Have you ever:
Found yourself avoiding crowds of people?
Felt bothered or agitated by certain sounds--like chewing, a neighbor’s TV blaring, a repetitive drip when you’re trying to sleep, even if they didn’t bother other people around you?
Wished you could just hide at home in bed?
Struggled in open workspaces?
Hated fluorescent lighting?
Had a hard time focusing or concentrating if there’s any background noise?
Found yourself being jumpy when a siren goes by?
All of the above are some of the ways I hear highly sensitive people (HSPs) talk about their challenges with sensory experiences in day to day life. Experiencing one of these issues isn’t a big deal, and you might be so accustomed to it that, even as an HSP, you barely notice. However, these kinds of situations can add up, both because the more often we experience them, the more they wear us down and because multiple sensory challenges can happen all at once. Either way, we sensitive folks can become overloaded QUICK!
When I was in college, I went to a concert for a friend of a friend who was in a band. I remember feeling uncomfortable from the moment I arrived with my friend as we walked into a tiny space painted in black from floor to ceiling with no windows. It was warm with little airflow, and I instantly felt some sense of claustrophobia. Unfortunately, things did not get any better when the band finally started to play electronic music that echoed off the walls and completely overwhelmed all of my senses. I felt completely panicked, and it took all of my energy not to run out of the venue, which was what my body was screaming I should do.
THIS was sensory overload. I had no idea what was going on at the time, and naturally, I thought that something was wrong with me and that I should hide how I felt from everyone else. It took another degree and years of learning for me to come to understand that this experience stemmed from my sensitive nature.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation that suddenly felt like TOO MUCH? Or, do you get exhausted from time to time from all the input of daily life? You might be dealing with your own sensory overload.
Here are some tips to offer relief:
Think about simple changes you can make. Would wearing some ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones make a setting a lot more bearable? Or, would it help to have your own preferred music playing in your earbuds? Sometimes just closing your eyes for a moment can help reduce sensory input and get you more grounded. If you can control bothersome lighting, perhaps you could turn off overhead lights and use some lamps of your choosing. Or, if you’re trying to sleep and a space is too bright, maybe a good eye shade could help. Alternately, might some ambient sound like a soundtrack of rain or nature sounds or white noise be useful?
Explain what you need to those around you. With friends or family you know well, you can explain in advance that sometimes you get overwhelmed when there’s too much _________. Then, the next time you find yourself feeling that way, a simple, “I’m getting overwhelmed; I need to get out of here” will make sense. If you’re around folks you don’t know as well or with whom you don’t want to disclose too much about yourself, you can make direct statements about what you need without diving into the why. For example, “The bright lights can trigger migraines for me. Can we dim the lighting?” or an “I’ll be back in a minute” if you need to step away and take a break may be all you need to decrease some sensory stimulation and take care of yourself.
Give yourself permission to walk away or leave. Sometimes stepping outside for a few minutes or excusing yourself to the bathroom can give you a break to get re-centered. Other times, it might be that you truly need to leave a situation. That is perfectly okay. If you’ve discussed this with your loved ones ahead of time, it can help make leaving easier, even if they’re disappointed or frustrated. (That’s okay too.) Or, most people understand if you say, “I’m not feeling well. I think I need to go.” Remember, it’s your job to take care of your own needs, and sometimes your needs will be different than other peoples’. That’s normal and to be expected, and I hope you still take care of your needs anyway.
Schedule time to soothe your senses. This can be especially important in today’s go-go-go word with input coming in constantly. Give yourself the gift of some time that rejuvenates, rather than overwhelms, your senses. This can be a hot bath, peace and quiet with no background noise, sitting in your yard or a pretty park, burning a candle you like. Positive experiences like these can help replenish your energy for going out into the world.
Meditate. Practicing some form of meditation or mindfulness can improve your ability to tolerate distress. These practices guide you to focus on each moment, rather than getting caught up in all that’s happening. Keep in mind that, for me, meditation is less helpful if I’m only using it to try to deal with stress (and may not actually help in the moment). Instead, it’s more like running a marathon--it takes time, practice, and commitment to really reap the benefits.
There’s a lot we can’t control in life or in our environments, but there are sometimes more things than we realize that we can shift or change. Can you take steps to reduce sensory overload in your life today? I invite you to empower yourself to take care of your needs. This doesn’t mean you’re being selfish or inconsiderate; it’s just essential. You can still hold on to your kind and sensitive nature and simply and directly take steps to help yourself. Sensory overload is real, and there’s no need to keep suffering.
Take good care,
PS--Would you like to learn more tips and tools for living your best life as an HSP? My next round of HSP Online Coaching Group starts on 8/15. Only 2 spots remain. We'd love to have you join us!
Ivy Griffin, LMFT # 51714, Director
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818