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.
Being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has its joys and struggles. The joys include being able to feel beauty and joy very deeply, being in tune with the world around you and your loved ones, and having a rich inner world and imagination. However, the struggles include being easily overwhelmed due to the amount of stimuli you take in. What’s an HSP to do so that they can capitalize on their strengths and also manage the overwhelm?
In my previous post, I outlined five types of overwhelm that you may experience if you’re an HSP. In this post, I’ll focus on specifically how to manage these types of overwhelm. Remember, no two people get overwhelmed by the same things or the same way. Thus, my post in no way accounts for every type of way you can get overwhelmed and every way to handle it. My hope is for this information to get your HSP juices flowing so you can create solutions that are unique to you.
Before We Begin
How can you work on lessening your overwhelm or overstimulation if you aren’t aware that it’s even happening? This may seem like simple, but knowing when you are overwhelmed is not so straightforward for many HSPs. Chances are, you were not raised with an HSP-aware caregiver or even aware of your sensitivity yourself, so how would you ever have the words to describe your experience? It’s likely that your caregivers assumed you were ‘acting out’ or ‘being dramatic’ when you were actually overwhelmed by stimuli or by others’ emotions. Perhaps you were scolded as being ‘defiant’ or ‘shy’ when you tried to avoid overwhelming situations, teaching you that you had to just ‘tough it out’ or ‘tune it out’ when you were overstimulated.
Therefore, adult HSPs may not always know when they are overstimulated. They may just notice feeling frazzled, spacey, or stressed. They may just notice the desire to numb out with TV, food, or substances. Add into that the judgement or shame they may have received as a child for being “too sensitive”, making it even harder to identify and accept their trait. (If you aren’t sure if what you feel is sensory overwhelm, this post may help).
But fear not! As time goes on, you’ll learn to better understand when you are overwhelmed or when you are not. You’re in the right place.
Before starting, take some time to reflect and write down times that you were overwhelmed – how did you know? Did you feel spacey? Irritable? Did you have a head ache? What thoughts were going through your head? What were your feelings? Who were you with? What were you doing? Include as many details as possible.
Once you have identified you’re overwhelmed, it’s important to understand where the overwhelm is coming from. Sometimes it isn’t specifically clear or there can be multiple sources. Take your best guess of the source of overwhelm and then try out a strategy or two. Remember, sometimes overwhelm can come from multiple sources or create a snowball effect (as described in Part 1).
Strategies for Handling Overwhelm Based On Source
Below are several strategies (but definitely not all inclusive) to handle overwhelm when you suspect its source. (Make sure you have read Part 1, to understand the context for the following information). Some include specific examples depending on the situation, others will be more generalized strategies.
1) External Sensory/ Environmental Stimulation
Source: Loud or irritating noises (i.e. certain types of buzzing, high-pitched noises)
- Wear earbuds or noise-canceling headphones.
- If work-related: Can you work from home? Work off-hours?
Source: Strong smells and allergens
- Limit your time in these places, wear a scarf (which you can subtly use as a mask), take frequent breaks for fresh air.
- Educate those around you about your sensitivity to smell and ask for no strong scents or to shower/change clothes before spending time with you.
Source: Being in a crowd
- Remove yourself from the crown to a quieter, less crowded space for breaks (outside, your car, bathroom).
- Go to events during off times or off-hours.
Source: Extreme cold or heat (or what feels extreme to you)
- Bring a space heater or fan into your space.
- Ensure regular access to cooling/warming spaces (i.e. hot baths, saunas, etc).
- Spent part or all of your time in a more temperate climate.
Source: Touch from another person
- Educate others about your trait and the importance of asking for permission to touch you.
- Tell people ‘Sorry, I’m not a hug person’ or ‘I’m fighting a cold.’
- If being physically intimate with a partner, take breaks (and let your partner know why you need them).
Source: Textures of clothing, fabrics, or shoes
- Ideally, avoid clothes that are itchy, uncomfortable, or annoying.
- Layer scratchy clothes with soft/comfortable layers underneath.
- Remove tags.
- Use tape or bandaids to cover scratchy areas.
- Limit your time in those clothes (i.e. take them right off after work).
- Take items to a tailor or shoe cobbler to see if they can adjust the clothing/shoe to make more comfortable.
2) Physical Sensations
Source: Pain (acute or chronic)
- Find a pain specialist or chronic pain support group to help manage the toll of this illness.
Take some kind of pain remedy (heat/cold/over the counter meds/homeopath, etc).
- Allow yourself to rest and recover
- Inquire into a reduced work schedule, FMLA, working from home, or adjusted work hours.
- Listen to your body signals and respond as soon as possible.
- Carry snacks with you so that you don’t get ‘hangry’.
- Know your body and when you’ll get hungry and plan your day accordingly.
- Advocate to eat or not eat, even of others around you are encouraging otherwise.
- Practice intuitive or mindful eating so you are better able to recognize body signals.
- Carry a water bottle with you or keep one in your car/purse.
