When you can’t physically escape an overstimulating environment, you can still create a calming refuge in your mind.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have the ability to detect sensory details that most others cannot, which is an amazing trait and valuable strength. At the same time, it can also lead to another aspect of being an HSP, one that isn’t necessarily so desirable: overstimulation. When our senses are overloaded, the last thing we want is another sound, bright light, or anything, really, entering into our already overwhelmed nervous system.
When a sensitive person is feeling overstimulated by their surroundings, they often seek a quiet place, usually a place of solitude, their very own HSP sanctuary. But a readily available nook to run to and hide in may be a very difficult thing to come by, especially given that many of us might be in the middle of a busy, hectic workday when our sensory overload occurs.
So what can we do? How do we calm and soothe our nervous system when, all around us, it seems like there’s nothing but an enclosing wall of noise and visual stimuli?
One idea is to create a “mind refuge.” Psychologically speaking, there are some practical ways that a highly sensitive person can help themselves even when they’re feeling overwhelmed by the world around them. Some of these involve techniques like mindfulness. Others can be incorporated into your usual everyday routine. The best thing is that they’re relatively easy things to do and don’t require much; most of these can be done anywhere, anytime! Here are five things to do when building a mental HSP sanctuary. Because the more your mind feels at peace, the more you will, too.
5 Ways to Create a Mental HSP Sanctuary
1. Focus on the five senses and choose calming routines for self-care.
Since it’s our senses that are feeling attacked whenever we’re feeling overstimulated, one way to find relief is by catering to our five senses in a way that can get us away from the stimulation.
For example, you might focus your sight on beautiful scenery or a beautiful picture. For the hearing sense, you might have soothing music playing (or maybe your favorite playlist). If you’re able to find one and your circumstances permit, attending to your sense of touch by wrapping yourself in a cozy, warm blanket might be helpful. (You may also want to explore weighted blankets, which might help quell anxiety.) You might light a candle of your favorite scent to help relax you. Or you pop a piece of chocolate into your mouth to savor as you treat your taste buds to a sensory pampering.
These little things, either individually or combined, will help give you pleasurable things for your senses to focus on and hopefully draw you away from whatever stimuli are overloading you. Of course, what you do to cater to your senses depends highly on the context of your situation and what you have available, so it may take a little pre-planning and preparation.
At work, you might keep that chocolate stash readily available in your desk. Or, if you’re unable to attend to your senses during the day, you might consider doing something like this as part of a soothing nighttime routine to help you come back down from the day.
2. Practice breathing and visualization exercises.
Breathing is one way to ground yourself in the present moment. All you have to do is take a few deep breaths. Once you’re feeling more centered, you can combine your breathing mindfully with visualization. With each exhalation, imagine pink air flowing out and surrounding you, creating a sense of spaciousness. (It can be any color you want — mine’s pink.) With each breath, you’re building a mental buffer between you and the stimuli by visualizing spaciousness.
This is especially nice for those of us who aren’t able to reach for earbuds or don’t have that soft blanket at hand. You can do this simply by focusing on your thoughts and breath. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be a cone of air either. Another similar image to picture is to imagine your breathing blowing up a bubble, one that envelopes and protects you from overstimulation. Or perhaps you prefer an ocean. Or clouds. Choose whatever image you need to create that barrier between you and the stimuli.
3. Pay attention to your transitions.
Transitions can be especially difficult for an HSP. Paying attention to transitions during your day can be helpful in keeping things regulated. Before starting your workday, spend a few minutes setting your intentions for the day. How would you like to live out your values today? For example, your intention can be something like, “Today, I will show up for myself” or “Today, I will lead with empathy and kindness.”
Another strategy is to create a ritual or mental habit of “signing on” when starting your day. Being intentional about putting yourself in a place (mentally speaking) of drawing a starting line can help you — emotionally — with getting yourself on task or getting yourself to work.
On the other side of this is that you can also create a mental ritual of “signing off,” so that when you come home, you can really be home and present in all the comforts that home should bring. You allow for yourself to be done so that your mind will hopefully not be racing with a million thoughts and responsibilities. This will allow for you to truly enjoy your personal time and escape into your mental HSP bubble.
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4. Check in with yourself and attend to your needs.
Regularly checking in with yourself comes down to practicing mindfulness and intention-setting throughout your day by taking micro-breaks between meetings or tasks. For example, check in with yourself on how your body feels. You can do a quick body scan exercise to note how your body is feeling. This is the practice of checking in with your body from head to toe and relaxing any tension you feel in your body. If you’ve been sitting at your desk a lot, you might get up and do some light stretching or walk around.
You can also check in with yourself emotionally and do some quick journaling. Or perhaps a quick, friendly chat with a friend or coworker will rejuvenate you. And using your breath to center yourself can also be rejuvenating. You can do a square breathing exercise (breathing in to the count of four, holding your breath to the count of four, exhaling to the count of four, then holding to the count of four, and so on) or a 4-7-8 breathing exercise (breathing in to the count of four, holding your breath to the count of seven, and exhaling to the count of eight).
Being intentional about asking yourself how you’re doing throughout your day — and then taking a quick break (by engaging in something that will help you recharge) — will go a long way in helping you avoid being overwhelmed.
5. Engage in things that inspire awe.
Research has found that feeling awe is good for us. Feeling awe helps us become happier and healthier; it can bring about peace of mind. Researcher and Writing Fellow Summer Allen with the Greater Good Science Center lists eight ways that feeling awe is beneficial for us, including improving our mood, increased satisfaction with life, and more connectedness with others. With this in mind, perhaps another strategy is to look for ways to feel awe.
And while you certainly may venture out to a museum to find that masterpiece, seeking out awe doesn’t necessarily have to be a difficult or complicated thing to do. Go out and marvel at the majesty of a nearby tree (HSPs love nature, after all). Look up and watch the clouds float by. Watch the manifestations of creativity come to life as a child plays/creates. It all boils down to allowing yourself to be moved by something — which, let’s face it, comes easily to HSPs. Whatever moments you can grab alone to find and feel awe, take them! They’ll be a perfect part of your mental HSP sanctuary.
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