Why HSPs Burn Out So Quickly (and How to Get Relief)

a highly sensitive person is burned out and stressed

Life is stressful for everyone. Nine-to-five work, kids, deadlines, and chaos — all the usual suspects that leave our heads spinning and our hearts racing.

For highly sensitive people (HSPs), however, the stress of daily life can be magnified. The daily vortex of movement, stimulation, and multi-tasking can chew us up and spit us out like a glob of slime. We lose our shape, becoming devoid of motivation. We want to slither into the cracks and corners to get respite from the mixing bowl of modern life.

The problem is — there is no escape. Life must be lived, children must be raised, work must be done, and bills must be paid. The result? We burn out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. First, let’s take a closer look at why HSPs burn out quicker than others, then I’ll share what I do to get relief.

They Call It the ‘Daily Grind’ for a Reason

Too. Much. Stimulation. My son is a gamer, and to support him, I watch his stream online. It reminds me of my life, an array of shadows, shaking, jolting, quick turns, and reckless back and forth. The whole thing looks like it’s being filmed by a cameraman who’s had one too many shots of Tequila. I literally get anxious watching, almost like a mild case of vertigo.

A mother, a teacher, and a highly sensitive person, some days it feels like I live a real-life version of this video game. I look at some of my companions, young, single, and without children, and I stare in envy at their manicures, at the twenty minutes their hands were rubbed and caressed, or their ability to come home from work and cuddle into the covers for an afterwork nap that provides an interlude of peace.

For me, the demands of the world never slow down. There are no upcoming vacations when you have a 17 year old who needs money for college. No “time out” refreshers when you’re a teacher with 23 children you can never let out of your sight. No moment at home where you are not bombarded with yells for dinner, background dings, and pings of one teenager on a texting rampage and another blasting rap music that thuds like the house is getting ready to come down. Sometimes, I feel a psychosomatic bit of hives come on, and I want to scratch at my face and hide in the bathroom until my anxiety quells.

For highly sensitive people like you and me, the daily grind can take a toll. Due to the way we’re wired, we process and feel things deeply — and that includes stress. “Little” problems that others brush off are experienced deeply in our bodies and reflected on thoroughly in our minds. Throw in time pressure, such as a long to-do list or an impending deadline, and you have sure-fire recipe for overwhelm.

The results can be emotional as well as physical. If you’re like me, at peak moments of stress, you’re visited by a slew of “frenemies.” At these moments, you may hear the knocking of life-long “acquaintances” ranging from the fabulously friendly Mr. Common Cold to the chatty Anxiety Attack to the darling life-long friend Depression.

Stress can also make it seem impossible for us to separate our “fight-or-flight” response from the inescapable realities of everyday life. I have endured whole days where it felt like I was a ticking time bomb — heart racing, dizziness, shakiness, all from stress. However, all that my friends, students, and children saw was an almost imperceptible heavy breathing and a clumsiness while I was going about the business of teaching or parenting. But on the inside, I was literally falling apart.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon experience for many HSPs.

3 Things That Help Me Beat Stress and Burnout

So what can we do to get relief? Here are three things that help me.

1. Take care of your body, and your emotions will follow.

It sounds simple — almost clichéd — but it’s true. Our physical body can greatly impact our emotional responses. Get adequate sleep. Make your bedroom a sanctuary of white noise, soft inviting sheets, a perfect (just cool enough) temperature to ensure the best night’s rest. Exercise to burn off the physical and emotional tension that accumulates over the span of a hectic day.

Try eating foods that help your body ward off the effects of stress. Health.com recommends foods like:

  • green leafy vegetables such as spinach, which contain folate — this helps you produce dopamine, the “pleasure” chemical
  • turkey breast, tofu, fish, or lentils — these contain tryptophan, which may help you feel more calm and agreeable
  • foods that contain antioxidants, such as blueberries, which may help improve your body’s response to stress
  • dark chocolate (just a little!), which may reduce cortisol, the stress hormone

2. Get comfortable saying no.

As a highly sensitive person, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve taken on extra work to avoid conflict or guilt. I used to come home to a messy house and two wonderful but spoiled teenagers, because when the chore wars began, I just couldn’t take the rash of yelling and fighting. I would clean the entire house before the family woke up so there would be no squabbles over who should have taken out the trash and where the blessed earbuds were. I let the children DJ my car radio with tunes that made the hairs on my arms rise and my heartbeat skip and race in time to the music. All just so I could keep my sanity with a semblance of peace.

The problem is, I created this bad habit, and the stress it created in me was worse than the noise. Maybe you’ve done the same. Don’t worry, you can fix it. The solution begins with a simple, two-letter word: no.

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No, look for your own earbuds. No, I am choosing the music station. No, you pick up your own mess. Say it, and mean it. (Here are some tips to help you say no effectively and guilt free.)

3. Leave.

Some might say this is a cop-out. A coward’s response. But not so for highly sensitive people. Leaving is a life-saving measure that cannot be used at all times, but must be used for those times — you know the ones I mean. If you need to escape the party and sit alone in the bathroom for fifteen minutes, do it. If you need to take a walk or run an errand to get away from work for a short time, there’s no shame in that. And if you need to take the day completely off, go right ahead.

We must not berate ourselves when our bodies and minds are calling 911. Sure, you may lose 20 minutes, three hours, or a day of work productivity, but to deny yourself this escape is to put yourself at danger level. Make the escape, and use it, so that you can come back to the world in peace and functionality.

We highly sensitive people have a lot to give, and boy, do we give it. However, sometimes we must be a little more “selfish.” We need to keep our own motors humming along and not sputtering out. So, dear HSP, I hope the lesson you take away from this post is this: take time for yourself, take a break, and heck, even take off entirely every once in a while. You’ll be better for doing it.

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