Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person calms down by listening to headphones

The Science of Calming the Heck Down (And Why We HSPs Can Struggle With It)

The secret to becoming more calm as an HSP? Practice. (Lots of practice.)

I used to feel overwhelmed all the time. You see, I didn’t know I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) until I was well into my 20s. Before then, I thought I was broken or had some kind of disorder.

Growing up, I was told I was overreactive, melodramatic, and attention-seeking. Being told that my responses and experiences weren’t valid was a strange form of gaslighting, a form of manipulation where your sanity or version of reality is questioned. So I began to doubt myself. I wondered things like:

Why can’t I cope like other people do?

How does everyone else just coast through life?

Why aren’t other people upset by the things I find upsetting?

It remained a mystery to me for years.Throughout my teens and 20s, I struggled with anxiety, depression, and burnout. I tried to fit in by hiding my sensitive nature. But it only made my mental health worse.

I yearned to be a calm person. I still do. And day by day, I think I’m getting better at becoming calm. Learning more about the neurobiology of being a highly sensitive person has really helped. Here’s what I’ve learned and I hope it can help you just as much.

The Biology of High Sensitivity    

The scientific term for being highly sensitive is sensory processing sensitivity. And one of the key traits of high sensitivity is “depth of processing.” The nervous system of an HSP literally processes information deeper — even at rest (!). This means that both internal and external cues — like temperature, pain, emotions, thoughts, and even loud noises — penetrate more deeply and take longer to work through. Imagine a computer running 20 percent harder and longer than a regular computer. Which one do you think is more likely to burn out?! It’s the same for highly sensitive people: all the subtle details we notice; all the extra information we process, all the unsuitable environments we have to endure. It’s a lot. And it’s stressful.

Which is why being a sensitive person sometimes means it can be really hard to calm down.

Why Calming Down Is So Hard

There is one word that will help you understand so much about your mind and body. With this one word, you’ll realize that you are not wrong or broken. You are not an anxious wreck. Your feelings of overwhelm are not your fault. They are innate biological responses that have kept you safe in the face of stress. And that word? Dysregulation.

Dysregulation is the “chronic activation of the nervous system and here’s how it works. There are two components to your nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. As Harvard Medical School puts it:

“The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It provides the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It calms the body down after the danger has passed.”

A healthy nervous system manages or regulates this energy well. When you’re well-regulated, you can easily shift from stress to calm. Which means a dysregulated nervous system is one that has been inundated by stress and trauma. It gets “stuck” in hypervigilance, anxiety, and overwhelm. Over time, chronic dysregulation leads to burnout and exhaustion; and HSPs already experience burnout and exhaustion more easily anyway.

Because we sensitive types process information deeply, we are more susceptible to dysregulation. So how do you go from being dysregulated to well-regulated? How do you learn to shift more easily from stress to calm? Basically, it takes practice…

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Calm Is a Learned Skill

Calm is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the soothing arm of the nervous system, the brake in the car analogy. And activating this calm is a learned skill.

In infancy, this skill is called co-regulation. An attentive caregiver soothes a child in distress, helping them experience calmness. This soothing regulates a child’s nervous system. Over time, with consistent co-regulation, a child will grow up learning to self-soothe or self-regulate.

However, we can have trouble regulating our own nervous systems if we haven’t been shown how to. Even if you had loving parents and a stable home environment, you may not have been given successful self-regulation skills. Our parents are fallible human beings. They may not have always been present and attentive. They also may have struggled to self-regulate themselves.

The good news is, you can teach yourself to self-regulate through practice. Your brain and nervous system are highly adaptable. Which means you can learn to become calm

How to Become Calm

Simply put, you develop the skill of calmness when you practice experiencing calmness. Anything that will help you soothe your nervous system and slow down will help you become calm. This will vary from person to person, but some go-to ideas to try include:

If you are struggling deeply with feelings of anxiety or overwhelm, it’s also important to reach out to someone, whether it’s a trusted friend or professional — you may need the support of a trauma-informed therapist and/or medication. There is no shame in receiving assistance to help your nervous system calm down.

Why Calming Down Matters

As I said before, being a highly sensitive person isn’t always easy. We live in a chaotic world that doesn’t value neurodiversity — which is exactly why learning how to calm down is so important.

Calm isn’t just a lovely feeling. And out of all the scientific benefits of calm, there’s one that really stands out: Resilience. When you are resilient, you can recover more easily from setbacks and stress. You’re able to cope better. You can embrace a deep and meaningful life. You can do the things that matter to you.

These days, I see my high sensitivity as a blessing instead of a curse. Being an HSP is one of the best things about me. It brings me so much creativity, love, and joy. And even though I wish I could go back and teach my younger self how to become more calm and resilient, the next best thing I can do is practice becoming calm today. And so can you.

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