Exercise Is an Amazing Way to Reduce Overwhelm for HSPs. Here’s Why.

A woman next to an exercise ball

When highly sensitive people feel overwhelmed, the goal is to take care of our bodies, so our bodies take care of us. 

Although I was a child who generally enjoyed school, there was one subject in particular I absolutely loathed: P.E. (otherwise known as Physical Education). And, honestly, memories of P.E. still make me shudder. From the screaming children to being told how to move my body to my blatant lack of hand-eye coordination, P.E. was an unpleasant — and overwhelming — experience, especially as a highly sensitive child. I breathed a huge sigh of relief the day I knew I would never have to endure another P.E. class ever again.

So if someone would have told me that one day I would exercise out of my own free will and actually enjoy it, I would have never believed them. At that time, I conflated exercise to my less-than-ideal experiences in P.E. Since then, exercise has become an integral part of my self-care routine — not just for my physical health, but also for my mental and emotional health, which is crucial for me as a highly sensitive person (HSP). 

As a psychotherapist, I also encourage my clients to incorporate exercise into their mental health toolbox. Indeed, when approached correctly, exercise can be a great remedy for the overwhelm that so often plagues us HSPs.

3 Ways to Redefine, and Reframe, Your Idea of Exercise 

While exercise is amazing for reducing overwhelm, in order to actually be effective, exercise needs to be enjoyable. Otherwise, we run the risk of the opposite happening and creating more overwhelm (which, let’s be honest, no one wants!). For many of us, we need to first redefine what exercise is to help find that enjoyment aspect. 

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1. Exercise is not a P.E. class in which we are told by others what to do with our bodies.

Gone are the days where angry P.E. teachers and intramural sports coaches are yelling at you. Since no one knows yourself better than you do, you are the one who gets to decide what feels right for your body. 

For me, I did not start to really enjoy exercise until I found yoga. Something in my HSP intuition kept calling me to try yoga, which was an essential step in redefining my relationship with exercise. Starting yoga taught me that moving my body could actually feel good — physically, mentally, and emotionally — rather than filling me with dread. 

So, fellow HSP, what form of exercise feels good to you? How do you enjoy moving your body? Do it, then do it more. If not, try something else. The possibilities these days are truly endless!

2. Exercise should never be a way to punish yourself. 

No thanks to the ever-rampant diet culture, many people have a toxic relationship with exercise, in which they view it as a way to control their body’s shape and size. However, exercise should be about self-care, not self-control. It’s for this reason that I often use the term “joyful movement” instead, since it does not carry the same baggage that exercise can. 

Indeed, diet culture tries to make us believe that exercise has to look a certain way in order to “count.” However, the only criteria should be that it makes you feel good — physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you’re someone who legitimately enjoys running or high-intensity workout classes, then great! If you’re someone who prefers gentler movement, like walking or stretching, then also great! The point is to move and feel good in your body. It’s really that simple!

3. When redefining your relationship with exercise, it is vital to listen to your body first and foremost. 

This will not only help you discover what feels good and works for you, but also aid in preventing you from pushing your body beyond its limits, which could result in an injury. Also remember to be easy on yourself during the process, especially if you are recovering from diet culture and disordered eating, or are struggling with your body image. If this is the case for you, then I recommend working with a Health at Every Size professional to assist you. Instead of “no pain, no gain,” the motto should be “no pain, no pain.” The goal is to take care of our bodies, so our bodies take care of us. 

6 Ways Exercise Reduces Overwhelm

Now that we know how to redefine, and reframe, our idea of exercise, let’s get into how it can reduce overwhelm.

1. Exercise gets you out of your head and into your body.

What better way to get out of our anxious, overthinking heads than to get into our bodies? Indeed, moving our bodies helps us become more connected to them, as well as enhance our mind-body connection. 

Research shows that engaging in regular exercise can help improve mindfulness and acceptance while reducing emotional reactivity. Exercise also promotes embodiment — essentially, befriending our bodies — by encouraging us to be present in the home that is our bodies, which can aid in being able to better listen to, and take care of, them. 

