Do you ever dream about going a week without feeling overwhelmed? The idea of sailing through stressors without feeling battered by them can seem out of reach.
You sometimes know what’s causing your stress: traffic was awful or your relationship with your significant other is rocky, for example.
Other times, you have no idea why you’re feeling the way you do. Life is just...TOO MUCH. Everything, from the rush of daily life, to other people’s energies, to that stressful situation you can’t figure out how to solve- it all adds up to a feeling of exhaustion and burnout.
This experience is so common for Highly Sensitive People. Our nervous system processes everything more deeply, so every single thing has to be digested: from the buzzing of your phone to the annoyance in someone's voice to the tension in your shoulders.
The chaos of the world and the complexity of our lives can make it feel like we’re trying to digest a 10 course meal all at once. We’re overloaded and it feels like there’s no way out.
Then, to add an extra dose of overwhelm, throw in the holidays and dealing with family dynamics, crowds, and travel.
Or perhaps the hardest part of the holidays for you is the fact that you’re not around friends or family. Maybe the holidays highlight your loneliness or remind you of loss- the people you no longer have in your life or the relationships you wish you had but don’t. This can be intensely painful.
So what can you do about this? Should you surrender to misery? Will overwhelm be your companion forever?
Of course not! Here are some doable steps to overcome burnout and create calm in the midst of chaos.
Acknowledge You're Feeling Overwhelmed
Start by validating that dealing with overwhelm is a hard part of being an HSP, and it’s often made harder during the holidays. Overwhelm is uncomfortable, and it keeps us from using our gifts like creativity, passion, and empathy.
And if we don’t identify that we’re feeling overloaded, it’s impossible to take steps to make it better.
See if you can name the causes of your overwhelm. For example, I could say, “I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed by my to-do list, my family’s expectations of me, and my emotions”. If you’re up for a challenge, see if you can identify your feelings. For example, “I’m feeling sad and anxious”.
Now that you have a sense of what your overwhelm is about, it’s time to open the door to kindness. You’re human, and being human (and sensitive) can be challenging. Instead of beating yourself up for struggling, let’s start by creating an inner environment of gentleness and understanding.
Kristen Neff, author of the book Self Compassion, created a meditation we can use to develop self-empathy. Put your hand on your heart and say:
“This is a moment of suffering.
I’m not alone.
May I be kind to myself.”
As you say it, really feel those words in your heart. See if you can take them in.
Some people think that if they’re kind to themselves, they’ll be giving themselves permission to get in bed and do nothing. Research has shown the opposite. When we shame and criticize ourselves, ultimately we’ll end up feeling worse than when we started. Self-compassion is the most effective place to start to create lasting, positive change.
Take Small Action to Support Your Sensitive Nervous System
HSPs must learn to honor their sensitivity through their actions. That can look like anything from going to bed earlier to minimizing the amount of time we spend around certain people. The adjustments you need to make are specific to you, but there are some things that benefit most Highly Sensitive People:
1. Use positive self talk. If you’re talking to yourself critically, that will add to the overwhelm. Be aware of your self talk and try to add in encouraging statements like, “I’ve got this”, “It will be okay”, “One step at a time”, and “I love myself exactly as I am”.
2. Use the acronym “HALT” (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired). If you're experiencing any of those things, address them immediately. We are much more vulnerable to overwhelm when we aren’t getting enough sleep, food, or feel lonely or agitated.
3. Create time for “chaos”. Assume that there will be numerous things today that will slow you down. It could be an unexpected email you have to answer, an accident that adds 30 minutes to your drive time, or a friend who really needs your support. These unanticipated interruptions happen frequently, and if we don’t account for them, we’ll always feel like we didn’t get enough done. So schedule chaos time into your day and lower your expectations.
This is especially useful if you're traveling over the holidays. Expect delays and leave extra time so you can stop and breath, grab a coffee, or put on a guided meditation (I love the Insight Timer app)
4. Soothe your senses. To combat overwhelm, we must soothe our nervous system. This means using our five senses to create relaxation. Examples of this: light a scented candle, listen to calming music or nature sounds, drink water, bring to mind a happy memory, pet an animal, snuggle up under a blanket. If you're in a noisy/busy place, pull out earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
5.Enlist allies. You don’t need to tackle this alone. Identify one or two people who would understand how you’re feeling (or at least try to), and ask them to let you share your experience. If you don’t want advice, try something like, “I’d love to share what I’m going through right now. More than anything, I just need empathy and a listening ear. Does that work for you?” Sometimes being heard and knowing we’re not alone makes us feel 100x better.
Return to your list
Your final step, now that you’ve acknowledged what’s going on, had some self compassion, and helped your nervous system feel calmer, is to circle back to that list of things making you feel overwhelmed.
With a clearer mind, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to feel better about any of the stressors (even a little).
Use encouraging self-talk to help you take a baby step of action.
Before, during, or after you take action, add in a bit of soothing self-care.
Take a deep breath into whatever you're feeling; it will lessen if you don't avoid the emotion.
Let a friend know that you're facing something hard, and let them support you- whether by listening, giving you a hug, or cheering you on.
Simple is powerful
When I first learned these tools, I underestimated how powerful they are. I promise you though, if you implement just 3 of these, you'll notice an immediate drop in your sense of overwhelm. Once you're feeling calmer, tackling challenges will feel so much easier. You've got this.
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT has dedicated over 10,000 hours to supporting Highly Sensitive People as a psychotherapist and global HSP consultant. She practices psychotherapy in Boulder, CO and specializes in working with sensitivity and healing of trauma (EMDR). She's also the founder of Intuitive Warrior, an online platform offering resources and support to Highly Sensitive People worldwide. An HSP herself, Brooke went years feeling overwhelmed and anxious before learning how to support her nervous system. She considers it an honor to get to share that knowledge with fellow HSPs.
You are a gift to the world. You aren't alone. We need you here.