Does change leave you feeling shaken up and anxious? Here’s why — and what you can do to change it.
Have you ever heard the phrase “change is the only constant in life”? Do those words fill you with a surge of energy and curiosity? Or do they maybe settle as a cold anxiety in the pit of your stomach? Perhaps like me, the reason change unsettles you is because it throws you off your game. And that is harder for some people than others — especially for highly sensitive people.
We all experience change every single day. I’ve come to realize in the past couple of years that transitions, from the smallest to the largest in life, impact me significantly. I feel the shifts in the world around me constantly, from the physical to the emotional.
Every kind of transition is a change. From the daily commute to changing the restaurant you visit with friends, from the shift in seasons to the larger changes in our lives such as changing jobs or schools or moving. These transitions affect highly sensitive people (HSPs) particularly strongly, in part because of how our brains are wired. And if you’re anything like me, changes can leave you feeling overwhelmed somehow just “off.”
Let’s look at why HSPs react this way — and how we can start to feel at peace with changes instead.
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Why Do Sensitive People Struggle With Change?
I used to believe my negative response to change was a fundamental flaw in who I was as a person, that it made me lesser than my friends who experienced many of the same changes but who seemingly were able to breeze through them. Now I realize my response has a lot to do with being a highly sensitive person. Highly sensitive people are the 30 percent of the population who are more physically and emotionally sensitive than others. It’s a trait that comes with many gifts, including deep thinking, creativity, and compassion, but it also comes with its share of challenges.
For example, as a highly sensitive person, I’m more affected by my environment and am more susceptible to overstimulation. In fact, highly sensitive people are wired at a biological level to experience the world more deeply. We process more information about our environment, spend more time thinking about it and have bigger feelings about it, and notice details that others miss.
When it comes to changes, this wiring means there are three big factors that make transitions more challenging for us: a sense of overwhelm, a trait we have called “depth of processing,” and our unique perception of time and deadlines. Here’s how each one affects us:
Feelings of Overwhelm
When I changed jobs recently I knew from past experience that this disruption from my usual routine would leave me unsettled for months. Not just for the first two months, we’re talking more like six months. In the past when I’ve changed jobs, the different office environment, new people and tasks, meant my sleep was disrupted, I craved more comfort foods, I even came to view social activities as another to-do list so I withdrew from friends. Frequently by the end of the week I’m wrung out, exhausted.
What I’ve described here is emotional overwhelm as a result of sheer overstimulation of the senses and the mind. In fact, research suggests that highly sensitive people are more prone to experiencing emotional overwhelm because they react to external stimuli at a greater depth than non-HSPs. And, although less-sensitive people might not notice it, any change in routine, setting or expectations is highly stimulating — everything coming in is novel, and the brain cannot just filter it out as background. That is both why new experiences can be so invigorating but also, without ample planning and preparation, very overwhelming for HSPs.
‘Depth of Processing’
When you’re highly sensitive you take in more information and do more with it than non-HSPs. This is known as deeper cognitive processing and it uses up a lot of our brain’s energy. So when we’re exposed to change, we take in every detail. Think of it as being extra thorough: we ponder more, consider connections with more ideas and experiences, and sit with our feelings more, too. As a result we take longer than non-HSPs to process the thing that has changed for us.
This depth of processing powers many HSP strengths — such as noticing what others miss, or seeing possibilities others don’t consider. But it also means our deep-processing brains get overloaded with new information and new expectations. Sometimes, that means getting thrown off by the smallest details. (I remember a few years ago, my office at work was redecorated and was the only one who could detect the “new paint smell” for six months afterwards — which was very distracting while I worked.) Other times, it means needing extra time to adjust or overthinking everything as we try to figure out the details of the new norm.
How HSPs Perceive Time and Deadlines
To be clear: I can meet deadlines, and I like working towards a goal. And HSPs are not only reliable about deadlines, they are actually particularly valuable in the workplace. But, in or out of work, I feel overloaded when too many demands pile up at once.
Of course, this is true to everyone to an extent. But HSPs particularly struggle with demanding schedules because each item on the lineup is perceived as a stimulus to that aforementioned deep-processing brain. Simply put: the HSP brain is wired to go deep, but it cannot go deep on everything, particularly when it’s all coming in at once. That’s when we’re at peak risk of overstimulation and emotional overload.
Most changes come with at least a temporary pressure on our time, because adjusting to new things takes longer than just doing what you’re used to. If you imagine your usual schedule of family, friends, social life, work, and household chores and add in the thing that’s changed for you, large or small, then you can see the reason a more sensitive person may suddenly feel overloaded or behind.
Together, these three factors can sometimes make changes seems extremely stressful to HSPs — but it doesn’t have to be that way.
