3 Things That Cause Overwhelm for a Highly Sensitive Person & 3 Ways You Can Cope
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed you could cry? Or has your brain ever felt like it’s being caved in on from all sides? Do you feel the weight of the world is enough to make you want to run and hide and just wait for it all to end? Do you hyperventilate or panic when there’s too much going on in and around you (too much noise, too many thoughts, etc.)? Does any kind of time pressure cause you to lose your cool and crumble to pieces?
Do these scenarios sound overly dramatic or scarily accurate?
The truth is everyone experiences feelings of overwhelm from time to time. However, the way you respond to the questions above may clue you into an aspect of your personality you’re not yet aware of or that you’ve never quite fully understood. Maybe you’ve been this way for as long as you can remember. Maybe you’re used to being told you’re overly sensitive or have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
For those of you who resonated with the above scenarios of overwhelm, there’s a good chance you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP).
I’ve written another post about what it means to be a highly sensitive person here, but for today’s post I want to focus on one reoccurring challenge that is very common for HSPs. That challenge is overwhelm.
Merriam-Webster defines overwhelm as “to cover over completely: submerge; to overcome by superior force or numbers; to overpower in thought or feeling.
When you’re a highly sensitive person and you’re experiencing overwhelm, you certainly can feel submerged, overcome, and overpowered. There are many different things that can lead to overwhelm for an HSP. Let’s look at a few common triggers.
3 common things that lead to overwhelm for a highly sensitive person
- your own thoughts and emotions
Highly sensitive people tend to be more introverted (although not always!). Introverts tend to have a very active inner thought life and inner dialogue. While this can be a benefit when it comes to sorting through your thoughts before you speak, or making elaborate and well calculated plans, it can be a challenge when dealing with overwhelm.
Whether or not you realize it, our thoughts determine much of our experience in life. When the thoughts in your mind are racing, negative, or worrisome, it leads to difficult emotions. Once your thoughts have started directing your emotions you no longer feel in control and you feel overwhelmed by them.
- the noises, sights, and sounds around you
Have you ever been in a room with a group of people and everyone around you is carrying on having a conversation and all you can concentrate on are the sights and sounds around you? Highly sensitive people are sensitive to their environment. They notice subtleties or in their opinion, not-so-subtleties.
Loud music, the annoying beeping sound in the far distance, fluorescent lights, a room that’s much too cold or too hot. All of these things affect highly sensitive people more strongly than those who are not as sensitive and can lead to feelings of overwhelm, especially if they can’t remove themselves from the situation or change the input that’s overloading their senses.
- a growing to do list
Two wonderful traits of highly sensitives are their natural inclination toward empathy and conscientiousness. Typically people who are considered highly sensitive have big hearts and love to help others. They also tend to be perfectionist and care a great deal about everything they do.
Unfortunately, these two traits can easily lead to overwhelm as they either a.) offer to help and take on more responsibilities than they can handle and/or b.) spend way too much time and energy on tasks, projects, etc. trying to make them perfect. As you can imagine, both of these scenarios put the highly sensitive in a tough spot as they find their to-do list growing by the day either because they’ve overcommitted to things or they can’t get anything done…at least not to their level of satisfaction.
3 ways you can overcome overwhelm as a highly sensitive person
1. Get out of your head and into the truth
When your own thoughts and emotions are overwhelming you, you have to get out of your head and into the facts/truth. This will look different for different people depending on things like your preferred method of processing and your faith for instance, but here are my top suggestions:
- Write down your thoughts and feelings on paper and then beside it write down the facts of the matter. For example: if you feel you have way too much to do, write out your to-do list and what is required for each item. This helps put things in perspective.
- For my Christian HSPs, I suggest you write down your fears, worries, etc. on paper and then beside it write down scriptures that combat those specific fears and worries.
- Talk to a trusted friend, counselor, or family member about what you’re thinking and feeling. It can be helpful to get some feedback from an outside source who can help you sort through your thoughts and emotions.
All of these strategies get the things that are in your head out into the open where they can be exposed to the truth.
2. Ask for accommodation or plan ahead
When you’re put in a situation where you’re exposed to sensory overload you have two options. If you know the situation is going to be overwhelming beforehand, say, a loud party, then you can plan ahead. Give yourself a “prep” talk (a prep talk is about preparing yourself for reality, not ignoring or pushing through difficult emotions) about what you will probably experience and make a plan for how you will deal with it.
The second option is to ask for accommodation. Many times the people around you who are less sensitive to sensory input don’t realize the impact it’s having on you and are willing to accommodate you if you ask politely. For instance, if you’re in a car with a group of friends and the music is way too loud, ask if they wouldn’t mind turning it down a bit. At some point you have to learn to speak up for yourself.
3. Learn to say “No” and let good enough be good enough
Listen, I get it, you want to help everyone. You want to heal the world of all the hurt and wrong doing and for things to be picture perfect. You want to be superwoman and be able to be in all places, doing all the things. But this is a recipe for overwhelm for both highly sensitives and non sensitives alike. There’s a two letter word you need to add to your vocabulary and start using more often…it’s the word “No”.
On the flip side, maybe you can help but you only have the capacity to help in a limited way, which is not ideal for you since you don’t know how to not give 100%. This is where you have to do some serious soul searching to determine who and what gets 100% of your energy and attention and who and what gets only a limited portion. Sometimes you have to let “good enough” be good enough.
As a highly sensitive person myself, I know first hand the challenges that come with the territory. I’m learning as I go and actually beginning to appreciate my highly sensitive nature. I want to help you do the same which is why I created a self-paced, downloadable course that will teach you some of the skills mentioned above (like how to say “No” and actually feel good about it). This course is “ideally” designed for the Christian woman, but many of the principles are relevant to Christians and non-Christians, sensitives and non sensitives alike.
I also offer one-on-one coaching to help highly sensitive Christian women get rid of the stress, fear, and self-doubt that keeps them stuck so they can confidently pursue the fulfilling life they crave.