life permitting — to keep these natural stress-reduction techniques in my daily self-care routine. Hopefully, they can help my fellow HSPs out there, too. Life is a bumpy, non-linear path — and an informed HSP with solid coping techniques can make the ride less chaotic. You’ll see.

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