5 Types of Overwhelm You May Experience as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

If you aren’t familiar with the term “Highly Sensitive Person” or “HSP” it refers to about 20% of the population which possess a unique sensory processing trait which allows them to pick up more on subtleties in the environment, resulting in deeper processing and often being easily overwhelmed with stimuli. Most people exist on a spectrum of sensitivity. Learn more here

Whether you have recently discovered you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), or you have known it for years, chances are that managing overwhelming situations is a key component of your wellness and–let’s face it–your survival as a sensitive person.

You get overwhelmed and overstimulated more easily than others.  It’s just a fact about your nervous system.  Planning for, setting boundaries around, or responding to overwhelming situations may be a focal part of your life.  If you are a sensation-seeking HSP, life is often about balancing your desire for exciting or novel experiences, but not letting them completely wreck your delicate nerves.

When you are feeling the results of being overwhelmed (i.e. feeling fried, on edge, dizzy, out of it), this is the result of your finely-tuned nervous system saying “too much!”  It has nothing to do with “being dramatic” or “overreacting”.  It’s your body sending you a signal it has reached overload and needs a break.  Your body is taking care of you.

One of my values (when I did this exercise) is order.  I love organizing things!  It makes my brain happy.  Throughout my work with HSP clients, I couldn’t help but see patterns and organize the information coming at me.  Over time, I began to categorize this vague, ambiguous term of ‘overwhelm’ into something much more concrete and de-stigmatized. This post was born.

5 Types of Overwhelm or Overstimulation

As you review these 5 types of overwhelm, it’s important to know this is merely a framework or a starting point for your own exploration.  No two HSPs get overwhelmed in the same way or by the same things.   It’s important to learn about the various types of overwhelm and which impact you more than others.  As a sensation seeking HSP, it’s also important for you to identify which you types of sensations you crave more than others.

Additionally, as you review the information below, you will see sensory types distinguished between internal and external stimuli.  Understanding the initial source of your overwhelm helps to apply the right strategies to bring your stimulation level down.

1) External Sensory/Environmental Overwhelm (external)

This type of overstimulation comes from the stimuli outside of your body, specifically those of your environment.  This can include:

  • Loud or irritating noises (i.e. certain types of buzzing, high-pitched noises)
  • Strong smells
  • Being in a crowd and having many people bumping into you.
  • Allergens – such as being in a dusty book store or smoky area
  • Extreme cold or heat (or what feels extreme to you)
  • Touch from another person (enjoyable or not)
  • Textures of clothing or fabrics

2) Physical Sensations (internal)

This type of overstimulation is what happens inside your body, often as a result of one of your body systems.  This can include:

  • Pain (acute or chronic)
  • Hunger/fullness
  • Thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Pleasurable or pleasant sensations

3) Emotional Overwhelm (internal)

This type of overstimulation is a result of your emotional responses.  This can get confusing becuase every emotions has some type of sensation in the body.  However the key is the sensation/emotion is coming from your mood/heard/mind, not one of your body’s systems (above).  Emotional overwhelm can include:

  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Joy
  • Excitement or Anticipation

4) Social Overwhelm (external)

This type of overwhelm results from being around others.  HSPs can handle varying levels of social activities and the point where one person gets socially overwhelmed is different for each person.  Also, if you identify as an introvert or extrovert (which is not the same as being an HSP or Sensation Seeking HSP) this can also affects your ability to manage stimuli from social situations.

Social overwhelm does not mean you don’t like being around people.  It’s acknowledging  the being around other people is stimulating. Period.  Often HSPs have the superpower of picking up on other people’s subtle emotions and any incongruence in their actions/words (i.e. someone may say they are happy, but a tenseness in their smile tells you otherwise).  This can add to the overwhelm as you will be picking up on many  moresocial cues and nuances in the conversation than non-HSPs.  Empaths are highly susceptible to this type of overwhelm.

Social overwhelm can come from:

  • Hosting a party and attending to each guest
  • A long, deep conversation with a close friend (sometimes going on for too long because you are enjoying yourself so much)
  • Spending time with your partner, family, or children
  • Attending a large sporting event or concert
  • Being around people in a store or shop, even if you are not directly engaging with them

5) Mental Overwhelm (internal)

This overwhelm happens within you specifically around your thoughts, ideas, imagination, and processing.  This type is perhaps the most nuanced of all, but also perhaps the easiest/hardest to quiet through meditative or inner calming routines.  This may feel like: ‘I just can’t turn my brain off’ or ‘My thoughts are racing a mile a minute’.

Mental overwhelm can come from:

  • Learning new information (i.e. a course or class or on your own study)
  • Excessive worry and ruminating thoughts
  • Replaying things over and over in your head
  • Processing and reprocessing a situation or conversation

It’s All Connected

As you review these different types, you will start to see they are all connected and interdependent.  If you feel strong sensations of hunger, than can trigger emotional overwhelm because you are irritable and need to eat.  Social overwhelm can lead to mental overwhelm because you are replaying the social situation over and over in your head.  If you are overwhelmed with any type of external stimuli, it may trigger emotional overwhelm because you are feeling scared or helpless or shame.  

So, Now What?

Are you overwhelmed just thinking about types of overwhelm? It’s okay.

These 5 types of overwhelm are based upon my experience, my observations, and conversations with HSPs.  You can think of them as a base for you to explore how overwhelm and overstimulation appears in your life.

I encourage you to make a list of these 5 areas and how each area of overwhelm looks for you.  If your overwhelm is not divided into these categories, then how would you categorize them?

As an HSP, you notice subtleties and nuances and, as a result, will be able to skillfully identify different types of stimulation and how overwhelming (or not) they feel to you. I’d love to hear your observations in the comments below.

Ready to learn more?  Read Part 2, where I outline strategies to respond to each type of overwhelm.



Arianna Smith, MA, LPC









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