When you’re a highly sensitive person, you have a rich and complex inner life. And you tend to get overwhelmed — more so than non-sensitive people. You might get overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, coarse fabrics and big crowds. You might feel frazzled when someone is watching you work or there’s a lot to do in a short amount of time. And you might feel frazzled when there’s a lot going on around you.*
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) tend to get overwhelmed or over-stimulated because they “process more information from their environment and from within than others do,” said Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with HSPs.
According to psychologist Elaine Aron (a pioneer in studying HSPs) and her colleagues:
Further, HSPs process stimuli in a highly organized, big picture way, which includes awareness of nuances and subtleties that others might not notice. Again, at times, HSPs can become extremely overstimulated by the sheer amount of information they may be asked to process. Non-HSPs in our society, who make up about 80% of the general population, do not experience the same level of overstimulation that causes distress to HSPs, and therefore we might say that the amount of stimulation in the environment is set up for the other 80%, not for HSPs.
HSPs also can have a hard time distinguishing other’s feelings from their own, because “they feel a great deal of empathy,” Fitzpatrick said.
Since overwhelm can be a challenge, it’s important to take good care of yourself and have strategies to turn to when you’re overstimulated. Below are five helpful suggestions.
Often highly sensitive people benefit greatly from having two hours of open-ended alone time, Fitzpatrick said. She likened downtime to a palate cleanser at a wine tasting or sushi bar. It gives an HSP “a rest from sensory stimulation so that she or he can feel refreshed and ready to enjoy new ones.” Without downtime HSPs can feel depleted and irritable, she said.
Your downtime might include taking a walk, sitting at a park, journaling, reading a book, filling in a coloring book or listening to classical music — whatever helps you unwind.
Psychology professor Vince Favilla, who’s also an HSP, turns to meditation when he gets overwhelmed. “When my to-do list piles up, or my environment is overstimulating me, I put everything on pause for 5 minutes and meditate.” He likes to put on headphones, close his eyes and listen to rain or white noise. He said it gives him the “mental rest” he needs.
Fitzpatrick stressed the importance of giving yourself plenty of time for tasks and travel, so you aren’t forced to rush. For instance, maybe you wake up earlier or set longer deadlines. Again, “if you just follow the crowd then you are going to be overwhelmed, because you are processing more deeply than non-sensitive people,” she said.
Similarly, tune into yourself regularly. Pay attention to your mind and body, and meet your specific needs.
Find healthy distractions.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, guilty or any negative emotion, Favilla suggested turning to healthy distractions. For instance, you might spend time with a loved one, or watch a funny film. If there’s a “a solution to your problem, your unconscious brain can work it out while you relax.”
When everyone is vying for Favilla’s attention and his brain is in overdrive, he gets super specific. That is, he takes another look at his to-do list and separates it into: “things I need to do” and “things I don’t really need to do.”
Then he lays out the next concrete step he needs to take. He rewrites each task, so there’s less to think and worry about. He shared these examples: “Open up Google Docs” and “Put on my running shoes.”
Ultimately, the best tip? Remember that there’s nothing wrong with being a highly sensitive person. About 15 to 20 percent of the population has this trait. And as Fitzpatrick said, try to “embrace it as a kind of superpower.” Because being an HSP has wonderful gifts.
* To find out if you’re a highly sensitive person, take this test on Elaine Aron’s excellent website. And stay tuned for another piece on navigating your natural tendencies.
In the park photo available from Shutterstock