Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive woman writes in a journal

7 Things That Happen to Highly Sensitive People When They’re Overwhelmed

Everything from being overworked to having too many post-work commitments can make HSPs overwhelmed.

One of the signature traits of being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is having a sensitive nervous system that’s prone to overstimulation. There are many things can overstimulate us HSPs, whether it’s having too much to do at once, being in a chaotic environment, or not having enough downtime to recharge. When we’re consistently taking in too much stimulation, it’s inevitable that we’ll reach a state of overwhelm if we don’t take a step back.

What happens when we’re overwhelmed?

Well, it might be slightly different for each of us. And, sometimes, it can even show up in sneaky ways (check out the 7th item on this list!). Since feeling overwhelmed manifests differently for each of us, I think it’s important we’re able to identify when we’re feeling overwhelmed so we can take action to care for ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll likely feel one — or some — of the ways below. 

7 Things That Happen to Highly Sensitive People When They’re Overwhelmed

1. They feel like shutting down and shutting out the world.

Have you ever been so overwhelmed that you can’t even fathom doing one more thing? Sometimes we can get to the place where we’re so stressed out, the only thing that’s left to do is shut out the world because we simply can’t take it anymore.

Let me set the stage for you here. Imagine it’s Wednesday morning and you’ve already had a busy week. On top of that, you’re tired because you haven’t been sleeping well. You check your calendar for the day and it’s packed — meeting after meeting, barely time for lunch, and you’ve got a project due at 5 p.m. Looking at your day ahead makes your stomach churn.

I can’t do this! you might think. I’m done. This is too much for me.

This is how overwhelm can show up for some of us. In this case, we may actually shut down and take the day off of work. Or, we may continue along with our day anyway, but be completely withdrawn from the people around us.

2. They feel resentful of others — for everything from having too much work to too many post-work commitments.

How does everyone else have so much time? How do they get all of these things done and I can’t? Must be nice to have all of that free time! For me, personally, these are the types of thoughts that flood my mind when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

If we consistently have too much going on and struggle to manage it all, it’s only natural that we may feel resentful of the people around us who appear to be managing it all with ease. We might also find ourselves feeling resentful toward the people we feel are adding more stress to our plates.

In these instances, it’s a good opportunity for us to look at the boundaries we’ve set in our lives and see where we’re overloading ourselves. Remember, it’s our responsibility to manage our energy and how much we’re outputting on a regular basis. If your boss expects you to do too many things in one day — or week — for instance, it’s up to you to say something. After all, you want to deliver your best quality work; it’s not just about quantity. The same goes for out-of-work activities, like your kids’ after-school ones or the fact that it’s your turn to make the family dinner. You have to be realistic about what you can reasonably do, which is where your boundaries come in.

3. They get frustrated, angry, or upset.

As highly sensitive people, we tend to value having time and space to ourselves and love when we can escape into our HSP sanctuary. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, whether it’s due to a packed schedule or someone not respecting our boundaries, we can begin to feel frustrated, angry, or upset.

I know I’m feeling too overwhelmed when I start snapping at my partner or getting annoyed by small things that wouldn’t normally bother me. If I’m feeling stressed out for an extended period of time, and like my needs aren’t being met, it’s only natural that I may end up taking this out on people who don’t deserve it. Sound familiar?

Similar to feeling resentful of others, it’s important that we remember to take responsibility for how we’re outputting our energy. We need to protect it: If we’re consistently doing too much, we need to remember to set those healthy boundaries I mentioned earlier and say “no,” as well as ask for help when we need it.

4. They make mistakes because they aren’t thinking clearly.

When we’re overwhelmed, we tend to feel frantic and chaotic, which can cause us to either move too quickly or to freeze and not know which step to take next. Either way, we have cloudy thinking, and this causes us to overlook details and make mistakes. Even little things can suddenly feel like overwhelmingly big ones.

One evening, after a long day of work, I was feeling overwhelmed. My heart was beating fast and I felt totally ungrounded and frantic. I got in my car to drive home, still in this state, and after about 20 minutes of driving, I realized I was going in the completely wrong direction! My mind was so flooded with stress and overwhelm, I hadn’t even been paying attention to where I was going.

