Do you know that feeling over being completely overwhelmed, being fully aware of it but somehow unable to stop, pause and relax?
Due to our sensitivity, as HSP we not only process a lot more external stimuli from the world and the people around us, we’re also much more aware of what happens inside of us. Emotionally, mentally and physically. We notice tiny changes in our body that someone who’s not highly sensitive may not see or feel at all.
These changes may be small and insignificant, like a scratch on your arm or a bruise on your leg from bumping into a table. Totally normal, but they can be distractive to HSP. We see the bruise, we feel the scratch until they heal.
Changes in our body can be more upsetting when something is not as (we think) it should be, or when we do not have an explanation for it. You may wonder — where does this bruise come from? Is this a new mole? Why is my stomach upset?
Have you noticed that even insignifcant physical changes always seem to bother you more when you’re already overwhelmed?
When we’re overstimulated or stressed, we need rest and recovery. Some quiet time to calm our senses and to process what we have experienced.
Me, for example, I’ll go for a walk, listen to music, will not watch the news or postpone meeting a friend. Phsyically, I may notice for example back pains or a headache but not be upset about it. I’ll take it for what it is and can usually identify a probable cause, like back pains from spending too much time behind my computer, for example.
However, when we highly sensitive people ignore what we need for too long, we move from stage ‘stressed and a bit tired’ to stage ‘hyper-alert and overwhelm’.
Most of the people I talk to about overwhelm, know they are in that stage but just can’t seem to relax anymore. Someone has described it to me like: ‘It’s like being on a merry-go-round and it goes faster and faster and I’m unable to jump off.’
We will now notice everything. Sounds. Lights. Smells. Clothes that don’t feel soft enough on their skin. We’ll will lie awake at night going over and over remarks from colleagues or something we saw on the news. Insecurity and self-doubt creep up.
Hyper-alert for physical symptoms
The same goes for physical symptoms, overwhelmed HSP notice every tiny little thing in their body and are more likely to worry about it.
It’s yet another stimulus, another hook for your brain to attach to. Back pains must be a hernia, an upset stomach must mean food poisoning, a headache must be a sign of a brain tumor, a mole is probably advanced skin cancer.
The fear of missing a terrible disease in your body makes that you’ll check for more signs and focus even more on the pain: is it changing, is it getting worse? Should I visit a doctor or wait? What if I wait and will later regret it?
Attached to this, there’s the emotional loop of self-blame, self-criticism: why do I always worry so much? Why do I Google when I know I’ll only be more upset and more worried? Why do I always feel everyting? I wish I wasn’t so sensitive, why can’t I be more like my partner/friends/brother/sister and just relax?
Ok, you may ask: so when I find yourself in that vicious circle of being hyper-alert, worried and completely overwhelmed: now what do I do?
First, Do No Harm
Stop blaming yourself for being sensitive. Do not criticise yourself for being worried.
Remember that processing everything deeply is part of the trait.
HSP feel deeply. We look for explanations and want to make sense of what is happening, and that includes what is happening inside our body.
Second, Energy Flows Where Attention Goes
Realise that you can cut the loop of feeling more and more worried by directing your attention elsewhere. Ok, it may take some practise. But there’s a few things you can do.
When you find yourself worrying non-stop and Googling physical symptoms: set a timer, allow yourself only 15 worry-minutes a day and then stop. Go do something that is totally unrelated to what you’re worried about: listen to a song in a language you don’t know, do a Wordle puzzle, choose a new recipe and make a shopping list. Direct your energy to something new, something that keeps your mind busy.
Third, Ask Your Body
You might want to wait with this until you’re out of the complete overwhelm stage. But then, if you still find you’re distracted or a bit worried about a pain or discomfort, tune in to your body.
What is the number one strength of highly sensitive people? In my view, it’s their intuition. And we can use that to tune into our body, have a conversation with it, if you like. Focus on your breath, calm your mind and become still. Go to the place that pains you, or where you feel discomfort. Try to connect. Use your intuitive senses, not your mind.
Ask: what are you trying to tell me, shin splint, headache, upset stomach, shoulder ache...? Answers may come in symbols, images, words or colours perhaps. Then ask what does your body need from you, what is the best thing to do, or stop doing?
Thank the pain or discomfort for its guidance. Reflect on what you’ve heard, seen or felt. What does that symbol mean to you, that colour, or word or phrase? What can you change in your behaviour?
Your intuition never uses words or symbols that are scary. It is a calm sense. No harsh, loud or oppressive words or feelings, no ‘if you don’t do this, then…’. Your intuition is gentle and quiet. It’s there for you, to guide you. Never to blame, criticise or make you scared.
Needless to say, I hope, is that with all physical symptoms common sense prevails. I do not mean to imply with this blog that physicial symptoms are always related to overwhelm and stress. If you feel your symptoms or discomfort are not related to being overwhelmed or stressed, please visit your GP and get medical advice!