Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person with eyes closed due to being overwhelmed

Why Highly Sensitive People Get More Overwhelmed — and How to Shut It Down

When was the last time you removed all the outside stimulation — before it hit the crisis point? 

“Alissa, when you get a second, I need you to look at this. Thanks!”

“Sorry for the last-minute request. Do you mind sending this over by end-of-day?”

“Do you have time for a quick meeting?”

UGH.

My day had been punctuated with requests: meetings that demanded my energy, projects that needed to be rushed, questions that had to be answered. You may be thinking, “Yeah, well, that’s life!”

Well, life or not, it gets overwhelming for me sometimes. Actually, a lot of the time.

I took deep breaths, lit incense, applied lavender oil to my wrists, all in an attempt to calm down. Don’t freak out. It’s okay. Don’t freak out. Still, I felt myself starting to crack. My voice was getting high-pitched, my shoulders were tight, and it was becoming difficult to hide my irritation. I was feeling like one of those Gumby dolls being stretched and twisted every which way.

I don’t do well with being pulled in a million directions (or even, like, three directions) at once.

I’m part of the 15 to 20 percent of the population who’s considered a highly sensitive person (HSP). I don’t filter the world out as well as non-HSPs, meaning, I’m taking in extra stimulation from moment to moment. I’m acutely aware of every scent, sensation, and sound in my environment.

When I’m in a highly stimulating situation, such as receiving a bunch of requests from different humans with different emotions, tones, and personalities, my system goes into overdrive.

Dr. Elaine Aron, author of  The Highly Sensitive Person How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, explains it this way:

“Often we can get used to the stimulation. But sometimes we think we have and aren’t being bothered, but suddenly feel exhausted and realize why: We have been putting up with something at a conscious level while it was actually wearing us down. Even a moderate and familiar stimulation, like a day at work, can cause an HSP to need quiet by evening. At that point, one more ‘small’ stimulation can be the last straw.”

That last straw can look different for different HSPs, however.

Reaching My ‘Last Straw’ 

When I feel overwhelmed, my natural reaction is anger. I looked out the window as I typed another email and jealously watched as a hummingbird drank happily from the feeder. It flitted around. The trees swayed. The sun shone.

Gosh, they’re all so free. I want to be that free, I thought.

I looked back at my inbox. It felt sterile and rigid in comparison. I shuddered. I wished I wasn’t stuck to a strict schedule. I wished I had wiggle room to be free and explore. I wished I could be writing, creating, and dreaming rather than answering to everyone else.

That’s life, though, right Liss? Sometimes you gotta do things you don’t want to do. Well, sure. But now I was starting to question everything I’d been taught to believe. I scratched nervously at my arm.

My body always tells me when I’m out of alignment through physical reactions. If ever I’m living in a way that’s untrue for me, my body sends me chest pains, skin reactions, stomachaches. (Everyone has this capability, by the way. Our bodies are smart.)

As a highly sensitive person, my body is so “vocal” that I couldn’t ignore it if I tried. In other words, if I’m out of alignment, I will literally become ill until I listen to the signals my body is giving me. I know, because I lived with chronic digestive issues for several years as a result of internalizing so much stress.

Now, by 6 p.m., my body was talking, no, screaming, at me. My chest was tight and sore. I had two new scabs on my arms. Good Lord, Alissa. I shut down my computer and took a breath. I’d recently learned this embodiment practice from my friend, Bri, where you notice the location of the stress in your body and ask it what it’s telling you. I decided to give it a try.

I asked the tightness in my chest what it needed. Within moments, I heard, “Space!

By the way, when I say this, I don’t mean I literally heard that word. I just knew it was the answer. The same way you instinctively know what you feel like eating or when a person is up to no good. I knew instinctively that what I needed was space.

Why Space (and Quiet) Cures Overwhelm

I took the hint. Our physical environment is so important as an HSP, so I laced up my shoes and took myself out for a walk. 

For the first 10 minutes of my stroll, I listened to a walking meditation. It was lovely and relaxing. But as the meditation came to a close and I thought of what to listen to next, I realized that maybe I should give my ears some “space,” too.

I was always listening to something; why not just let myself listen to nothing for a while?

Crunch, crunch, crunch. I heard my feet hitting the dirt as I climbed the hill. I listened to the birds chirping as they flew from tree to tree. I heard rustling in the bushes — probably lizards or bunnies scrambling around. I felt the warm evening breeze on my skin as it whistled through the trees.

I hadn’t heard sounds like this in a while. Only in between songs or podcast episodes. I realized it was rare that I was completely alone, without anything or anyone distracting me. It was just me and nature. And man, it was nice. Really nice. As an HSP, this was external stimuli I welcomed versus the kind I was bombarded with at work.

HSP or not, however, we’re constantly being stimulated — we’ve got hectic inboxes, packed schedules, and neverending to-do lists. We’re answering questions, having deep conversations, making small talk. We fill our earbuds with podcasts, music, and guided meditations. And then we fill our free moments by scrolling social media. 

All of these things can be great and make us happy. But when was the last time you removed all of the outside stimulation? When was the last time you checked in with yourself? When was the last time you let your body tell you what it needed?

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How to Check In With Yourself to Prevent Overwhelm

It’s important for everyone to check in with themselves. For highly sensitive people, it’s especially critical. Why? Because our nervous systems are so finely tuned to everything happening around us that we need to take a step back and reassess our situation.

When we notice our overwhelm and make a point to remove ourselves from the stimulation, our bodies have the opportunity to recuperate and regenerate energy. When we habitually fail to check in with ourselves, we increase our chances of experiencing extreme frustration, burnout, and anxiety — and some HSPs already have enough anxiety as it is (we don’t need more).

Checking in with yourself is the definition of self-care. It’s simple, inexpensive, and can be done anytime, anywhere. Checking in means slowing down enough to feel your feelings. It means noticing where you’re experiencing stress in your body. It means asking yourself what you need at that moment. It means resting when needed.

I know your schedule is busy. I know you want to do it all. I know, because I do, too! But don’t underestimate the power of listening to your body and taking space away from the crazy. 

When your cup is full, you’ll be able to show up better for yourself and others, especially if you’re a highly sensitive person like I am. We may get overwhelmed more than most, but we can also learn to manage it with some coping strategies — and that is key.

If this article helped you, check out more of Alissa’s work at Life by Alissa, and join the waitlist to become a member of the Highly Sensitive & Soulful Membership!

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