6 Ways Highly Sensitives Can Avoid Overstimulation

“I feel like I’m going to scream!” “I feel exhausted.”

As a Highly Sensitive, these are some of the things you might have felt or said in the past.

Overstimulation is when the input is too much for you to handle at any one time.

Overstimulation bridges two aspects of the D.O.E.S., namely Overarousability and Emotional Intensity.

For Highly Sensitives, your enhanced nervous system will likely react quickly to situations. If a situation is stimulating, whether positive or negative, you may get to the point of overload.

Overstimulation has varying triggers—we HSPs are all different after all; it can manifest in many different ways from sensitivity directly related to the senses.

Some conditions that contribute to a sense of overwhelm for Highly Sensitives are; being too hot or cold, something is too upsetting to look at, too strong in taste or smell, too loud, or unpleasant to touch or feel.

There’s also a possibility for “too much” being a trigger.

I’m thinking of too many choices of different yogurt for sale in my local supermarket.

Or background noise in a busy pub or airport lounge when you are trying to focus on just one person speaking to you.

I find it difficult on occasion when two people try to talk to me simultaneously, say an adult and a child; it feels like my head is going to explode!

Experiencing something new can also be a trigger, such as meeting someone for the first time—on a date, or an online meeting.

HSPs are also known to startle more easily—a sudden siren at 110dB from the emergency services.

In ordinary socializing, we can become overstimulated; we notice so much about those we interact with—the tone and volume of their voice, the words they use, their posture, facial expressions, as well as their clothing and their physical attributes.

So what symptoms do you experience?

You will likely become tired due to the amount you are processing and the stimulation level you’re at.

How tired you are can be attributed to the strong feelings that have come up for you to handle.

Your performance will most probably tail off to some degree—reflect on whether you are good at exams or job interviews.

You will likely feel unease somewhere in your body, as mental, physical, or emotional tension.

If the stimulating situation is prolonged or repeated, you may experience chronic overstimulation; this cycle can be challenging to recognize.

Think of it as a bath reaching the point of overflow or the rev counter in a car hitting the red zone as it tries to over-rev.

Now you won’t be able to avoid overstimulation altogether. No doubt life would be rather dull if you could. Yet you can certainly limit your exposure to stimuli.

Think: Avoid, Reduce, Remove.

One example that may resonate with you, especially if you are an introvert, is giving a presentation, whether in person or via an online platform; even if you know what you’re talking about, it can be overwhelming for some. Yet, with exposure and practice, you can become adept at delivering a talk, speech, or sales pitch.

Emotional regulation is a learned behavior, one we pick up as a child from caregivers, parents, teachers, and relatives. It plays out automatically; it has become our default way to handle a particular situation.

But despite this historical link to childhood, we can learn to develop our ability to change how we react in a given situation.

So here are six solutions you can use.

1. Recognize your triggers

You can learn to recognize your triggers and how far you can go. If you know something is coming up that is likely to spike you, you can avoid the surprise of the event and be ready for when it happens.

You may wish to start a record of the events when you become overstimulated and include your before and after experiences. A record of events can help you identify patterns in your behavior. Be mindful about scheduling multiple stimulating events for you too close to each other.

2. Notice your emotions

You can also become adept at noticing and then labeling your different emotions as they arise.

Many other options require that you talk to yourself in a different, more conciliatory, and positive way. The ease of this will depend on how nicely you usually talk to yourself.

3. Talking to yourself compassionately

Tell yourself it’s okay to feel like this and that many others will also have experienced this. You can carry this theme on by being compassionate to yourself when you experience intense emotions.

Talking to yourself as you would a close friend by being supportive to yourself will help the process.

4. Mindfulness

You could go even further by practicing mindfulness, acknowledging and accepting an emotion, and staying with it. Simply sitting with the discomfort instead of trying to feel fantastic or even quashing your feelings altogether, so you feel nothing at all.

Beginning practicing mindfulness may not seem easy at first. You’re likely to feel uncomfortable at some level; getting to this point will allow you to reduce the feeling of overstimulation. This may include relaxing your whole body and working on your breath in moments of overstimulation.

5. Breathing Techniques

There is a technique called Box Breathing – visually, you can imagine a square. Inhale for 4 seconds; then hold the breath for 4 seconds; then exhale for 4 seconds; finally, hold for 4 seconds to complete the cycle.
Repeat for a few minutes to help lower stress and bring your nervous system into balance.

Another variation is to breathe in through your nose for four seconds, then out through your mouth for five seconds; you can vary the input and output to suit your rhythm while maintaining a longer out-breath. Again this will also help to rebalance your nervous system.

6. Self Care

Three possibilities under this heading that you may be doing already due to lockdown are taking regular breaks, getting out into nature, and exercising.

Two more options are ever-present for HSPs—sleep and diet.

As I said at the beginning of this article, processing much more deeply our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are tiring. Sleep is essential to recover from the day, and it’s okay to nap in the afternoon if you can, in case  you don’t sleep well enough at night.

Consider relaxing in a darkened room as an alternative during the day.

On the negative side, regarding diet, pay attention to your intake, if any, of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, nicotine.

And on the positive, consider small protein snacks mid-morning and mid-afternoon: for example, nuts and fruit are easy to consume on the go.

Also, are you staying hydrated? If not you’ll likely get rundown quicker and may experience headaches.

It’s well worth investing some time in yourself working on your emotional regulation to reduce the likelihood of overstimulation.

Have you tried any of these solutions?

David is a Highly Sensitive Person, High Sensation Seeker and INFJ. He is an integrative therapist and HSP mentor to parents of highly sensitive children. He lives in Stroud, UK, and in his spare time he reads, writes, cooks, cycles, and enjoys music and time with his family.

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