Have you ever felt like you are doing everything they are telling you to do and it’s still not working? Like you are putting a whole lot of effort into something but not reaping the rewards that were promised? And then concluding that there must be something terribly, horribly wrong with you?
This is how many highly sensitive people end up feeling when it comes to trying to keep their stress levels under even a semblance of control. As a matter of fact, I used to be one of those highly sensitive people myself.
You try to think positive and take deep breaths and go for a walk and confide in family and friends and, and, and… And yet you are still waking up in the middle of the night with your mind racing a million miles a minute and that feeling in your gut telling you that the world’s about to come to an end.
And you wonder what you could possibly be missing and what you are doing wrong.
After years of living like that, I was thankful to eventually figure out that there wasn’t actually anything terribly, horribly wrong with me. But I had been missing a few crucial pieces of info.
I’ve also found out from talking to many of my fellow stressed out highly sensitive people over the years that I’m not the only one who didn’t get the memo regarding some crucial facts having to do with the stress response and with stress reduction. So I kind of want to shout them out from the rooftops and that’s what this article is for. 🙂
If your stress reduction efforts are not bringing you the inner piece you’ve been yearning for, here are two potential reasons why that might be.
TWO POTENTIAL REASONS WHY YOUR STRESS REDUCTION EFFORTS MIGHT NOT BE WORKING
1. YOU ARE ONLY ADDRESSING ONE PART OF THE PROBLEM
How do you know that you are stressed? The experience that we call stress is usually a combination of physical symptoms that you feel throughout your body and mental symptoms in the form of thoughts in your mind.
The physical symptoms might include things like muscle tension, shallow breathing, or simply feeling like your nervous system is about to burst. These are signs that your physical stress response is kicking in. The physical stress response – the fight or flight response – is governed by your autonomic nervous system, meaning that it’s not under your conscious control. It’s meant to protect you in an emergency so it comes on very quickly – so quickly that your conscious mind won’t notice it until it’s already happening.
The mental symptoms might include thoughts about how whatever you are facing is too hard and how you are not equipped to handle it.
There’s often a feedback loop between these two sets of symptoms. The physical symptoms signal your mind to worry more and your thoughts trigger more of the physical symptoms.
Your stress threshold or the level at which you switch to an experience of stress is impacted by your level of resilience. Resilience is defined as your “capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties.” A few times I’ve heard people talk about a resilience bucket and I love that analogy. When you have a full resilience bucket, you have a lot of capacity to deal with difficulties. When your bucket contents are low or your bucket is all the way empty, you just can’t deal and symptoms of stress start popping up.
Here are three groups of factors that impact the level of your resilience bucket or your ability to deal with stressors:
- Physical factors. When your body and brain are getting their needs met, it helps to increase the level of your resilience bucket. Your body and brain need enough rest, exercise, and nutrition to function optimally. These are foundational needs of all human beings, but they are extra important for highly sensitive people, because by definition, we have more sensitive nervous systems. Because of genetics, trauma, or a combination of both, our buckets tend to empty quicker than other people’s. That’s why many of us also benefit from extra strategies, such as breathwork and other somatic techniques that can help the physical stress response stay calm for longer periods of time and recover quicker when activated.
- Mental factors. Another thing that can either help your resilience bucket stay full longer or drain faster is your thoughts and beliefs. And no, I’m not telling you to “just think positive”. And I’m also not implying that anyone has complete control over what thoughts pop up in their minds. What I am saying though is that working over the long term to address stressful thought patterns and belief systems, like those associated with perfectionism or people pleasing, can be one way of significantly slowing down the bucket-draining feedback loop between your physical and mental stress symptoms.
- The amount of stress triggers you are exposed to. Putting care into your mental and physical wellbeing helps keep your bucket full. But every time you are exposed to a potential stressor, it eats up some of the bucket contents. The more stressors in your life, the quicker the bucket gets emptied. If your bucket keeps getting refilled at a faster pace than its emptied, then you are going to feel pretty balanced. But if there are too many stressors too often, your bucket will run out of resilience and you will experience stress. It’s pretty simple math, right?
In my experience, all three of the factors above need to be addressed in order to effectively reduce stress levels. Going to a yoga class won’t do it if your self talk is predominantly negative. Trying to think positive won’t do it if your nervous system is constantly overstimulated and you have no way to calm it down. All the self care in the world won’t do it if you are constantly bombarded with emotional abuse from an out-of-control boss at work.
What does work? Doing all three of the below:
- Meeting your basic physical needs of rest, movement, and nutrition and learning strategies for helping your nervous system calm down when activated.
- Working to change your beliefs and thoughts toward greater self compassion.
- Over the long term, making life choices that keep the number of potential stressors manageable (to the extent that any of us have control over it).
2. YOU ARE NOT TAKING INTO ACCOUNT THE INTENSITY OF THE STRESS
Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the intensity of your stress experience. What works for mild or moderate stress is different from what works for more intense states of stress.
When you are only mildly stressed, the parts of your brain that are capable of rational thought are still in charge. So if you are only mildly stressed, you will probably be able to think your way into a calmer experience. This is when cognitive approaches like reframing might do the trick.
But as you move toward higher states of stress, control shifts to deeper parts of the brain. These are the more instinctive animal–like parts of our brain. And these parts of the brain don’t respond to thinking. They can only be reached somatically – through the body.
And one part of all of this that is particularly crucial for many highly sensitive people to understand is that this isn’t just about the perceived severity of whatever stressful situation you are in. What matters here is the severity of your stress response. Again, by definition, our nervous systems are more sensitive. So we can have very intense stress reactions to situations that someone else might classify as mildly stressful.
So situations that someone else might be able to think or talk their way out of, we sometimes can’t. When experiencing intense states of stress, we need a way to reach those animal parts of our brain somatically – through our body.
What works? Well, here are some of my favorites:
- Calm breathing and grounding
- External co-regulation (having another person with a calm nervous system support yours)
- Internal co-regulation (using Parts Work and your Self to calm down your stressed out parts)
- Exercise (basically giving your system the fight-or-flight it has primed you for)