- Locate drinking fountains when in a new building.
- Lay down in your car/office/home with your eyes closed to rest.
- Power naps!
- Ensure you have a regular sleep/wake schedule, even on days off or vacation.
- If persistent may indicate other medical or emotional issues to address (seek out a medical and/or mental health provider.)
3) Emotional Overwhelm
The type of overwhelm that comes from strong, intense emotions (both pleasant and unpleasant) such as anger, grief, sadness, and joy.
- Educate yourself around the benefits of emotions and what they are trying to tell you.
- Learn to identify your emotions, what triggers them, where you feel them in your body, etc.
- Once you identify the emotion, identify the appropriate way to feel/express it.
- Seek out support from a friend, therapist, or support group.
- Use distraction techniques (television, chores) or self-soothing techniques (baths, cuddling a pet, music, art).
- Use grounding techniques, such as mindfulness, medication, journaling, walking, etc
- Basic self-care may help minimize the intensity of emotions.
- Create a user manual for yourself and share with others
- Practice the container or close a book exercise to contain distressing thoughts or images. (A therapist can help with this.)
- If persistent or life-threatening, seek out a crisis line (see resources here) or a mental health professional for additional support.
4) Social Overwhelm
This type of overwhelm results from being around other people, either one-on-one or large groups. It often arises due to an HSP’s ability to pick up on subtleties in others’ emotions and can be confounded by the fact that social situations may take place in very stimulating environments.
- Set limits ahead of time around when you will leave/arrive the event.
- When meeting up with a friend, say “I’ll have to leave at ___. Please help me do this.”
- Arrange your own transportation to social events so that your departure doesn’t depend on someone else’s schedule or needs.
- Learn to politely say no to events or invites that do not nourish you.
- Adopt the mantra: “If it’s not a hell yes, then it’s a no.”
- Consider replacing some of the in-person time with loved ones with talking on the phone, video-chatting, or texting. This allows you to stay connected but also have boundaries around your time and energy.
- If you love to host gatherings, consider sharing the responsibility with a friend or schedule gatherings for when you feel your best, not just when it’s convenient for others.
- View your social energy as something finite that you need to ‘budget’. Determine how you can budget your social energy each week, month, or day.
- Limit yourself to spending time with only the people who really matter to you (this exercise may help). If this is not possible, exercise as much control around the time, frequency, and setting when interacting with people that drain you.
- Take breaks to a quiet area to rest, distract, or close your eyes.
- Advocate to gather in social settings that will minimize stimulation (i.e a potluck at someone’s quiet home instead of a noisy restaurant.)
- Learn and practice boundary setting, emotional shielding, or other practices to help you not take on the emotions of others (A HSP/Empath knowledgable therapist can help you learn to identify advanced skills around this.)
5) Mental Overwhelm
Mental overwhelm happens within you specifically around your thoughts, ideas, imagination, and processing. Given HSP’s propensity towards deep processing, it isn’t always a bad thing to have an overactive inner world, but when our mental world becomes distressing means we need to try out strategies to balance ourselves.
- Set aside time daily, weekly, etc to have time to just ‘do nothing’ but process your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It’s wise to have downtime every day to do so.
- Quiet your mind with a walk in nature, stretching, coloring, or other soothing activity.
- On the other hand, intense or strenuous exercise can also clear and reset the mind as well.
- Journal, write letters or do a “brain dump” to help get your thoughts out of your head and on paper.
- Start a ‘worry book’ (a place to write down all your worries) or schedule worry time.
- Distract yourself with something mindless but active, like cooking, baking, sewing, walking, etc. Often this allows your brain to continue processing in the background while you regulate with something comforting.
- If ruminating about a situation, enlist the help of a friend to help talk it out and see if your observations are valid.
- Practice the container exercise and return to your worries/thoughts at a pre-determined time when you can do something about them.
- Understand that worry is a learned habit and it can be unlearned.
- Learn these skills to put your brain in its place.
- If you find yourself thinking about a recent interaction with someone, reach out to them to check and see if that was their perception of what you said/did. If so, remedy the situation. This type of interaction requires honesty, vulnerability, and trust on both parts.
- If your distressing thoughts are persistent or life-threatening, seek out a crisis line or a mental health professional for additional support.
When All Is Said And Done
Are you overwhelmed with all the different ways that you can respond to overstimulating situations? It’s ok! Give yourself time to come back to this list, again and again, to help you continue to hone your skills for managing overwhelm.
After you have realized you’re overwhelmed, the type of overwhelm, and then managed yourself skillfully (or not), the work is not done. Rest and recover from the overwhelm and then reflect on the situation. Through reflection (not rumination!) determine what strategies for managing the overwhelm worked best, what didn’t, and develop a plan for next time.
Where do you struggle the most is managing overwhelm? Is it at work? Taking on others’ emotions? A busy mind? Share in the comments below.
Would you like an HSP-savvy therapist to help you learn how to manage your overwhelm? You’ve come to the right place. Learn more about my practice here.
Arianna Smith, MA, LPC