If we find ourselves feeling so overwhelmed that we can’t even think clearly, it’s important to find a grounding practice — like deep breathing or meditation — that helps us return to a neutral, relaxed state. As highly sensitive people, our nervous systems absolutely require this from us.

5. They begin to doubt their abilities (even in things that come naturally to them).

If there’s one rule of thumb I’d love to share with my fellow HSPs, it’s to not compare yourself to non-HSPs. It’s like comparing apples to oranges: both are wonderful, but they’re simply different.

When highly sensitive people find themselves continually getting overwhelmed, it can be disheartening. We may begin to doubt our abilities, especially if we compare ourselves to the people around us who seem to be managing everything just fine.

Several years ago, while working in an intense corporate environment, I found myself wallowing in self-doubt because I couldn’t deal with the stressful work as confidently as my colleagues. I often felt agitated and disjointed when I had a busy workload, which made me feel like I was weak compared to them.

As I learned about my sensitive nature over time, I recognized that I just needed to incorporate more calming, grounding practices into my life in order to better manage stressful situations. It wasn’t that I was incapable; it was just that I needed to approach it differently than non-HSPs. And coping strategies may vary from one HSP to another, too. While I like to practice meditation, you may prefer to go for mindful walks or practice yoga.

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6. They lose sleep because they can’t shut their mind off.

Sleep is super important for highly sensitive people. It’s the time that we can finally rest our overstimulated, active minds and restore for another day. HSPs often need more sleep than non-HSPs because we’re simply taking in more data each day, which causes us to feel more exhausted after a long day.

When HSPs are overwhelmed, it’s common for us to have trouble shutting our minds off at the end of the day, which, of course, affects our sleep. Whether we’re struggling to fall asleep because we can’t stop thinking — or we’re waking up in the middle of the night feeling anxious — our sleep can suffer when we’re too overwhelmed.

If this is the way overwhelm manifests for you, it’s important to practice good sleep hygiene. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends removing electronics from the bedroom, as well as going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. I’d also highly suggest doing a relaxing meditation before bed to slow down your mind in preparation for rest. One of my favorite meditations is the Empath Meditation on the Insight Timer App because it helps you release energy and overwhelm from the day. Yoga Nidra meditations, also known as “yogic sleep,” are also deeply relaxing before bedtime. 

7. They experience physical reactions and may even get sick.

Our bodies and minds are connected and intertwined — what we think about affects our physical body. Think back to the times you’ve felt anxious or stressed. Did your shoulders get tense? Did your stomach hurt? This is an example of the mind-body connection, and it’s powerful.

If we’re stuck in a state of overwhelm for too long, our cortisol levels spike. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone and it works with certain parts of our brain to control motivation, mood, and fear. However, when our cortisol is spiked for too long, it can cause illness within our bodies. According to WebMD, consistently high cortisol levels can result in anxiety, depression, heart disease, problems with digestion, and weight gain.

In other words, when we’re caught in a loop of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm for too long, we’re not only upsetting our minds, but our bodies, too.

We Simply Need to Know How to Nurture Ourselves

Knowing how sensitive we are to our environments, it’s essential for us HSPs to have some sort of relaxation practice in our lives so we can navigate moments of overwhelm with greater ease.

Unless you’re living your life meditating on a hill away from the rest of the world, there’s no way to completely avoid stressful, overwhelming situations. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that caters to non-sensitive people. So, at times, life is going to feel chaotic, stressful, and much too loud.

The good news is, there are helpful practices — like meditation, grounding, and exercise (even going for a short walk!) — that can support us during those challenging times. If you notice yourself displaying signs of overwhelm, it’s crucial to check in with yourself to determine which supportive practice will help you the most. (You can try a few and then revisit your favorites!) 

Although getting overwhelmed is a natural part of being an HSP, it doesn’t have to take over our lives. It just requires a little extra self-care and self-love for us to truly thrive.

If this article helped you, check out the author, Alissa Boyer’s spiritual growth membership community for HSPs! Click here to learn more.

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