Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person looking overloaded and overwhelmed because of other people nearby.

11 ‘Little’ Things That Overwhelm Highly Sensitive People

They may not seem like much to other people, but these “little” things are BIG things to HSPs. 

Quirks. Oddities. Idiosyncrasies. They’re the crux of characteristics that makes us uniquely who we are. They “set us off,” irritate us, and — for highly sensitive people (HSPs) — can completely overwhelm us.  

We HSPs experience overwhelm whenever we feel, think, or experience something we cannot seem to manage — and we can’t always explain why we feel this way. It may be looking around awkwardly in social settings, sitting with our emotions, and trying (unsuccessfully) to unpack our feelings.  

And while there seem to be no answers as to the why of overwhelming experiences —  aside from the fact that HSPs are affected by internal and external stimuli more than non-highly-sensitive types — it behooves HSPs to familiarize themselves with the what of them. Identifying your triggers and realizing that your highly sensitive mind will always feel more deeply and process a bit differently than other, non-sensitive people is a huge step toward understanding your overwhelming experiences.

In reality, many situations that overwhelm HSPs may seem “small” to others, but they seem “big” to us. Here are 11 “little” things that tend to overwhelm us highly sensitive people. 

11 ‘Little’ Things That Overwhelm Highly Sensitive People

1. Shallow or meaningless conversation topics. 

Highly sensitive people love deep, meaningful connections and conversations — they make us happy. Trying to make small talk about something random, like the weather, with an HSP can prove challenging. 

HSPs are, by nature, observers and analyzers. It is difficult to truly observe and/or deeply analyze small talk, so participating in conversations about superficial topics is often overwhelming for us. 

2. Too many people around at one time.

A while back (back when we could actually socialize safely, pre-pandemic), I was at a birthday party. One moment, I was having a great time, but the next, I was standing in the bathroom mirror trying to recenter myself. Meanwhile, my friends were in the other room, laughing, singing, and having a blast! I, too, had been enjoying myself just moments before — yet it became too much. 

You see, highly sensitive minds are often unable to absorb too much conversation, movement, and stimuli at once. The combination causes feelings of overwhelm, and we are unable to ground ourselves until we are able to retreat — even if only momentarily — and regroup.

3. Textures of clothing, which can become all-consuming.

For non-sensitive people, an uncomfortable tag in a shirt or an oddly placed applique on a sweater rubbing against an arm can be mildly irritating. But for HSPs, having a tag rubbing at your neck all day easily becomes the focus of the day.  

We can be extremely sensitive to certain textures, and it can become overwhelming when we are unable to address or correct the discomfort of these textures. (On more than one occasion, I have stopped whatever I’m doing to cut off a label from inside a shirt, and I’m sure many other HSPs have done the same.)

4. Noise — even just the sound of someone chewing.

Misophonia is a condition in which certain sounds — or an excess of sound — can cause feelings of annoyance, anger, or panic. Many HSPs are very sensitive to noise and suffer from misophonia.  

And highly sensitive folks can not only become overwhelmed by common noises, like loud music or too much meaningless chatter, but also by the slightest noises, like hearing someone chew too loudly.

5. Mental exhaustion from all the “overthinking” we do.

Overthinking situations, seeking deep connection, and feeling more deeply than others are all characteristics of HSPs, which can contribute to mental exhaustion.  

It’s important to distinguish here between mental exhaustion and physical exhaustion. Symptoms of mental exhaustion include impaired judgment, an inability to focus, and being less able to complete tasks. These symptoms regularly add to an HSP’s feelings of overwhelm.   

Tools that aid in addressing mental exhaustion include breaking down tasks into smaller steps, rather than looking at projects or assignments as a whole. In this way, goals become more feasible. 

6. Physical exhaustion, such as exercise and lack of sleep, can impact HSPs, too. 

Unlike mental exhaustion, which brings about overwhelm due to emotional events, physical exhaustion is primarily caused by external factors, such as exercise, strenuous labor, and lack of sleep.  

Being physically tired hinders task completion and inhibits the ability to both plan and carry out duties. Getting enough physical rest is key in ensuring HSPs are able to perform optimally. (As it is, HSPs need more sleep than less-sensitive people.) 

