When overstimulation and emotional exhaustion combine, the result is a tidal wave that can knock highly sensitive people out for a day or more.
About a month ago, my partner and I had a few friends over for dinner to celebrate an exciting milestone — our first time living alone together, no housemates, just us. It’d been a busy week: moving things around, cleaning, organizing real estate paperwork, and general life stuff. We wanted to just have a relaxing night in.
I cooked pasta while everyone talked excitedly, country music blaring from the speakers. By the end of the night, we’d made a dance floor in the living room and time drifted happily away until I fell into bed not long after midnight.
Then the morning came: I was groggy and wired, my body felt like a ball of electricity, and my nerves exploded at every noise or movement.
The house was a mess, and I took in every messy detail with exhausted eyes, becoming increasingly stressed. What was supposed to have been a “relaxing” night had pushed my already frayed self over the edge.
I felt like I had a hangover — even though I hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol — and could only attribute it to the gathering we’d had the night before.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I know I’m prone to becoming overstimulated, but having an “HSP hangover” was new to me.
But as I thought about it, it made sense: HSPs tend to process information more deeply — and are extremely sensitive to stimuli like sights and sounds — and get emotionally exhausted, absorbing others’ emotions whether we want to or not. And then we often need time to withdraw. I was used to experiencing these feelings, but not to this magnitude.
To make matters worse, I had to go to work and was immediately hit by the sound of a coworker’s loud music. Then the onslaught of “Good morning!”s and small talk came at me from all directions. My hands were sweaty and I started to feel shaky, my mind searching for the nearest exit.
“What’s wrong with you?” my coworker demanded after I muttered only a few words in reply to his cheery morning greetings.
“It’s just all this noise! Can’t you turn it off?!” I snapped before retreating to the bathroom to calm down.
When I came out, everyone looked at me as though I were a crazy person about to snap. I knew my HSP self was too overwhelmed to be at work, so I told the manager I needed a sick day and made my way home.
I put earplugs in, locked myself in my dark bedroom, read a book, and cuddled my cat. By the end of my “quiet time,” I felt ready to handle the world again.
If this story, or the signs below, sound familiar to you, perhaps you’ve experienced an HSP hangover and didn’t even realize it.
8 Signs You Have an HSP Hangover
1. Every little thing annoys you — and then reaches a boiling point.
Just like you may be irritable from an alcohol-induced hangover, an HSP one has the same effect.
It may start with getting agitated over something small, like my coworker’s music, and then expand to everything making me mad. And when I say “mad,” I mean an Incredible-Hulk-like rage that seems to come out of nowhere. It’s also usually not befitting of whatever triggered us (like my poor coworker just wanting to listen to music!).
During an HSP hangover, we may release our overstimulated senses into the world more than usual, through arguing, yelling, having tantrums like a child, throwing things, slamming doors, being passive-aggressive, and just generally raging out.
Unfortunately, anger can occur when we HSPs get overstimulated. And, sadly, it’s often directed at those we love most, since they’re the ones we feel we can be our true selves around.
This is why it’s important to have downtime before your nerves are ready to crack at the slightest touch.
2. All you want to do is retreat into your quiet, soothing HSP sanctuary.
HSPs tend to need time to themselves and will often retreat to their “safe place,” like a certain area of their home, such as their bedroom. And with an HSP hangover, this time to retreat becomes even more essential.
For when we’re in our HSP sanctuary, we know we’ll have almost full control over external stimuli: we know this place, it’s cozy, and everything is as it should be. We can close the blinds to block out the bright sun, keep everything quiet, and know that we don’t have to make small talk with anyone or be switched “on” in any way.
We can simply shut down and take the time we need to process all the information we’ve taken in during the day (or during last night’s dinner party).
3. You suddenly can’t live without your favorite comfort foods and drinks.
After a night of drinking, some people crave carbs the next day while they chug water or Gatorade. Similarly, after my night of HSP overstimulation, I craved my favorite comfort foods and drinks to help soothe my HSP hangover.
My go-to comfort food is cooking myself a huge bowl of creamy pasta or ordering $50 worth of take-out and eating until I’m so full I can’t move: they’re like a warm blanket for my fried senses.
(In general, I can tell I need more downtime when comfort eating becomes a nightly occurrence or when I can’t go without a few calming glasses of wine a night. These are both signs it’s time to take some time out.)
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4. You don’t want to see anyone and you bail on commitments.
Does one of these sound familiar? “I’m so sorry, but I’m not feeling well, can we reschedule?” or “I’m really sorry, my cat has come down with a case of cat flu, let’s do it next week instead.”
Usually, we HSPs are known for our reliability and being a great friend to everyone, probably due to our innate ability to absorb emotions as though they’re our own. But if we’re feeling socially hungover, no matter what we do, we can’t muster enough energy to be social. Even saying a simple “How are you?” to our partner becomes a challenge.
In cancelling plans, although we may feel guilty about doing so, when we’re overstimulated, we simply must. The alternative is going along with the plan, only to be snappy and frazzled and bringing everyone else down. (You don’t want The Incredible Hulk to return, do you?) And it also leads to us ending up being even more overstimulated, which means we’ll need even more time to unwind.
So if you’re experiencing an HSP hangover, give yourself permission to cancel any plans you may have until you’re feeling better.
5. You lie in bed all day and just want to catch up on your favorite TV shows or movies.
Just like you want to spend the day in your HSP sanctuary, while there, you also may want to binge-watch the latest Netflix show or your favorite movies. Or you finally decide today’s the day to finish that book you started months ago.
When we’re experiencing an HSP hangover, it’s the perfect time to avoid the real world for a moment (or day) and get lost in other worlds instead. It’s a relief for our senses to be still, too, and a chance to focus on one thing (rather than a million things at once) — which HSPs usually prefer.
And, hungover or not, it’s unwind-time we HSPs need most days anyway.
6. You break out your best noise-cancelling headphones.
You may not have the luxury of hiding out all day in your HSP sanctuary, so that’s where noise-cancelling headphones come in. I’ve been known to wear earplugs and headphones to block out all other noises (apart from Taylor Swift singing Lover).
When it’s all a bit too much, and particularly if I’m experiencing an HSP hangover, we HSPs often resort to drowning the world out with our own choice of sound versus the countless external ones we have no control over.
That way, instead of the cat’s meowing, traffic noise, sirens, TV commercials, the lawn mower next door, and the typing of a keyboard, it’s just you and your music. For me, there’s rarely better relief from overstimulation than this.
7. You cuddle with your furry friends.
What more needs to be said of this one? We gravitate to our pets for comfort and during an HSP hangover is the perfect time.
When everything is irritating and overwhelming, a cuddle from a cat, dog, rabbit, goat (or any other manner of furry friend) often has the biggest calming effect of all. And I’m sure my cat enjoys it as much as I do.
8. You neeeeeed to get that sleep.
When all else fails — when even Taylor Swift is too much, which is saying a lot —
all I want to do is sleep off my HSP hangover.
In general, HSPs tend to need more sleep than non-HSPs, but sleep becomes even more essential when we need critical time to recharge. And the next day, hopefully we’ll feel like ourselves again, refreshed and ready to take on the world. (Although we might limit the number of dinner parties we have.)