Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person is overstimulated

Get Overstimulated Easily? You Might Be a Highly Sensitive Person

A few years ago, I had a friend who always liked to be in the center of things. You know the type. If there was a crowd, she ran straight into it. She was always on the go, bouncing from one activity, project, or life commitment to the next. She was fun to be around, but exhausting. Let’s call her Jane.

Jane decided to have a birthday party, and I, along with dozens of others, was invited. It was a Friday night group dinner followed by drinks and dancing at a video game-themed nightclub. Downtown. Did I mention it was a Friday night?

Usually I spent Friday nights in the comfort of my own home, surrounded by a stack of books, my two cats, and a thick quilt for company. But I was just getting to know Jane, and was eager to please, so I said yes. 

I would soon come to regret this.

The dinner was fine, despite having to nearly yell to make myself heard over the din of the modern farm-to-table restaurant. The real disaster was the nightclub. It was two floors of strobe lights, dancing, and groups of friends on their third round of shots. And so much noise! Thumping bass on the dance floors, and explosions, pings, and dings from the video games. Yelling at the restaurant now seemed easy compared to the strange gestures I had to make to communicate in this place.

Jane was getting sloshed, that 20-something birthday rite of passage. My head felt sloshed, even with very little alcohol in my system. The wall of noise and activity felt like an actual force crushing me. My emotions went into overdrive, and my energy levels dipped dangerously low like one of the cartoon characters in the video games.

Jane and her besties were having the time of their lives. Why wasn’t I? What was wrong with me?

It would be many years before I learned the answer: Nothing. Absolutely nothing was wrong with me in that situation — I’m simply a highly sensitive person. And if you can relate to my story, you might be one, too.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are the 20 percent of the population who feel and process things deeply. You might be an HSP if you’ve ever felt the overwhelming urge to retreat from a loud and busy mall, crowd, or party. If a “normal” day at school or the office completely wears you out. If you need lots of downtime to recover from activities that others deem “fun” or “exciting.”

Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist and researcher, coined the term “highly sensitive person” over a decade ago, and it describes someone who is extra sensitive to stimulation of all kinds, from sights to sounds to emotions. It’s not a choice or a disorder, and it’s not related to conditions like PTSD, autism, anxiety, or depression. Although being an HSP comes with challenges, it also brings strengths, such as increased empathy and the ability to notice details and patterns that others miss.

Want to find out if you’re a highly sensitive person? See how many signs from this post of mine apply to you.

Why HSPs Get Overstimulated Easily

I’m not the first person to have retreated from a crazy night club, and I won’t be the last. Crowds and big drunken birthday bashes have the power to stress out anyone, HSP or not.

But for HSPs like me, overstimulation is a serious battle. I left my friend’s party early and headed home because I just couldn’t take it any more. Every nerve ending felt rubbed raw. I was mentally and physically exhausted. My head throbbed.

Why does this happen to HSPs?

According to Dr. Aron, HSPs get overstimulated easily because we’re processing so much. “If you are going to notice every little thing in a situation, and if the situation is complicated (many things to remember), intense (noisy, cluttered, etc.), or goes on too long (a two-hour commute), it seems obvious that you will also have to wear out sooner from having to process so much,” she writes in her book.

Science backs this up. Not only do HSPs notice more social and emotional cues than others, but they also have more mirror neuron activity, feel emotions more intensely, and have more activity in the emotional centers of their brains.

In other words, there’s a lot going on in our heads.

Other people, like Jane, simply don’t notice as much as HSPs do. To put it simply, the flashing lights don’t seem as bright, the music not as loud. Every word, every facial expression, every slump of the shoulders from those around them isn’t processed to the Nth degree. So they don’t burn out as quickly as we do.

“Regular” people may think we’re weird. Or uptight. Or just boring. If they only knew how much we experience internally at every moment. The stimulation is always there — we’re just the ones who see it.


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What to Do When You’re Overstimulated

Whether it’s a busy day at work or a big party, being overstimulated sucks. Here are four things I’ve learned that I hope help you.

1. Go in fresh.

If you know you have a big event coming up — the kind that will overstimulate you — they key is to walk in with your physical and emotional energy levels high. For example, it might mean skipping exhausting errands before the office holiday party. Or managing your emotional input/output. If certain tasks (or people) always leave you on empty, save those for a less busy day (or avoid them altogether if possible).

2. Give yourself permission to say no.

No one likes to disappoint others, but for highly sensitive people, it’s almost pathological. Because we notice so much about people — their body language, tone of voice, the slightest tremor in their voice — we know when we’ve disappointed someone, even if they aren’t saying it. And we hate it; our empathy runs deep.

That’s why it’s crucial we learn to say no to activities that will overstimulate us. I’ll be honest, I haven’t mastered this one yet myself, but I’m learning. Here are some tips to help you say no effectively.

3. Give yourself permission to leave.

Similar to #2, learn to leave overstimulating situations before the crash. This means listening to your body’s signals: Do you feel physical pain or discomfort anywhere? How is the energy of the room affecting you? What are your emotions telling you right now? HSPs naturally tend to do this well, although if you’re drinking alcohol, are distracted, or simply overtired, you may miss what your body is trying to communicate.

Another hurdle to overcome is saying goodbye. Well-meaning friends or family protest: “You’re leaving already?” “No, stay longer!” It helps to explain that although you love them very dearly, you just have to go. Try, “I’m a highly sensitive person,” or, “I’d love to stay, but I’m exhausted.”

4. Train your brain to respond differently.

Yes, really. Here’s a guide from HSP therapist Dr. Julie Bjelland; her technique is geared toward combating the emotional overwhelm that often goes hand-in-hand with overstimulation. Essentially, it’s about noticing your emotional triggers and stressors, and writing them down. Then, it’s about learning to pause and reflect before sliding down the slippery slope of stress. The goal is to actually wire new neural pathways in your brain, so over time, the things that used to overload you don’t affect you as much.

HSPs, the world wasn’t made for us, with all its noise and stress. You’ll always be prone to overstimulation, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in constant sensory overload. With some tricks, you can live a balanced, happy life.

What strategies help you avoid or manage overstimulation? Let me know in the comments below.

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