7. External emotional stimuli, like a sad TV commercial or disturbing social media post.

Naturally caring, HSPs are more inclined to be empaths, and this empathetic tendency extends both to loved ones and strangers. So whether you tear up hearing about a friend’s breakup or while watching a tragic news story, it can be mentally debilitating to the highly sensitive mind.

When trying to contend with too much external stimuli, the highly sensitive brain can easily go into sensory overload. Observing the news cycle, for instance, can cause an HSP’s mind to figuratively crash, due to the amount of processing a sensitive mind must do. 

It is vital for HSPs to unplug from the news and social media — and often — in order to maintain a balanced mental homeostasis.  

8. Not having solid boundaries in place, both personal ones and with others.

Because HSPs are so sensitive to the needs of other people, we sometimes ignore our own needs in an effort to make sure others are cared for. But consistently ignoring what you need can take an emotional toll on you and become increasingly overwhelming.  

For this reason, it is important for HSPs to establish boundaries and to enforce these boundaries. But establishing boundaries as a highly sensitive person (especially if you’ve never had boundaries) can be difficult. 

However, honoring your needs, wants, and expectations does not make you selfish. Your highly sensitive mind and heart deserve to have your desires met, and creating boundaries will provide a long-term blueprint to help insure your happiness and wholeness in relationships and interactions. 

9. Anyone (ourselves or others) putting things off till the last minute.

There are few people who would say they enjoy putting things off until the last moment and then must rush to get them done. And, for a highly sensitive person, procrastination can feel like a stop on the elevator to hell and can cause a sense of overwhelm that is oft times indescribable.  

HSPs are better able to complete tasks when ample time has been allotted for the completion of said task, and when the “to-do” list is organized and structured in a way that alleviates too much last-minute production.  

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10. The “locomotion of self” — also known as the never-ending cycle of overwhelm.

Highly sensitive types often find ourselves on a figurative train that seems to run in a constant circle. Years ago, my therapist and I named it the “Locomotion of Self.”  

Since we HSPs become overwhelmed by an unending number of internal and external stimuli, the “locomotion of self” happens when an HSP becomes overwhelmed, then grows increasingly stressed out for feeling overwhelmed, which causes more overwhelm, leading to more stress over being overwhelmed … you get the picture.  

It is a never-ending cycle of overwhelm, caused mainly by our inability to identify what began the cycle of overwhelm to begin with. It’s exhausting.

To avoid this cycle, it is important for HSPs to try to remain present and in the “now,” focusing on the things and events within our immediate control. In this way, we can better handle situations and set ourselves up for continued success as we become the conductor of the “locomotive of self,” and not a caboose running off the tracks.

11. Feeling misunderstood.

Sometimes, being highly sensitive can feel like a puzzle with a missing piece: you realize exactly what is missing, but it’s hard to uncover the mystery. 

Over time, I have worked hard to love and embrace my highly sensitive self — after all, it truly is a gift, from my ability to think deeply to my empathetic nature. However, not everyone I encounter understands my sensitivity. 

As an HSP, I don’t get to pick or choose what situations will overwhelm me. I just have to embrace overwhelming experiences and use coping mechanisms to sort through them as best as I can, giving myself grace along the way. (Perhaps you can relate?)

So not being understood by people who do not identify as sensitive can be daunting and can contribute to us HSPs becoming overwhelmed.

Every HSP Will Respond to Overwhelm Differently — and That’s OK

As I’ve learned more about being an HSP, I’ve come to know that all HSPs do not experience overwhelm in the same way. Different situations affect HSPs differently, and our levels of — and responses to — being overwhelmed vary. While I may tear up at a Humane Society commercial, an HSP friend of mine may full-on cry. But no reaction is “wrong.” 

What remains consistent, however, is that HSPs often find experiences overwhelming that don’t affect non-sensitive people the same way. This overwhelms us, as we are constantly trying to help people understand that we are not weird or outliers — we are simply sensitive. And though getting overwhelmed isn’t fun, it’s just a side effect of our beautiful, sensitive souls. 

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