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How to Handle Change as an HSP
HSPs are actually just as capable of handling change as everyone else, and even sometimes enjoying it. We just have to approach it differently. There are five specific steps HSPs can take to become comfortable with change (and ditch the overwhelm) — and they start with truly understanding how you currently respond to change.
Here are the five steps HSPs can use to handle change comfortably:
1. Identify what you can control
Some changes are totally outside of your control. Often there will always be a level of uncertainty that comes with new things. We never have to be gentle with ourselves and understand that no one gets the heads up on all of life’s big changes that are out of our control because that’s not possible.
Some transitions you can have control over, for example getting out of bed in the morning. Whichever transitions that cause distress, make the ones that are in control easier for you by planning. How could you make that shock of leaving the warm safety of your bed to the sensory shock of a shower in the morning better? Leave out your bathing products, your outfit for the day, set two alarms. Preparing for what I can helps me manage a smooth transition.
2. Give yourself the gift of time
Every day we go through lots of transitions and some of these can cause low level stress to HSPs. Perhaps not enough for us to feel physical symptoms, but enough for us to not look forward to the transition, or to overthink the transition. For me an example of this is getting on one train and then another. I cannot relax on the first train due to knowing I’ll have to change trains soon. Such a small thing perhaps but one that can benefit from time. I allow myself the most time I can to change trains even if it means waiting in cold train stations longer than I’d like. During these times I prioritize self care. A favorite Spotify playlist or a familiar podcast helps soothe me while I wait. I’ve found that adding more time for me to do something that’s in opposition to the stimulation of the transition really helps. For example, when the change in light comes as summer wanes into fall, I spend time indoors, making my home environment a pleasant space as fall and winter come along. Cosy spaces, soft lighting, my favorite books and textures. These little things can be huge mental health game changers for HSPs during the transitions in life.
3. Manage expectations
Moving house is widely acknowledged as one of the biggest stresses in our lives, but moving hits HSPs much harder than most. I felt so out of sorts for over eight months after I moved house and I couldn’t help but think that made me weak. It seemed to me that everyone else copes with moving with most of their sanity intact so why couldn’t I? Here is where as HSPs we need to manage our own expectations before managing others’. As a highly sensitive person, such a dramatic shift in our physical environment, not to mention the emotional adjustment after having left one home for another, is bound to cause waves in our lives. And it doesn’t mean your reactions to moving home will be identical to your non-HSP friend. Whenever I experience a big transition, I lower my expectations of myself because that is what I can control and what will have the biggest effect on my wellbeing. Our role as a highly sensitive person during a big change is to navigate it as smoothly as possible and emerge with our wellbeing intact.
4. Avoid too many commitments
If I’ve had a very busy work week with lots of social interaction, I make sure my downtime on the weekend is exactly that, time for me with no demanding commitments. Even though I love seeing my friends and have lots of hobbies and interests, I now know to trust my body and mind and having a weekend with no plans helps me manage the daily transitions and larger changes too. Agree to the bare minimum whenever you’re going through a very big transition. You’ll have more mental energy as a result of prioritizing your energy in this way. This doesn’t mean saying no to every invite, it means reviewing your energy based on your commitments. Does it really have to be you that organizes your friend’s birthday meal or can one of your other friends take over this time? Delegation is your friend!
5. Go easy on yourself
Let’s be frank,when it comes to transitions, however frequent or infrequent, we are more able to cope better if we treat ourselves with care during the change and in general. During my house move I realized I had to change my negative self-talk which berated me for feeling stressed before even looking at my packing list. At the time, I was reading a book by kindness scientist David R. Hamilton called How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body. In it, Hamilton states that the way we talk to ourselves is one of the biggest factors in our wellbeing, and even affects our physical health. So I created a mantra that I’d repeat silently to myself at the end of the day, which really worked to help me acknowledge my feelings and feel less stressed. The mantra was personal to me, and you can create your own based on the part of your self-image you hope to change. Examples of such mantras could include:
- I know what I want in a partner, I am worthy of a good partner, and I am enough without a partner until I find them.
- I am a good artist. I create work that matters. My audience is already finding me.
- I have the skills to recover from loss. I am already rebuilding my life, and I will rise strong.
Transitions happen constantly, but they do not have to lead to constant stress — or worry. When you use these five tools, you’ll find yourself surprised to realize that changes don’t throw you off, and even seem comfortable. Plus, you’ll be a little kinder to yourself.
You Might Like:
- Why Highly Sensitive People Hate Taking Risks (And How to Make It Easier)
- 11 ‘Little’ Things That Overwhelm Highly Sensitive People
- Science Confirms That Emotions Really Do Hit Harder for Highly Sensitive People
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