This, in turn, helps us to find greater acceptance within ourselves. After all, how are we supposed to find inner peace if we are always warring with our bodies? Getting in touch with our body’s cues and messages is an important step in identifying, and meeting, our body’s needs, which is essential in respecting them.

2. Exercise reduces stress, which means less overwhelm.

Stress and overwhelm go hand-in-hand. And since HSPs are more vulnerable to overwhelm due to our sensory processing sensitivity, we are stressed much of the time, as well! Thankfully, exercise can help with this. 

According to health experts, exercise combats stress by reducing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. And, since stress manifests as physical symptoms, such as bodily tension and headaches, by relaxing our body via physical movement, we can subsequently relax our minds, too.

Further, exercise can reduce stress by replicating our fight-flight-or-freeze response, which is why both this phenomenon, and exercise, increase our heart rate and make us breathe more rapidly. This then helps our bodies practice working through stress, as it were, which makes it easier for us to deal with actual stress when it does occur. 

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3. Exercise promotes good mental health. 

In the movie Legally Blonde, main character Elle Woods defends the innocence of famous workout instructor Brooke Windham by saying: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” 

While this might be an oversimplification, Woods is right in that exercising creates feel-good endorphins that positively contribute to our overall mental health, which is backed by scientific studies! Additional research has found exercise to be an effective way to combat anxiety. 

Further studies also indicate that exercise is as effective in alleviating depression symptoms as antidepressant medication. Disclaimer: This does not mean you should go off your prescription meds — always consult with your primary care provider before making such decisions. 

Finally, exercise has been shown to improve our emotion regulation ability. Researchers believe that some of the reasons exercise is so beneficial to our mental health include the production of endorphins, increased blood flow to areas of our brain responsible for stress control, improved feelings of self-efficacy, and having a positive distraction from other areas of our life. 

4. Exercise provides much-needed predictability and stability. 

If there’s one thing that HSPs despise, it’s the unexpected. Having such a sensitive nervous system, anything new or surprising can throw us HSPs off-balance. This is why predictability is something that many sensitive people appreciate. 

One especially important source of predictability is in our schedule. Indeed, a lot of overwhelm is lifted when we know we can rely on our day-to-day routine, and exercise can be an important part of this. 

Personally, I know that no matter what comes my way later on, I will start my day by taking care of myself and getting in some vital alone time by moving my body. This provides me with a greater sense of stability, which is essential for HSPs in preventing overwhelm. And, as alluded to before, exercise is also a great excuse for HSPs to get in much-needed alone time, which is vital for when combatting overwhelm since others will likely understand, and respect, our time to exercise. 

5. Exercise provides you with the chance to get out into nature.

Exercise is the perfect doorway out into nature. Many of the ways we move our body, like walking, running, biking, or swimming, are perfect for the great outdoors. Nature is also, in and of itself, a great antidote for overwhelm, as research shows that it helps to reduce anxiety, depression, rumination, and difficult emotions that lead to overwhelm. 

I know that I look forward to my morning runs and walks with my dog, not only because it gives me the opportunity to move my body in a way that feels good, but also because I get to start off my day by taking in beautiful scenery outside. 

For this reason, my favorite way to exercise is hiking: I know that I get to spend the day surrounded by gorgeous natural scenery. And when I reach the destination of my hike, as I stop to rest, I take in the stunning landscape and appreciate the effort my body has put in to get me to this point. Due to the beauty and serenity of nature — combined with the benefits of having just engaged in physical movement — it’s at times like this when I feel most at peace.

6. Exercise can help you feel empowered.

In a world where so much is out of our control, it can be easy to get swept off our feet. For HSPs, who need to feel grounded in order to thrive, this can be especially tumultuous, leading us to feel powerless. 

Exercise, on the other hand, can provide the opposite experience of this. When we move our bodies in certain ways, it can bolster our sense of accomplishment, resulting in us feeling more powerful. Whether you finally nail that yoga pose you have been working toward, walk or run a new distance, or reach the top of a mountain, exercising can help you appreciate what your body is capable of rather than what your body looks like. And when we view our bodies as an instrument rather than an ornament, this can help us have a more holistic view of who we are.

HSPs, what are some ways you like to exercise and move your body? What benefits do you notice with movement? Comment down below!

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