Highly sensitive people care deeply for others — but it can result in burnout if they don’t make time to take care of themselves, too.
Raise your hand if you feel called to help others.
Raise your other hand if you have difficulty caring for yourself.
How long can you keep both hands raised? Spoiler: It’s not sustainable. And if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), it’s probably even less sustainable.
This is because we HSPs are known for our kind and compassionate nature, which contributes to our desire to help others in some shape or form. Our lives feel much more meaningful when we can make a positive impact. This can take on several forms: entering into a helping job or career (such as psychotherapist, nurse, physician, or teacher, to name a few) or working for a nonprofit, volunteering for a cause, parenting, rescuing companion animals, and being that go-to person for your friends, family, and/or partner(s). Indeed, I have found myself called to many of these forms of helping, including in my profession as a psychotherapist, adopting a rescue dog, and supporting others in my life.
Unfortunately, this strength we HSPs have of helping others can also have consequences if we are not careful. We may run the risk of becoming dormant in our helping endeavors, which can ultimately result in burnout. This can happen when we are not looking out for ourselves, and instead, just going through the motions of helping. And when we do not check in with ourselves — how we are feeling, what we need — this becomes a recipe for burnout.
Signs of Burnout
Burnout is a state of physical or emotional exhaustion caused by excessive work, demands, or stress. Burnout feels like a complete loss of energy or motivation. It can often involve feelings of panic, a reduced sense of accomplishment, or even losing your sense of your own identity.
As of now, burnout is not a diagnosis, so there is no official set of criteria used. However, there are some tell-tale signs of burnout agreed upon by most mental health professionals. And if you’re a sensitive person, the below can feel even more intense since we feel things so deeply.
- Increased physical health symptoms. When we are burnt out, our bodies feel it. This could look like experiencing more frequent headaches, nausea, body aches and pains, or other physical ailments. Burnout also compromises our immune systems, which can result in catching a cold, the flu, or other contagious diseases.
- Chronic fatigue. With burnout, we are tired, overwhelmingly so. This fatigue isn’t akin to that feeling of reaching the end of a busy week or after one night of difficulty sleeping. Rather, the fatigue associated with burnout is so intense that it feels like no matter how much rest we get, we will still be tired.
- Apathy. That spark of passion that led us to wanting to help in the first place is no longer present. Likewise, our motivation to help and to do better is missing, as is the sense of satisfaction we once felt from helping. We simply don’t care like we once did.
- Mental health issues. Unsurprisingly, burnout takes a toll on our mental well-being. This leads to struggles in our mental health, the most common of which are depression and anxiety.
- Engaging in numbing behaviors. Sometimes when we are too overwhelmed, we will turn to anything to numb this feeling. Unfortunately, these numbing behaviors are often not healthy. Examples can be as benign as watching videos or playing video games for hours on end, or be as dangerous as substance abuse or disordered eating behaviors.
- Sense of dread. When we experience burnout, our intuition will try to guide us away from sources of burnout. This is often manifested in feeling dread toward any activity in which we are required to exert physical, mental, or emotional energy, including helping others.
- Feeling regret. With burnout, regret may show in different forms. Burnout makes us more likely to be in a negative headspace and criticize our actions; therefore, we may be more likely to regret our actions due to perceived mistakes we made. Additionally, if the burnout is especially intense, we may come to feel regret about helping others in the first place, since this contributed to the burnout.
- Compassion fatigue. Even HSPs have a limit on how much our hearts can take. If we immerse ourselves in others’ pain without giving ourselves a break, this will become too overwhelming for us. Eventually, the pendulum will swing in the other direction and we will feel numb and have difficulty mustering up compassion for others in the same way we used to. We will be unmoved by the pain of others.
Why HSPs Are More Vulnerable to Burnout
There are several reasons why HSPs in particular are more vulnerable to burnout.
- Our highly sensitive nervous system is more easily overwhelmed than that of non-HSPs. In other words, we are more likely to become frazzled and in need of destimulating our senses.
- Due to our natural empathy, HSPs are more prone to people-pleasing. We know how it feels when people hurt us or let us down, and we do not want to bestow this same fate upon others. This often results in self-sacrificing.
- HSPs process things deeply and feel our emotions more intensely than non-HSPs. Unfortunately, there can be a dark side to helping others, including witnessing or hearing about the tragedies of those we are helping. This can be of greater impact to HSPs, which can result in vicarious trauma, essentially displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive thoughts, heightened anger or sadness, and/or difficulty sleeping.
If HSPs are not careful and start to experience burnout, we cannot perform to the best of our ability and lose the capacity to feel the joy associated with helping others. We can become disconnected from the passion that led us to our calling in the first place. Unfortunately, burnout is on the rise, which I have witnessed in many of my psychotherapy clients.
