Feeling Overwhelmed? Here’s How to Bring Back Your Calm — And Avoid a Spiral

A highly sensitive person calms down

Tensed muscles, racing heartbeat, maybe even tears. How do you stop this biological reaction to overwhelm without denying your emotions?

All highly sensitive people (HSPs) can feel it coming: A spiral. Some of us get crocodile tears during certain moments, but at times some of us (myself included) experience unwanted full-on sobbing breathlessness at the slightest provocation.

Triggered by an unfair reprimand at work or school, observation of an injustice, or becoming embroiled in an argument, the HSP’s body may react with tensed muscles, tears, breathlessness, and a disconnect from logic; a coherent and useful response is not forthcoming. There is nothing wrong with this biological response, but there may be circumstances in which you want to save the tears for later.

It is unfortunate that society often disrespects and dismisses the reactions of HSPs, often viewing sensitivity as a weakness. However, circumventing a spiral will help you stay productive. When I want (and need!) to stay calm and focused in order to advocate for myself, right an injustice, or power through a difficult conversation or situation, I do the following things. Hopefully, they’ll bring calm and peace back to your sensitive soul, too. 

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10 Ways to Bring Back Your Calm as an HSP

1. Acknowledge and accept the overstimulation you’re experiencing. 

The first step to avoiding a breakdown (or minimizing one) is to acknowledge that one is imminent or currently happening. Take a minute to feel your overstimulation: your increasing heart rate or shortness of breath. I actually look at my fitness tracker on my wrist to see if my heart rate is raised; if it is, I know that I need to take steps to calm down. Acknowledging your strained, raised voice or tight chest is the first step to either avoiding a spiral completely or minimizing oncoming tears. Also, acknowledging the situation as one of your triggers may help you stay in the moment — like, oh yeah, here comes that contentious coworker, here’s the loud school bully, or there’s the neighbor’s startling dog barking again. This, in turn, may help you move on to the next stage in the interaction.

Next, accept that your reaction to certain stimuli is normal. This very realization can be calming. You are simply biologically more sensitive: You crave beauty, calm, order, fairness, and understanding. And you deserve it!

2. Take several deep breaths. 

Breathe. It sounds simple, but it works. If you can, retreat to a quiet space — like your HSP sanctuary — or go outside. If you’re trapped in a heated meeting or classroom, you can still practice this and no one will know. The trick is to practice mindfulness and take slow, deep breaths. For example, inhale for eight counts and exhale for 10. Making the exhale longer than the inhale is calming to the nervous system.

3. Rinse or wash your face with cold water.

As a nervous and frequently agitated student, I was often given this advice from the school nurse (I ended up in her office a lot). I initially disregarded this step as overly simplistic. But retreating to an isolated restroom and splashing your face with cold water really does short-circuit overwhelm, and therapists agree. Sit on the floor if you have to and have a moment to yourself (I’ve done it, even as an adult, and it works!). This can instantly rewire your mindset from panic to calm.

4. Focus on your surroundings and find something concrete to distract yourself with.

When you’re overwhelmed, it can feel distressing to lose your focus, which is why it’s important to find something concrete to distract yourself. Hold your hot teacup and give gratitude for its warming comfort, for instance. Or find a photo of your loving pet or family and remember what’s most important to you. Also remember that you are not alone and that you are loved. 

Ask yourself an essential question: Is this reaction productive? Asking a series of questions and answers might help, too. For example, when I’m at work and losing focus (and getting upset), I ask: “Why am I here? To make money. Am I doing that right now? Yes. Will this argument/misunderstanding seriously impact me five years from now? No.” And/or close your eyes and feel your breath. The truth is that no one is physically hurting you, that just your presence in the world is enough, that even this current discomfort is temporary.

5. Learn from past situations that increased your stress.

Due to our trusting nature, it can take HSPs a long time to learn which people have our best interests at heart and which ones don’t. This is why it’s useful to identify what caused the spiral. A heated political conversation with a contentious coworker? Drop that person down into the acquaintance category and, next time, give ‘em your best fake smile and stick to talking about the weather. Feeling misunderstood within your friend group or family? Have a heart-to-heart about being an HSP with the most open-minded member and share your experience. Still not getting results? Pivot and spend more time with a more understanding inner circle. Feeling stressed or rushed? Next time, get better organized: start the project earlier, get to the airport sooner, and so on. You’re sure to feel calmer the next time!

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6. Let go of the ego: Accept yourself, and the situation, for what they are.

Suffering is the result of want: I want so-and-so to respect me, I want this promotion, I want to board the plane first, and so forth. Instead of suffering, try practicing radical acceptance — of yourself, and of the present situation. The book Good Morning, I Love You, by Shauna Shapiro, PhD, contains an entire chapter on emotional regulation: tuning into our emotions rather than denying them. Resisting reality only causes suffering. This does not mean you’re going to become a doormat. You are simply acknowledging and taking a bird’s-eye view.

