Recently, my dad chose to celebrate his birthday with a family dinner at a new restaurant in town. I’d never been there, and before I even walked in the door, I began to feel overwhelmed.
First, the parking lot was full, and it took us so long to find a space that we were late for our reservation. For some that may not be a big deal, but personally, being late and feeling hurried leaves me frazzled.
Inside, we were seated at a table in the middle of the restaurant. I ended up sitting facing the open-concept kitchen, where about a dozen chefs were preparing diners’ orders. The space itself — decorated minimalistically with high ceilings, exposed ductwork, and concrete floors — was cold, cavernous, and above all: loud. The kitchen was busy and obviously behind, as harried chefs sweated and buzzed quickly around their stations.
It was the perfect storm for sensory overload, and I was in over my head in mere minutes. Typically, my brain tries to respond to such feelings by feeding into the overwhelming panic, telling me, “This is too much! Stress! Stress!” This kind of overload is not uncommon for highly sensitive people (HSPs) like me — the roughly 20% of the population who process all information more deeply, and can easily get overstimulated.
Enter: mindfulness. Mindfulness is something that actually comes naturally to HSPs since we have a large capacity for awareness, and when we apply that awareness to the present moment — known as “grounding” — we can cultivate an almost immediate sense of calm. When we harness this power, we are able to consciously observe our overstimulation and shake off any anxious or unpleasant feelings in the process. It worked for me during that meal and, while every HSP is different, I believe it can work for others, too.
If you ever find yourself getting overwhelmed, try these five techniques to help soothe your overstimulated brain and reconnect with your body.
5 Grounding Techniques to End Overstimulation
1. Plant your feet on the floor.
This seems obvious, but it can make a huge difference. As an anxiously-minded (and shorter) person, I often find myself sitting with only my toes touching the floor, legs ready to bounce mindlessly at the first signs of incoming stress. For me, grounding quite literally begins with connecting to the ground.
If you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed, place your feet firmly and flatly against the floor. (Keep your shoes on if you’re in a situation where you can’t take them off.) Take a deep breath and picture the bottoms of your feet solidly planted on the ground. If you choose, envision your bare feet planted in soil, rooting down into the earth. Feel the support of the ground coming up to meet you, and remember you can find stability in this connection. The best part is, you don’t have to close your eyes, so you can do this even while the conversation swirls around you.
2. Pay attention to your sense of touch.
This is a great way to bring an overstimulated mind back into your physical body. Maybe you’re in a situation where you can rub your hands together briskly (who knows, maybe the AC is really blasting in there!), or rub your palms on the tops of your thighs a few times under the table. You can even run your fingers over the table or your laptop or papers. Whatever is available in front of you.
Take a moment to really notice all the sensations of touch: notice the textures, temperatures, and shapes you are feeling. Are your palms warm? Is the table smooth? Make a quick mental note of all the things you notice when you focus on one of your senses. This will redirect your mind from what is overstimulating you to the present moment and your physical body.
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3. Feel your breath enter and leave your body.
Breathing is a fundamental aspect of mindfulness and grounding. And, luckily, it’s something most of us can do without much effort at all! Breathing is used in types of meditation as a focal point to allow us to be in the present moment and reconnect with our body, and this connection is one we can make no matter where we are or what we are doing. For highly sensitive people, taking a moment to focus on your breath can help when we are feeling overwhelmed or out of control. It is a good reminder to pause and slow down, and helps calm our nervous system.
A quick and easy breathing exercise is to focus on the feeling of your breath. Feel the breath entering your body as you inhale deeply into your belly and rib cage, counting slowly to five as you do. Pause and then feel the breath slowly leave your body, counting to five again as you empty your lungs. Repeat this a few times, and come back to it whenever you feel like your nervous system needs a reset.
4. Place your hand on your heart.
Pair the breathing technique and physical touch by placing your hand over your heart and taking several breaths. Even if they can’t be particularly deep breaths, or you can’t feel your heartbeat or close your eyes in the moment, mentally remind yourself of your beating heart, nestled securely between your lungs as they take air in and out. Feel the weight of your hand resting protectively on your chest. Your body is supporting you. Take comfort in it.
5. If it really gets to be too much, run to the restroom.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Do you mind if I run to the restroom quickly?” and I didn’t really need to “go.” Instead, what I meant was, “Do you mind if I take a quick break so I can be alone for a few moments?”
Alone time can be incredibly beneficial to HSPs, even if it’s brief. Whatever the situation is, stealing a few moments alone in the bathroom or another semi-private space is a great way to collect your thoughts and emotions before heading back to whatever environment felt so overstimulating. Try letting the cool water from the tap run over your hands and wrists. Do a few sets of the aforementioned breathing exercise. Whisper reassuring words or a mantra — like ”Sensitivity is a strength” — to yourself, or just relish in the solitude of being able to close a door between you and the world, if only temporarily.
As highly sensitive people, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when a moment becomes too loud or too energetic or too “busy.” Mindfulness is an excellent way to bring you back to your present, and grounding techniques take that idea and situate it in the body to a greater extent. Connecting to your body, whether it’s feet to the floor or hand to heart, may not make a big networking event or a family reunion any quieter, but you’ll be the calmer for it.