Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person feels overwhelmed.

These 3 Things Are Big Sources of Overwhelm for HSPs

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you could cry? Has your head ever felt like it was being caved in on all sides? Do you feel the weight of the world is enough to make you want to run and hide and just wait for it all to end? Have you hyperventilated or felt panic when there’s too much going on in or around you — too much noise, too many thoughts, etc.? Does any kind of time pressure cause you to lose your cool and crumble to pieces?

Do these scenarios sound overly dramatic or scarily accurate?

The truth is everyone experiences feelings of overwhelm from time to time. However, the way you respond to these questions may clue you into an aspect of your personality that you’re not yet aware of or that you’ve never quite fully understood. Maybe you’ve been this way for as long as you can remember. Maybe you’re used to being told you’re overly sensitive or have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

If you resonated with the above scenarios, there’s a good chance you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP).

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

I’ve written another post about what it means to be a highly sensitive person here, but in this article, I want to focus on a reoccurring challenge that is very common for HSPs. That challenge is overwhelm.

Merriam-Webster defines overwhelm as “to cover over completely: submerge; to overcome by superior force or numbers; to overpower in thought or feeling.”

If you’re a highly sensitive person who experiences overwhelm, you certainly can feel submerged, overcome, and overpowered. There are many different things that can lead to overwhelm for an HSP. Let’s look at three common sources.

3 Common Sources of Overwhelm for HSPs

1. Your own thoughts and emotions

The majority of highly sensitive people are introverts (although 30 percent are extroverts). Introverts tend to have a very active inner thought life. While this can be an advantage when it comes to sorting through your thoughts before you speak — or making elaborate and well-calculated plans — it can be a challenge when dealing with overwhelm.

Whether you realize it or not, our thoughts determine much of our experience in life. When the thoughts in your mind are racing, negative, or worrisome, it leads to negative emotions. Once your thoughts have started directing your emotions, you no longer feel in control — and you feel overwhelmed by them.

2. The noises, sights, and sounds around you

Have you ever been in a room with a group of people and everyone around you is carrying on having a conversation — and all you can concentrate on are the sights and sounds around you? Highly sensitive people are quite sensitive to their environment. They notice subtleties that others might miss — or in their opinion, not-so-subtleties.

Loud music, the annoying beeping sound in the far distance, fluorescent lights, a room that’s much too cold or too hot. All of these things affect highly sensitive people more strongly than those who are not as sensitive and can lead to feelings of overwhelm — especially if they can’t remove themselves from the situation or change the input that’s overloading their senses.

3. A growing to-do list

Two wonderful traits of HSPs are their natural inclination toward empathy and conscientiousness. Typically people who are considered highly sensitive have big hearts and love to help others. They also tend to be perfectionists and care a great deal about everything they do.

Unfortunately, these two traits can easily lead to overwhelm as sensitive people:

  1. Offer to help and take on more responsibilities than they can handle, and/or
  2. Spend way too much time and energy on certain tasks, projects, etc., trying to make them perfect

As you can imagine, both of these scenarios put HSPs in a tough spot as they find their to-do list growing by the day. And due to their depth of processing, sensitive people can become stressed and overwhelmed when there’s too much to do in too little time.

How to Cope With Overwhelm

1. Get out of your head and into the truth

When your own thoughts and emotions are overwhelming you, you have to get out of your head and into the truth. This will look different for different people, but here are my top suggestions:

  • Write down your thoughts and feelings on paper, then beside them, write down the facts of the matter. For example: If you feel you have too much to do, write out your to-do list and what is required for each item. This helps put things in perspective. Or, you might try writing down a mantra, comforting saying, or line of scripture (if you’re religious) to help you combat your fears and worries.
  • Talk to a trusted friend, counselor, or family member about what you’re thinking and feeling. It can be helpful to get some feedback from an outside source who can help you sort through your thoughts.

All of these strategies get the things that are in your head out into the open where they can be exposed to the truth.

2. Ask for accommodation or plan ahead

When you’re put in a situation where you’re exposed to sensory overload, you have two options. If you know beforehand that the situation is going to be overwhelming — say, a loud party — then you can plan ahead. Give yourself a “prep” talk (a prep talk is about preparing yourself for reality, not ignoring or pushing through difficult emotions) about what you will probably experience. Then, make a plan for how you will deal with it.

The second option is to ask for accommodation. Many times the people around you who are less sensitive don’t realize the impact it’s having on you and are willing to accommodate you if you ask politely. For instance, if you’re in a car with a group of friends and the music is way too loud, ask if they wouldn’t mind turning it down a bit. Sometimes you have to be your own HSP advocate.

3. Learn to say no and let good enough be good enough

As an HSP, you want to help everyone. You want to heal the world of hurt and wrongdoing. You want to have superpowers and be able to be in all places at once, doing all the things.

But this is a recipe for overwhelm for both HSPs and non-HSPs alike. There’s a two letter word you need to add to your vocabulary and start using more often… it’s the word “no.”

On the flip side, maybe you can help but you only do so in a limited way. This is when you have to do some serious soul-searching to determine who and what gets 100 percent of your energy and attention, and who and what only gets a limited portion. Sometimes you have to let “good enough” be good enough.

As a highly sensitive person myself, I know first-hand the challenges that come with the territory. I’m learning as I go and am actually beginning to appreciate my highly sensitive nature. Use these tips to lessen overwhelm when it rears its ugly head — so you can get back to the calm, confident state you desire.

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