Highly Sensitive Refuge
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How to Reduce Overwhelm as an HSP

One day, I realized that the very same high sensitivity that made me feel like the victim of an insensitive world could be used to my advantage. 

I’ve dealt with high sensitivity for as long as I can remember. I specifically recall crying on my first day of kindergarten because the bus driver sat me next to a big fifth-grade boy. Had the boy done anything to upset me? Nope. Just his mere presence, the typical school bus noise level, and a full day spent with people I didn’t know had sent me over the edge. All the overstimulation was a lot, especially as a highly sensitive child (HSC).

Yep, I was that kid who cried on the first day of school. Not because I was nervous about leaving my parents, but because I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) — and the world isn’t always the most accommodating place for us HSPs. 

As such, I often felt like my senses were being assaulted everywhere I turned. I craved soothing sounds like my cats purring, ASMR videos, and those ambient coffee shop YouTube videos. But those gentle sounds were often drowned out by my upstairs neighbors’ young children running back and forth all day long, loud music booming out of cars driving by, and my spouse’s snoring at night — and it all grated on my nerves.

Learning How to Use My Sensitivity to My Advantage

One day, it dawned on me that the very same high sensitivity that made me feel like the victim of an insensitive world could actually be used to my advantage. 

As a highly sensitive person, I reacted so strongly to stressors and felt exhausted, anxious, and depressed much of the time. But experiencing unwanted thoughts, feelings, and emotions so deeply meant I could also experience their enjoyable counterparts deeply, right? So why wasn’t I focusing on those things instead? Soon, reducing overwhelm by tending to my HSP needs became a priority.

Reframing my high sensitivity and choosing to use it as a superpower helped me regain more of a sense of control in my life. Here’s how I’m doing it and how you can, too.

9 Ways to Reduce Overwhelm as an HSP

1. Figure out what you love: What appeals to your senses?

First, ask yourself this question: What do you love? I mean realllllly love. Think in terms of what truly appeals to your senses. As a highly sensitive person, you know what things really take your soul and give it a great big hug. It’s like emotional hygge. (Hygge is a Danish concept all about making time for the simple pleasures.) Incorporating your heightened senses in ways that make the most of your high sensitivity can help surround you in a bubble of comfort to keep overwhelm at bay

2. Create playlists for each of your moods.

Stress affects people differently. Depending on the situation, your response can run the gamut from anger to depression to anxiety. I create playlists for each emotion so I have them ready to go at a moment’s notice. I even label my playlists by the name of the corresponding feeling it addresses — or the feeling I’m looking to get. Some examples are Hurt, Comfort, Uplift, and Moody. Music is a powerful tool, and as HSPs, we should undoubtedly harness that power.

3. Use background noise to your advantage.

Some people keep the TV running in the background if they don’t enjoy total silence. Having YouTube on my TV has been a game-changer. I choose videos with ambient settings, such as coffee shops, cabins, or beach cafes, and let those run in the background as I work on my laptop, cook, or read. These videos are visually calming, but many also include relaxing sounds, like soft jazz music, coffee being poured, gently clinking teacups, crashing waves, or a crackling fire. I find it incredibly soothing to be able to choose my virtual environment to suit my mood.

4. Earbuds are essential to drown out all the nerve-rattling noise around you.

Make sure you have a backup pair for your backup pair of earbuds because you definitely don’t want to be caught without these. Hardly anything can make life more unpleasant for an HSP than having nerve-rattling sounds forced upon you. (For HSPs, “noise pollution” has a whole other meaning!) Popping in noise-canceling earbuds can quickly (and easily) surround you in a cocoon of your chosen soundscape. This is a lovely way to drown out those people who love to talk loudly on speakerphone in public!

5. Add tiny self-care rituals to your day.

Do nice things for yourself throughout the day rather than waiting until the stress starts building up. I look forward to my mini self-care and grounding rituals throughout the day. I choose a playlist (see above) and deliciously scented aromatherapy products to use as I shower and prepare for the day. I always have flavored coffee pods on hand for mid-morning iced coffee, as well as delicious dessert-flavored tea, some fruit, a bit of cheese, and dark chocolate for a late afternoon or evening snack. The perfect ending to the day is reading a cozy murder mystery in bed with my cat curled up next to me and the aromatherapy diffuser infusing the air with a relaxing blend of lavender and cedarwood. (Lavender has calming effects.)

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6. Choose fabrics that delight you.

This may seem insignificant to most people, but for an HSP, touching certain materials can feel like total Zen. Whether it be clothing, bath linens, or bedding, I know that products made with soft, cozy fabrics make me feel pampered, like sherpa or fleece. While this can be tough to do if you’re shopping online — although reading reviews definitely helps — make it a point to give some thought to your favorite fabrics when you make purchases. Speaking of fabrics…

7. Dress in layers, for your sensitive nervous system likes to be cozy.

This idea builds on the above tip about choosing pleasing-feeling fabrics. When you’re home, you can usually adjust the temperature to stay comfy by tinkering with the thermostat, opening windows, or wrapping up in a cozy blanket. If you’ve ever left home without planning ahead for temperature changes, you know how uncomfortable this can make you as an HSP. I always try to remember to bring a cardigan or zippered hoodie with me wherever I go. Yes, even in the summer. It feels like a security blanket of sorts, which is great because others may think it odd if you toted around an actual blanket (though you certainly can!).

8. Keep aromatherapy inhalers in your bag.

Just as unwanted sounds can irritate an HSP, so can overpowering smells — chemical sensitivity is very real. While standing in a checkout line the other day, the woman behind me was standing close enough to identify what type of shampoo I used that morning. She was also wearing a strong perfume that didn’t appeal to my olfactory senses. At that moment, I was kicking myself for not packing my aromatherapy inhaler. These inhalers somewhat resemble a stick of lip balm, but are infused with a blend of essential oils that you simply inhale as desired. I particularly love relaxing blends, like lavender and vanilla, but you can find other types of blends for energizing, mood-lifting, and increasing mental focus. (A little vial of essential oil in a calming scent will also do the trick.) 

9. Take mindfulness breaks.

When your senses are often in a heightened state, it’s expected that you’ll eventually feel drained and cranky. Your highly sensitive mind needs frequent breaks from the stimulation, and all you need is a few minutes of mindfulness here and there to soothe your senses. I love listening to short guided breathing exercises or meditations on YouTube or other apps like Calm, Headspace, and MyLife. These mindfulness breaks make a huge difference in my ability to manage stress and overwhelm each day.

Enjoying the HSP Life Without Constant Overwhelm

By adding more sweetness and comfort to my life in forms that utilize all of my enhanced HSP senses, I have significantly reduced my sense of overwhelm. I’ve noticed that my anxiety is not as intense, my mood is more stable, and I no longer feel perpetually exhausted. Just making small changes that appeal to the senses can go a long way for highly sensitive people. And tending to those little details is a simple way to care for your HSP soul. 

Now it’s your turn: How do you soothe your highly sensitive self? Feel free to share in the comment below!

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