Your heart starts pounding. Your muscles tense. You get hot and start to sweat a little. It’s hard to think straight. You just want to get out of there ASAP. You, my sensitive friend, are in a moment of overwhelm.
Being overwhelmed is no fun for anyone, least of all highly sensitive people. When we human beings feel completely overloaded, our brains and bodies instantly go into survival mode. Our higher level cognitive processes shut down, and our body goes into a fight-flight-freeze response to do what it needs to do to keep us alive. In the above example, the sympathetic nervous system is responding to some perceived danger, the stress hormone--cortisol--is freely flowing, and adrenaline is pumping through the body, all in an effort to “survive” the current crisis.
Now, the catch is, in our modern world, there’s not often true danger. Sure, we may hate being put on the spot in a meeting or having our minds go completely blank when an acquaintance asks us a simple question, but these situations, of course, don’t pose an actual threat to our lives. Our brains and bodies just don’t always know this. They’re designed to keep us safe and alive, and when they send the signal for “danger,” we physiologically respond, even if we “know” that the situation really isn’t a big deal.
As sensitive people, we tend to be more on the alert, perceive “danger” more often, and become more overwhelmed and exhausted, as a result. Ever felt the comedown of an adrenaline crash? Ugh!
What can we do to help ourselves with this overwhelm?
Identify and recognize your triggers. We all have situations, emotions, or even certain people who trigger our overwhelm. For me, it’s when I have too much to do and have the sense that I can barely keep my head above water, when I’m tired or sad, or when I’m around some family members. I know in these moments that I don’t have a lot to give, and I quickly become overwhelmed. But, I can work with this knowledge and build in practices and boundaries to help take care of myself. What are your triggers? If you’re not sure, spend a couple of weeks tracking when and where you feel overwhelmed, and identify those patterns.
Focus on self-soothing in the moment. Once overwhelm has started, the trick is to be kind and gentle and soothing with ourselves, just like we would with a child or someone we love. If you can, take a break from the situation. This can even be going to the bathroom for a moment. Deep breathing is one of the best things we can do as it actually triggers the parasympathetic nervous system response, which sends messages to our brain and body that we’re ok and all is well. Even rubbing your arm or giving yourself a hug can offer a lot of comfort (although you may want to make sure you’re alone first :) ).
Remind yourself that this feeling will pass. No experience of overwhelm lasts forever. While we can sometimes be in chronic overwhelm for extended periods, even that has its end point, especially because once we recognize it, we can make intentional choices to take care of ourselves. In the stressful moment of overwhelm, comforting words and phrases can be really helpful. “I’ll get through this just like I have before.” “I am capable.” “It’s all gonna be ok.” "This too shall pass."
Engage in self-care afterwards. I often compare our stress levels to water in a glass. When we’re getting overwhelmed, our glass is full and any new drop of water causes it to overflow. So, we need to do things to lower the water level. Journaling, going on a peaceful walk, listening to music we love, talking to a good friend, taking a hot bath and numerous other coping skills can help reduce our stress level. (If you need more ideas, shoot me an email, and I’ll send you my list of 80 Coping Skills.)
When we’re managing our stress well on a regular basis, we may find we don’t get overwhelmed as often because we have more energy and emotional reserves to manage the situation. But, because we’re highly sensitive, we will still get overwhelmed sometimes. It’s just a reality. However, we can recognize and acknowledge it when it happens and give ourselves the care we need.
Peaceful wishes to you all,
Ivy Griffin, LMFT # 51714, HSP Coach, Director
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818