Emotional and Sensory Overload

What Emotional and Sensory Overload Feels Like to a Highly Sensitive Person

Have you ever felt overwhelmed or overstimulated? For a highly sensitive person (HSP), times that by 10! Being a highly sensitive person comes with so many gifts, ones that I try not to forget, but when I am overloaded emotionally or through my senses, it’s the worst feeling ever. I tend to forget the great parts of being highly sensitive.

Can’t Everyone Get Overloaded?

Everyone can get burned out or overloaded, absolutely. HSPs, however, have more activation of their amygdala, a part of the brain that is often responsible for this sense of overwhelm. Our brains are trying to decipher what is a real threat versus a perceived one, so in response, it activates our nervous system to respond regardless of the true threat level. Try to imagine your flight or fight mode being turned on pretty much every day. Exhausting, right?

Most people’s brains are able to recognize an actual threat versus a perceived threat. For HSPs, this becomes a hard task and one that requires some retraining of our brains.

An HSP Meltdown

So what exactly happens when I have an emotional or sensory overload episode? Well, I often feel incredibly wiped out in every way conceivable. Physically, I feel like all the energy is sucked out of me. It becomes physically hard to move because my body feels so fatigued.

I might also start to develop a headache. The tension and overactivity of my nervous system can trigger tension headaches or even migraines.

Emotionally, I often feel like I am on the verge of crying even though I don’t really know what I need to cry about. In other words, there might not have been an overtly obvious event to trigger the crying.

I don’t feel depressed or anxious, simply tired. My body is just in a heightened state of over-reactivity causing this sensation. And once those flood gates open and the tears pour out, it often takes an entire day of crying off and on to recover.

I can also become irrationally irritable. To others, it may come across as moody or snippy, but the truth is, my body is just exhausted and overstimulated. I am craving alone time in a very quiet, non-stimulating environment. What’s worse is when I see no signs of escape, meaning I don’t see a way for myself to get that alone time. Cue the meltdown.

For me, I have noticed this happening in the afternoon and early evening hours most often. From spending the entire day with a very talkative, curious child who asks questions incessantly and says the word “Mommy” before every sentence (I love him, but he doesn’t know the beauty of no noise) then having to talk and listen even more once my husband gets home from work, I’m beyond wiped out. Too much sensory stimulation!

For other HSPs, their “meltdowns” might seem like anxiety attacks. Symptoms common in anxiety episodes present such as jitteriness, racing heart, brain fog, or difficulty breathing. because their nervous systems are so riled up.

How to Cope With the Overload

The good news is that there are ways we can help ourselves get through these times, recharge, and re-enter our worlds. The key is recognizing the necessity of implementing these strategies (I’m still working on this part in my every day life). I know it’s easier said than done, especially when you have little ones depending on you 24/7.

Coping Strategies for Emotional and Sensory Overload

Build in a quiet hour. I have started doing this. I used to have a child who would nap for 2-3 hours each afternoon which was magnificent. It was a time when I could nap myself or simply have quiet time. Nowadays, it seems like he is no longer interested in napping so I have implemented “quiet hour”. The rule is, we have to be in separate spaces with no talking. While it’s not quite as restorative as a two hour nap session, it’s better than nothing!

Take a warm bath or shower. I have learned that if I’m feeling super emotional, a warm bath or shower has some very calming effects on my nervous system. Sometimes I even cry in the shower. I just LET IT OUT.

Highly Sensitive Person coping strategies

Turn off all devices. While reading or watching tv can be “mindless” and that’s okay at times, I think the best recovery from overload has to be in complete silence with no stimulation. Laying in bed, sunbathing, or taking a slow walk can all be good choices.

Yoga. Slowly stretching your body has calming effects that can’t be beat. Yoga isn’t all about stretching though. Focusing on your breathing has a positive regulating effect on your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which is exactly what HSPs need.

Coping strategies for emotional overload

Cry, Cry, Cry. It’s perfectly fine to find a space to cry. Sometimes our bodies simply just need to release that stored energy. While it’s not always ideal to cry in some environments, give yourself permission to find a place to let it out! Crying is cathartic and I believe it’s our natural way of cleansing our body. Just let it flow without judgment.

As I say to my son sometimes when he sees me cry, “Sometimes my body just needs to cry. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong, it’s just energy moving through my body.”

Close Your Eyes and Ears. If you can’t find a place to get away from the noise and stimulation, try to close your eyes and ears (using earplugs ideally) to limit the amount you’re taking in. Even a brief break in stimulation can make a significant impact on your body’s response.

Highly Sensitive Person Coping Strategies

Use Positive Self Talk. Commonly, HSPs feel badly when we have our meltdowns because we don’t want others to think we’re crazy, out of control, or emotionally unstable. The truth is, we’re just really in touch with everything around us and it can become too much! We pick up on so much more than the average person so it becomes a lot to manage. Reminding ourselves of our amazing gifts and abilities that make us special can be helpful in times when we feel unhinged.

Managing Overload Is Possible

These are just a few coping strategies that I have found helpful in my times of need. I’m still working on setting boundaries that might help me reduce the amount of overload I experience and I am still working on educating others in my life about my HSP needs. It’s challenging for sure, but it’s incredibly important in my own self-care efforts.

If you’re interested in learning more about being a Highly Sensitive Person, I highly recommend Elaine Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.”

You can also check out the posts under my HSP tab on the Sensitive Soul website to read about all the different ways being an HSP has impacted my life and tips for fellow HSPs.

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