I’d had a few stressful weeks. I’d reached the end of a rather challenging degree program — one riddled with dissertation deadlines, long hours and constant pressure, at the same time I was experiencing some big life changes at home. Of course, it would be a strange and overwhelming time of life for anybody. But, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I knew that a massive amount of downtime would be necessary in order to process everything well.
Now more than ever, I needed to spend time in my sanctuary: my lovely little bedroom with its velvety armchair and its many plants and candles.
Unfortunately, my landlord had other plans.
He had chosen this summer period to have construction work done in the house. The timeline: indefinite. The noise: jaw-clenchingly loud, and right outside my room. Imagine drilling, sawing, and banging, every weekday, from early in the morning to late in the afternoon.
Any sleep or downtime became impossible. The builders spoke loudly, blasted their radio and left an absolute mess in the corridor and bathroom. They made jokes about me being in their way. It felt like they were everywhere, all the time — on the front doorstep, outside my room, outside the bathroom. I had to squeeze past them apologetically every time I needed to go somewhere.
Suddenly, I could barely string a sentence together. Any sort of conversation felt painful — like when you’ve been listening to earbuds too long and you simply need to stop. My stress levels peaked. Little tasks seemed huge. By the time the evening came round, I would be so frustrated, so frazzled, that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. It was as if my senses had tensed up and recoiled out of self-defense, and they had forgotten how to relax; I was fizzing over with input. And I knew it would all start again the next day.
Finally, I went to a café to seek solace. After I’d ordered my coffee, some energetic funk music started playing on the radio. A baby began to wail. That was the last straw. I wanted to wail too, louder than that baby, and drown out all the sounds of the world.
If you are a highly sensitive person, you may be able to relate this feeling of utter sensory despair. It’s called overstimulation.
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Why Do Highly Sensitive People Get Overstimulated Easily?
If you’re wondering why this happens to you, or someone close to you, it’s important to remember that the HSP brain is wired slightly differently than other people’s brains. Highly sensitive people are particularly prone to overstimulation, because they process things more deeply than other people. Research suggests that their brains process everything in their environment on a deep level, essentially taking note of — and thinking about — every little thing.
One result of this is that the HSP will notice a lot of things that the non-HSP might not: the ticking of the clock, the hardly perceptible music, the bright lights, the jiggling knee of the person two tables away. Their senses are constantly alert and on guard. (Another result is that, according to computer models, highly sensitive individuals tend to come out ahead long term — suggesting it may be an evolutionary advantage.)
But all this “noticing” means extra cognitive work for HSPS. This is why they are more prone to feeling “spent” and exhausted at the end of each day.
HSPs have also proven to have higher levels of empathy, which means that they tend to be particularly aware of other people’s feelings (and emotions hit them harder). In fact, they are so in tune with the cues of other people that it’s not uncommon for HSPs to start feeling other people’s feelings.
This constant “absorption” of emotions can be a beautiful thing. HSPs are often emotionally rich, altruistic individuals. However, there is a downside: When they themselves are tired or stressed, taking on people’s feelings can lead to cognitive overload. This is why conversations became difficult for me when the building works were going on. Since my mind was already “full,” the thought of processing and absorbing someone else’s emotions — something I do naturally — filled me with dread.
To avoid overstimulation, HSPs need downtime to process everything: noises, thoughts, feelings. This quiet time gives them the space they need in order to think clearly and sort through everything they picked up on during the day. Too much exterior input and not enough downtime can lead to the HSP panicking, getting muddled, and eventually rushing towards the nearest “exit.”
Which is exactly what I did on my own noisy, overstimulating day.
Desperate for a Way Out
Still in a state of sensory overload, I left the café and walked down the street in an anger-fuelled furor. I grumbled under my breath at anyone who dared make noise around me. I’m ashamed to say I even had a go at the too-loud hand dryer in a public bathroom. It wasn’t rational, but sensory overload seldom is; I was angry that I felt overstimulated, and very upset that I had nowhere to get peace.
(It turns out, I shouldn’t feel so bad about how angry I got. Even in controlled tests, people exposed to overstimulation become alienated, disorderly, and mentally impaired.)
Thankfully, I happened upon an art exhibition. I wandered inside and found absolute silence and beautiful artworks, including some original Quentin Blake illustrations. I walked around, spending time with each piece, feeling for the first time that day that I was being filled with something light and positive. My senses started to slowly uncoil, to soften up, to pulsate. They even dared put out a few receptors, to take in some of the best bits of the outside world.
I realized that there was a place in the world for me, a rather large place, in fact, full of books, art, and serenity. There was another girl wandering around the exhibition. She was alone and had a peaceful energy about her. I immediately felt close to her, understood in my solitude.
We looked at each other, and I found myself smiling briefly.
Of course, this wasn’t the end of my overstimulation. This was the beginning of the end, an easing of symptoms, but my shy senses were ready to snap again if need be. Over the next few days, I worked out a few techniques to recover from the overstimulation, even with the builders in close proximity.
Thankfully for me (and for everyone around me), I discovered that overstimulation is only temporary. With the right techniques, it goes away and barely even leaves a trace. It didn’t take me long to bring my mind back to a place of quiet, where I could finally focus on planning out a life for myself. My new life in the autumn.
6 Ways to Bounce Back from Overstimulation
If you, too, are an HSP dealing with overstimulation, here are a few tried and tested tips to help you recover:
- Go to your favorite quiet place: your room, the library, a bookshop, a museum. Cafés are wonderful but can get noisy, so if everything just feels too loud, go to a place where you know silence is respected and valued. (Remember, the nearest quiet space available won’t always be in your home, but libraries and bookshops are almost always a safe bet.)
- Listen to your own playlist or favorite song, something that’s familiar and close to you. When overstimulated, any new sensory input can be distressing, but familiar sounds can sometimes soothe. During the construction, I listened to a few of my favorite songs over and over — and the mellower they were, the better. (If you want my personal pick, “Promise” by Ben Howard soothed me the most.)
- Get away from your phone. Put it down, Put it on flight mode, leave it downstairs, or go for a long walk without it. It can really help to distance you from any unnecessary stimuli.
- Close your eyes. When people are exposed to extreme sensory overload, they have the instinctive urge to close or shield their eyes and cover their ears. By doing this proactively, you can sometimes head off getting to that extreme state. Interestingly, simply closing your eyes can also, sometimes, help deal with too much noise. The brain doesn’t know the difference, per se, and knows only that it has a lot of sensory data to process.
- “Feed” yourself with art. Whether it’s literature, paintings, music, street art, whatever — just find something beautiful and take it in. Let it move you. The energy gain is huge.
- Ask for quiet. It’s not surprising that HSPs, who never want to be a bother to others, skip this step. It wouldn’t work with the construction crew, of course, but if you’re in a car with a friend who’s jamming music and can’t stop talking, or interrupted by your partner or roommate, sometimes you can simply tell them what you need. “I’ve been having a really stressful time and I’m overstimulated. Do you mind if we do some quiet time?”
Last, don’t underestimate the power of connecting with other HSPs; they get it! If you’re not sure who to turn to, try joining the Highly Sensitive Refuge Facebook Group. Everyone there understands what going through overstimulation is like — and we’re always happy to offer you a (virtual) mug of calming tea.