Do you frequently find yourself feeling overwhelmed in crowded public spaces? Does a fast-paced work schedule leave you far more jangled than your colleagues? Or, do you simply find busy restaurants too loud and stressful — even when everyone else is enjoying themselves?
If so, there’s nothing wrong with you, and you’re far from alone — you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP). And your biology may be the reason you get overwhelmed when others do not.
Let’s look at the surprising science behind why sensitive people get overwhelmed — starting with what it means to be highly sensitive.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
About 1 in 5 people are born with the trait of high sensitivity. That means that their nervous systems process information more deeply than those of other people. Being an HSP is a normal, healthy trait, and comes with advantages — but it also means the world is “turned up” for you, and can quickly become too much.
If you’re an HSP, you may notice things that others miss, see connections that others don’t make, or simply think about things very thoroughly. You may also have stronger reactions to “small” stimuli — like being bothered by a subtle noise (the ticking of a clock), or having a stronger emotional reaction (like tears of joy, or being unable to watch a violent movie).
Still not sure if you’re an HSP? See 21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person.
Because the world is so “turned up,” being overwhelmed is a common experience for all HSPs. Here’s how to tell if you’re experiencing overwhelm.
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7 Signs You’re Getting Overwhelmed
Overwhelm can seem to come out of nowhere, but usually it’s preceded by smaller symptoms of burnout. Here are seven signs to watch for:
- Small problems start to feel like really big ones. And this can lead to feelings of nervousness or panic.
- You’re getting mentally or physically fatigued. You find yourself suddenly lacking energy or “running out of steam.” This affects your motivation for activities, social events, or work.
- You can’t concentrate. A sense of “brain fog” or even uncertainty are both common signs of overwhelm. This can include having a hard time making decisions or doing anything at all — especially things that require focus.
- You have a headache or other discomfort — for no physical reason. It’s true: stress can manifest physically in the body. (And physical stressors contribute to mental overwhelm, creating a cycle.) That means overwhelm can start with a headache, stomach ache, or other types of pain.
- Every little thing starts to irritate you. Ever seen a kid get cranky because they need a nap? Yep, adults do it too. (Personally, this is the biggest sign of overwhelm that I fall into.)
- You start obsessing over small things. Because overwhelm often feels like losing control, it’s common to cast about for anything you can control.
- Ragequitting. I use this term figuratively, since it’s not actual rage. But the urge to just leave, walk off, or quit something — even something you care about — gets stronger and stronger as you get more overwhelmed.
Do you regularly experience some combination of these things? If so, keep reading; you can manage overwhelm. And it starts with knowing why it happens…
Why HSPs Get Overwhelmed Easily
The tendency to get overwhelmed is “part of the package” when you’re highly sensitive. Biologically, there are three big reasons HSPs get overwhelmed:
- You take in (and process) more detail than other people. This happens at the level of the brain and nervous system; HSPs are simply “fine tuned” for in-depth processing of every stimulus. That means a lot more work than other brains do.
- You feel emotions strongly. We often forget that our brains “paint” emotions into our experience. An autumn leaf that is merely pretty to one person, for example, may be highly sentimental to someone whose grandmother taught them to press leaves in a journal. But some brains use more emotional paint than others, and the highly sensitive brain is a prolific artist. It adds more emotional resonance to experiences, so that HSPs may perceive profound beauty in the sound of rain, hidden malice in a well-concealed sneer, or pure joy in giving a cat a treat.
- You care more. Brain studies also show that all the parts of the brain related to empathy are much more active in HSPs. This is true not only when you think about loved ones, but also strangers. In other words: your vivid emotions come hand-in-hand with a strong concern for others. As an HSP, you may feel a sense of responsibility or concern when others would not, and that extra caring can contribute to overwhelm.
All of this combines to take a huge mental toll, which means…
Overwhelm Is About Cognitive Fatigue — Not Weakness
Processing all that information and those strong feelings comes with a cost. It’s like a computer processing more information than it has memory for — it may slow down, not perform well, or even crash.
This is true for everyone. Brainpower, or cognitive energy, is a limited resource. And if we focus too hard, on too many things, for too long, we burn out. We get overwhelmed by processing it all.
And no one processes more information than HSPs — which means it’s no surprise that they get overwhelmed more easily.
How to Deal With Overwhelm
Being highly sensitive does not mean you have to spend your life on the edge of burnout. Here are three ways you can deal with overwhelm, or prevent it altogether.
1. Move away from stimuli
Overwhelm is, at its heart, caused by overstimulation. And there’s no cure more powerful than turning the stimuli off.
One way to do this is to simply take a break in a quiet place (if you’re trapped at work, you might spend some time sitting alone in a bathroom or go for a short walk), Likewise, soothing sensations help, from a hot shower to relaxing music to surrounding yourself with beauty and artwork.
You can also do this proactively. Most HSPs have a place that is their “refuge” (often a bedroom, art studio, garden, or other place they call their own), and that’s where they go when they need to retreat. But don’t wait until you’re already overwhelmed; make it a point to spend time in your refuge every day, or at least on a regular basis.
(And do it alone. For HSPs, the presence of other people — even if they’re being quiet or doing their own thing — is like an app running in the background, taking up valuable mental energy.)
2. Set boundaries
The two biggest pitfalls that HSPs fall into are not setting healthy personal boundaries, and saying yes when you really mean to say no. Both of these happen because HSPs care deeply about others. Unfortunately, both of them also contribute to overwhelm.
If you feel consistently overwhelmed in your life, or in certain situations, ask yourself: Am I doing too much? Am I taking responsibility for things that aren’t really my problem? Am I getting my own needs met? Most importantly: Is there anyone in my life who consistently fails to respect my boundaries?
3. Separate yourself from overwhelming emotions
Because HSPs have strong emotions, emotional processing is also a common cause of overwhelm. And, since HSPs tend to “absorb” the emotions of others, sometimes it’s not even their own feelings that cause it.
That means that the simple act of separating your own emotions from those of others can go a long way toward combatting overwhelm, both in the moment and before it starts. (It also helps make your life more peaceful in general.)
It also helps if you deal with negative emotions like anger or sadness in a direct, purposeful manner — perhaps through journaling, artwork, therapy, or even crying it out.
Highly Sensitive Person, You Do Not Have to Feel Overwhelmed
For many highly sensitive people, overwhelm feels like just part of the deal. And it is something that every HSP deals with. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to develop habits that keep it to a minimum — or, in many cases, avoid it entirely. When you do, you free yourself to start living your best life. Dear HSP, I’m rooting for you.
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