A common struggle for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) is overthinking. “My brain won’t stop,” or, “I can’t turn it off!” or “I’m overanalyzing again” are common refrains. While I know it can be incredibly frustrating and overwhelming at times, all this thinking actually makes a lot of sense for sensitive folks. One of the main characteristics of being highly sensitive is “depth of processing.” This means we think on a super deep level. We take all the information that we’ve been absorbing from our environment—another core feature of being an HSP being that we notice a lot about the world around us—and dive into our thoughts about situations, other people, our own actions, our beliefs and values or maybe even just a comment we made or a look we gave. If we’re worried or stressed, this can be great fodder for our overthinking brain to take us down the rabbit hole.
Imagine this scenario: You have a meeting with your boss about a project you’re working on, but you don’t get much feedback from your boss, positive or negative. (This can be one of the toughest things for an HSP!) You pick up on the lack of response during the meeting, and you start to worry. “Am I explaining this well?” “Is she upset with what I’m saying?” “Maybe she’s having a bad day.” You continue on and finish up the conversation, although you’re definitely feeling rattled by the end. As you head back to your office, your brain takes off—“Why did she look at me like that? I probably could have made my point better. I bet she thought I was criticizing her and I really wasn’t; I was just trying to point out the complexities. Does she think I’m not doing a good job? Wouldn’t she have told me if she thought things were going well? If she wants me to handle it differently, why didn’t she tell me? Am I letting everyone down on this project? I might not get to tackle something this important again. This is gonna show up on my performance review. All my hard work this year just went down the drain!”
Does that sound familiar? For many sensitive souls, our brains can rattle through this spiral in about 0.2 seconds. We tend to be pleasers and hard workers, and we want things to go well. Even a neutral interaction with someone can put our antennae on high alert. We can start making assumptions and coming up with a worst case scenario in no time.
Why? Because our bodies are sensitive. We have highly sensitive nervous systems, which means they’re constantly on the alert for problems or danger. Historically, we think this probably served humans well when we lived more tribally and truly needed to be on the alert to danger. Of course, the catch is that, in modern society, there’s not a ton of true, actual danger. But our nervous systems don’t always catch on to that. They quickly pick up on cues that everything may (“may” being the operative word) not be A-okay, and they react. That reaction can take us into a panic mode of fight, flight or freeze. Frustratingly, when that happens, we can’t even think straight because our higher level thought processes start to shut down as our bodies go into survival mode. You don’t have to think very hard to fight back, run away or play dead, right?
Ok, if there’s a reason this happens and we’re still dealing with it, what can we do? This is where deep breathing comes in. I know, I know, it may sound overly simplistic, but there’s something to this. Research shows that taking deep breathes that reach into your diaphragm activate the parasympathetic nervous system in the body, which is the system that physiologically reassures your body that you’re safe. It’s the balance to the sympathetic nervous system that’s ready to get you the hell out of a bad situation! So, when we’re feeling reactive and panicky, we need to get back in touch with our body system that can recognize that we’re actually okay. Deep breathing is a tool that does just that.
The next time you become overwhelmed, and you find your thoughts and worries spiraling into an ugly black hole, I invite you to:
- Try to find somewhere to be alone—close your office door, step outside, go to the bathroom and close the stall door.
- Close your eyes (if that’s safe and possible), plant your feet firmly on the floor, and begin focusing on your breath.
- Inhale slowing counting to 4. Hold your breath for a count of 2. Exhale slowly counting to 4, and hold for 2.
- Repeat 10 times.
Offer yourself this break and this time to refresh. You deserve it.
PS—if this tip resonates with you and you’re looking for more, you might be a great fit for my Highly Sensitive Person Online Support Group! A new round starts in August, and space is limited. Apply today to see if group is right for you!
Take good care of your sensitive self!
Ivy Griffin, LMFT # 51714, Director
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818