My ego once destroyed a family vacation. We drove through six inches of snow to the airport. The plane had a mechanical problem. The jetway was icy and caused another delay. The plane couldn’t push back from the gate through the aforementioned snow. Upon takeoff, chunks of ice flew into the engine, aborting takeoff. The jetway couldn’t roll back, so we couldn’t deplane. This was a lot, sure, for anyone’s nervous system, but my highly sensitive one was just undone. I got in the reticket line and scrapped the whole thing.

We missed a beautiful Caribbean cruise because I became so wrapped up in all the bad that had happened. My giant ego told myself these events shouldn’t have happened and that I couldn’t endure one more thing. My inability to make a calm decision (to wait for the next flight) ruined three other people’s vacation. If I had observed the situation, accepted it (we were OK, the weather was improving, another plane was being brought in), I could have understood the experience instead of drowning in it. I would have made happy memories with my family that week instead of unpleasant ones.

Good decisions are not often made from a heightened sense of self and anxiety. So step away from your ego and ask others to collaborate with you on a calm, clear path that’s born not out of emotion, but out of facts and data. There is one caveat here, however. You may not let go of the ego when you are in abusive situations; in this case, you need to put yourself first, bring in advocates, and relentlessly secure your mental and physical safety.

Your ego can destroy you (and your vacations), but it can also save you. Find that balance.

7. You are portable: You can (usually) leave an uncomfortable situation.

The book You Are Here by Jenny Lawson is part coloring book, part soothing therapist. In it, she reminds readers: “When things get bad, just remember… you don’t have to take this bull sh**. You are portable.” I have to remind myself of this often. We vote with our feet. A group at work or school getting into an uncomfortable topic? A group of neighbors gossiping? Vote with your feet. You are portable.

8. Consider the source: Why does a certain person’s opinion matter so much?

While chatting recently with a friend, I recounted how a coworker hurt my feelings (HSPs don’t do well with criticism, as you probably know). Genuinely confused, she asked why that particular person’s opinion mattered to me, and asked if he knew and loved me. The answer was no! I then realized that it wasn’t necessary to give credence to someone who did not have my best interests at heart. (I’ve since realized this person was a bully with his own problems.) 

So if you can’t vote with your feet and you find yourself in a heated discussion, meeting, and so on, think of your best friend, a parent, your partner, your pet. What would that person (or animal) want for you right now? Treat yourself with the same kindness. Would they want you to experience this suffering, this despair? Take a deep breath and bring yourself back to your real life and to the people who love you and have your best interests at heart.

9. Everything is temporary. The overwhelm and overstimulation will subside.

I once asked my niece how she survived a particularly rowdy dorm. She said, “I ignore it.” She just accepted the noise as such and transcended the situation. She didn’t leave school in a huff, she didn’t make a scene and fight the partiers. Instead, she studied in the library, changed her sleep hours, and was grateful each day to attend the school. She endured the temporary discomfort, got the degree, and got out — ultimately winning — without tying herself up in knots.

Where you sit at work or in the classroom, who rides your bus home, what challenging teams or projects you’re assigned to, the noisy neighbor, the crowds at the grocery — everything is temporary. It’s hard to remember in the moment, and it may take months or years to accept this, but remind yourself that you have survived these overstimulating situations before and will again.

10. Use technology. Noise-canceling headphones and a white noise machine are your friends!

I live at the intersection of two major highways. The noise from a nearby factory, too, seeps through the walls and closed windows of my house. (I know I’m an HSP because none of this neighborhood noise bothers the rest of my family or neighbors!) I also work beside loudly humming instruments and refrigerators. I crave silence, cotton-wrapped silence. 

You may be in a similar situation — a busy city, a crowded house, a neighbor’s barking dog — or you may have a noisy job. Maybe your very commute is overstimulating! It is imperative that we rest and take refuge from the noise. Invest in ear plugs, noise-canceling headphones, a white noise machine. Lay down thick rugs in your bedroom, use heavy curtains, hang decorative quilts on the wall, place a draft blocker at the base of your door… Do whatever works to keep you from being jarred by more unnecessary noise. The more relaxed you are in your environment, the better you’ll be able to deal with a crisis when it arrives.

Reducing Overwhelm Is a Continual Process

These tips are for the HSP who feels stressed in the moment. They aren’t meant to push your feelings permanently under the rug; you still may need to advocate for yourself or others. After the incident passes, find clarity by reassessing the situation: Do you need to let go of a friendship that is no longer viable and not serving you? Do you need to search for a more sustainable job situation? Do you need to set better boundaries with family members? Perhaps a certified mental health counselor or therapist would be helpful. 

Use the above strategies to stay calm while viewing disturbing news, during an upsetting meeting, a crowded subway ride, a combative argument with a coworker or family member, you name it… But, after the fact, use your clarity and your sensitivity superpower to build strength and a plan going forward.

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