HSP overwhelm… Other than the word sensitive itself, I wonder if there’s any word that comes closer to describing the HSP experience than the word overwhelm? It’s even in the title of the HSP bible – Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You.
As a highly sensitive person myself and as a life and career coach who works with highly sensitive people, I have had ample opportunities to observe this overwhelm in action. And one thing I have discovered is that there actually isn’t just one overwhelm. Instead, our collective overwhelm comes in different flavors and has different causes, each of which requires its own strategies to address.
Here are the top 5 causes of HSP overwhelm along with potential ways to move through it and get to the other side.
5 CAUSES OF HSP OVERWHELM AND HOW TO ADDRESS EACH
1. Intensity of our stress response and emotions
Highly sensitive people have a more reactive nervous system than other people. This means that an HSP’s stress response and emotions are triggered more easily than a non-HSP’s stress response. When our system is flooded with stress hormones and when the emotional parts of our brain take over, it’s an overwhelming experience for sure. Many people feel like they become a different person or like they aren’t in control of their actions the same way they normally are. It’s overwhelming.
There’s no one and done solution to this flavor of overwhelm. Learning to keep stress levels manageable and learning to ride the waves of emotion is a lifelong project for many HSPs. But here are some things that might help in the moment:
- Relax your muscles and breathe calmly through your nose, all the way down into your belly.
- Move to expel some of the extra nervous energy.
- Seek support from someone safe.
And here are some links to further info on ways to address stress and emotions in the longer term:
- Identify and practice ways to reduce stress.
- Learn strategies for regulating emotions.
- Adopt a system for processing emotions, such as Parts Work.
2. Emotional contagion
HSPs tend to have high levels of empathy. To the point that the terms “HSP” and “empath” are often used interchangeably. So not only do we get overwhelmed by our own emotions, we are easily affected by other people’s emotions and energies too. We literally feel other people’s feelings in our own bodies. Again, it’s overwhelming.
Here are some potential ways to lessen the impact of other people’s emotions on you when you are interacting with them:
- Stay present in your own body and aware of what’s happening in your own nervous system.
- If you notice yourself tensing up or getting activated, relax your muscles and breathe calmly in through your nose and all the way down into your belly.
- If the other person is agitated or upset, remind yourself (repeatedly if necessary) that these are their emotions, not yours.
- Visualize yourself inside a protective bubble that other people’s emotions can’t enter.
If other people’s energies stick with you even after the interaction is over, whatever strategies work to process your own emotions will probably work for letting go of other people’s emotions as well. For me, it has worked best to:
- Turn inward using the Parts Work approach.
- Find and focus on the emotion in my body.
- Visualize my parts letting the emotion go.
Thanks to #1 and #2 above, many HSPs suffer from chronic stress and chronic exhaustion. This is particularly the case for HSPs who haven’t yet learned about high sensitivity or haven’t yet had a chance to implement the self care strategies that enable HSPs to find peace and calm. But it’s also not uncommon for HSPs who are generally doing fine to push themselves just a bit too far and for occasional bouts of overstimulation and tiredness to slip in.
It’s probably pretty obvious where I’m going with this. Trying to tackle any task – no matter how simple – when you are wiped out, is going to be overwhelming. Tasks that would be doable at your full capacity can easily feel insurmountable when your bucket is empty.
Remedies for this flavor of overwhelm are also pretty obvious. In the short term:
- Thank the voices that tell you to “just push through” for their concern, but then go get some rest. When feeling well-rested, try tackling the overwhelming task again.
If you are chronically exhausted:
- Work on reducing stress.
- Work on resolving any sleep problems.
- Get regular quiet time. (More than other people! Most HSPs need more quiet time to let our nervous systems rest.)
I was going to write that many HSPs struggle with perfectionism, but that might be an understatement. I’m not sure I’ve ever met an HSP who did not have any perfectionist tendencies in at least some areas of their lives. And the more entwined you are with these tendencies, the more overwhelming life gets.
First of all, trying to attain perfection is a whole lot of work just in terms of time and effort expended. And if you feel like you have to attain perfection in many different life areas, the amount of work gets multiplied. Second, perfectionism brings with it lots of overwhelming feelings. Like the fear of the consequences of not being perfect. And then the feeling of failure when we inevitably fall short of the high standards we have set for ourselves.
Fortunately, there are ways to address perfectionism and ease the overwhelm it tends to bring with it:
- Engage in Parts Work to get to know your perfectionist parts and work with them to ease their fears.
5. Lack of clarity about what needs to be done, what steps need to be taken, and/or where to start
One of the dictionary definitions of overwhelming is “very great or very large”. And sometimes in life we get handed tasks that are “very great or very large”. In other words, your overwhelm may be an appropriate and understandable initial reaction to a task that’s big, challenging, and/or complicated.
While anyone might feel overwhelmed when faced with a challenging task, for HSPs, this overwhelm is often exacerbated by a couple of different factors. First, HSPs are often wiped out from any combo of overwhelm causes #1 through #4. Second, HSPs’ brains process information deeply and HSPs often feel rushed and pressured by the pace of life and the sense of urgency pushed on us by mainstream society.
As I was writing this article, it occurred to me that overcoming HSP overwhelm is potentially a pretty overwhelming prospect. All these different causes… And what if you are struggling with more than one of them or even all of them? Investigating and implementing all the strategies suggested in this article would probably take a really long time.
What an overwhelming task!
So how do you move forward from that initial reaction? The remedy for this flavor of overwhelm is remembering that very great or very large tasks never get completed in a single instance. Here’s a process to consider for tackling challenging tasks:
- Break the task into steps and write the steps down.
- If you don’t know how to approach a part of the task, make that into a step: “figure out how to…”
- Depending on the nature of the task, the steps may need to be completed in a particular order, but if not, put the steps in priority order.
- Does the first step on your list seem doable? If not, can it be broken down into even smaller steps?
In addition, I have found that most HSPs benefit from letting challenging tasks stretch over several days, weeks, or months – depending on the nature of the task of course. How much “challenge” can you manage in one sitting without losing it? Do that and let the rest wait for another day.
HSP OVERWHELM IN REAL LIFE
I have put the sources of overwhelm into neat categories here, but of course we all know that real life isn’t always this neat. The different flavors of overwhelm can all show up at the same time, creating a jumbled up soup that’s more like extramaxoverwhelm. Maybe you haven’t been getting enough sleep lately, so you are feeling more tired than usual. Maybe you then have a disagreement with your partner and you both get emotional. And maybe to top it all off, you have a big work task that you want to complete to perfection, but that is so complicated that you don’t even know where to start.
And so you just feel overwhelmed by it all.
I know what it’s like because I’ve been there.
But if you are in the throes of that kind of overwhelm right now, I want to give you hope that it can get better. The more awareness you have over what’s happening and why and the more you start chipping away at the things that are driving your HSP overwhelm, the easier it all will get.
Little by little. One step at a time.