6 Ways to Combat Burnout as a Highly Sensitive Person
As bleak as this sounds, don’t give up hope and stop helping others altogether! Thankfully, there are actions we can take to prevent burnout, or to use as a remedy for burnout. If possible, I recommend implementing these steps before the burnout sets in, as it is much easier to prevent burnout than to treat it.
1. Check in with yourself on how you are truly feeling.
We can help prevent ourselves from becoming dormant — which leads to burnout — simply by accessing self-awareness. The best way to do that is by asking ourselves two simple questions: 1) How am I doing right now? and 2) What do I need right now? The more detailed and honest you can be, the better. And of course, follow-through is necessary.
For instance, you may answer the first question by saying, “I’m feeling overwhelmed due to both my professional and personal demands; I notice myself feeling more physically tired than usual, as well as stressed and frustrated emotionally.” As a result, you may need to increase your sleep, take some items off your to-do list, and allow yourself to mentally reset.
As for follow-through, you will then need to make an action plan to go to bed by a certain time, negotiate with your boss regarding your duties and/or take some time off of work, drop those excess items from your to-do list, forego additional demands, schedule in alone time, and give yourself the self-care that you need.
2. Implement boundaries, which are like a protective bubble for highly sensitive nervous systems.
A former supervisor of mine often said that her “favorite ‘B-word’ is boundaries.” I couldn’t agree more! Boundaries are like a protective bubble for our highly sensitive nervous systems: they prevent us from getting overwhelmed and help keep us grounded. Admittedly, boundaries do not come easily for most HSPs, as this can be in opposition to our people-pleasing nature. After all, what is the point of saying “no” if it inhibits us from helping?
However, the cost of not implementing boundaries is high. And boundaries can actually maintain our health enough to do more helping in the long run, while evading the risk of premature burnout. Some foundational boundaries to implement into your life can include knowing and being clear on your “no’s,” keeping work solely at your job and not taking it home, using nights and weekends for self-care, and taking vacations (or staycations) as needed.
3. Engage in regular self-care, whether that means taking a walk or cuddling with your pet.
HSPs need regular self-care in order to thrive. The key word here is “regular,” meaning we want to be engaging in these activities daily. If we don’t have something to fill our cup (i.e., self-care to nourish our physical, mental, and emotional needs), we will eventually become depleted. Self-care is what helps our highly sensitive nervous systems destimulate from not only helping people, but also general stress we encounter in our daily lives that contribute to our overwhelm. (And for HSPs, this threshold is much easier to reach!) Engaging in self-care practices will also help prevent us from getting that nasty HSP hangover.
I have also found it helpful to incorporate these self-care activities into our schedule so that we’ll be more likely to follow through. Some self-care activities that are easy to do daily include going on nature walks, cuddling with furry friends, engaging in joyful movement, eating nourishing meals, and watching light-hearted and optimistic shows and movies. Although The Handmaid’s Tale is brilliantly done, I certainly cannot handle that level of intensity every night!
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4. Find healthy coping skills (that work for you).
Sometimes our level of overwhelm will be so high that our regular self-care won’t quite cut it in that moment. This is where coping skills come into play. Instead of turning to unhealthy numbing behaviors associated with burnout, the best coping skills allow us to feel and work through our emotions. This might look like deep breathing and mindfulness, running, crying, taking a bath, or listening to music. Know what works best for you or experiment until you figure out what does.
5. Schedule non-helping related activities to look forward to.
As rewarding as helping can be for HSPs, we need balance. Having something planned to look forward to can do wonders! It provides us with a break while also giving us a dopamine-boost of engaging in something different. This could include taking a trip somewhere you’ve wanted to visit, going to the spa, doing a fun local activity (such as visiting a museum or historical site), attending a play or concert, going on a hike, or having dinner with a beloved friend. Whatever the activity, it should feed your HSP soul.
6. Process your feelings.
With helping others comes a lot of feelings. Some are beneficial, like the satisfaction of knowing you made a positive difference. Others are more difficult to navigate. As mentioned previously, if these feelings are not dealt with, HSPs can experience vicarious trauma. Therefore, it is vital to process these feelings. Processing would ideally include going to psychotherapy. However, if this is not an option for you (or you are looking to supplement your time in therapy), other suggestions include talking to a trusted friend, family member, or partner, journaling, and/or engaging in introspection.
Burnout can be a big issue for sensitive people. However, there are steps you can take to help with this. Remember, when you are properly taking care of yourself, you will be able to help others and preserve your wonderful HSP self. Yes, we HSPs are called to help others, but we are worthy of receiving help, too.
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