Nine ways to deal with overwhelm if you’re a highly sensitive person

These are unprecedented times; society is in lockdown and many Highly Sensitive People are feeling highly anxious or completely overwhelmed right now.  In a roundabout way, I’m used to lockdowns. I worked in a prison for ten years, which is a bit of a paradox considering I’m also a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

What’s a Highly Sensitive Person?

One in five people – or 1.4 billion globally – are born with the trait of high sensitivity. This innate temperament trait is also known as sensory processing sensitivity, because of the depth of sensory, environmental and information processing that happens within the biological nervous systems and brains of Highly Sensitive People. So, what does that mean in simple terms?

HSPs experience their emotions more deeply than non-HSPs and they process them for longer. They are more reactive on an emotional level to events in their life or to the positive and negative emotions of others and they can pick up on subtleties that others are not aware of.

They also get affected by environmental and sensory stimuli that others don’t notice or are simply not bothered by. Things like too much noise, sirens or alarms ringing constantly, strong smells, doing too many things at once, dealing with crises in frontline jobs or being surrounded by negativity for example, can lead to overstimulation in their sensory nervous systems.  And if there is too much, this can lead to over-arousal and HSPs end up feeling overwhelmed.

Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

In addition to the main indicators above, the list below highlights a few other aspects of the trait, it may help you to recognise if you are one:

  • Do you often have comments from those around you that ‘you are too sensitive for your own good’ or are told that you need to ‘toughen up’?

  • Are you reflective and a deep thinker?

  • Are you deeply compassionate and very intuitive?

  • Do you start to feel overwhelmed when in a crowd or around large groups of people and need to withdraw?

  • Are you highly empathic but tend to absorb other people’s feelings like a ‘sponge’ which then leaves you feeling weighed down or saturated/full?

  • Does your nervous system feel frazzled if you don’t get any quiet time alone or if you can’t spend time in nature?

If this sounds like you, you may find the following tips and strategies helpful as an HSP.

Nine natural ways to deal with overwhelm

1 Energy Protection: With emotions running high on a collective level at this time, especially fear, anxiety, loneliness and grief, many HSPs are struggling to work out which emotions are theirs and which are other peoples because of their high levels of empathy. Learning how to protect their own energy is therefore one of the most important daily disciplines for HSPs.

A simple visualisation method such as the ‘Golden Light Technique’ can strengthen their energy field (known as an aura) and help them to stop becoming empathic sponges, hence reducing overwhelm.  It is recommended that HSPs do this first thing in the morning as they are getting dressed.

Start by bringing your awareness to your heart centre. Using your creative imagination, see, sense or feel that you have a miniature sun deep inside your heart. Imagine it shining brightly, just like the sun in the sky and its rays of golden light radiating through every cell and every atom in your body, filling every part of you from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. See, sense or feel this golden light expanding outwards now, above your head, below your feet and out the sides of your physical body, until it surrounds you completely, forming a protective bubble of golden light.

2 Focus on your breath: It’s important for HSPs to become aware of what happens to their breathing when they get overstimulated. Most tend to either hold their breath or breathe shallowly.

If you are a ‘holder’, focus on letting the breath go. If you are a shallow breather, focus on inhaling and exhaling from deep in your belly. HSPs underestimate the effects of breathwork, but it is one of the best strategies to reduce over arousal.

3 Grounding and being in nature: The government is currently allowing us to go outside once a day for a walk or some daily exercise. If you can (i.e. you are not symptomatic or self-isolating) this is vital for our physical and mental health, and for HSPs to reduce over arousal/overwhelm.

Everyone’s bodies have electrical systems running within it, the two most powerful are the heart and brain. All electrical systems need to be ‘earthed’. Unfortunately, by wearing shoes most of the time, especially rubber soled shoes/trainers, it means that we are totally disconnected from the best earthing available to us – Mother Earth!

Walking bare foot on grass, even for ten minutes a day allows your body to maintain the same negatively charged electrons as the earth and infuses the body with negatively charged ions which it needs. Grounding and being in nature for HSPs also helps to discharge free radical stress and radiation from electromagnetic fields from things like mobile phones, wi-fi and computers, which they seem to be more affected by.   

4 Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and focussing fully on what you are doing in that moment. HSPs find it difficult to switch their minds off and they tend to overanalyse things. Being in the NOW can also stop our mind from racing or worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future and can help to reduce anxiety. If you’re new to this, Andrea’s guide on mindfulness meditation might come in useful!

5 Meditation: Just twenty minutes of meditation will help to prevent or reduce over arousal. There are many types to choose from, such as transcendental meditation, repeating a mantra or guided meditations. HSPs need to find which method works best for them. Some are effective in ‘emptying the mind’ of thoughts, others such as guided meditations are good for HSPs who have overactive minds.

6 Essential oils: Effective essential oils for overwhelm include Lavender, Bergamot, Chamomile, Ylang Ylang and Jasmine.

Essential Oils can be inhaled by adding a few drops onto a handkerchief, an oil burner or they can be added to a bath for a deep relaxing soak.

Aromatika chamomile oil, £11.99, Amazon

Bach Rescue Remedy, £10, Boots

French lavender oil, £15, The Body Shop

7 Flower essences: Elm and Rescue Remedy are effective flower essences for reducing over arousal. Simply place four drops directly on the tongue or in a small glass of water, up to four times a day.

8. Self-care/Nurturing yourself: Nurturing means to care and give attention to your needs daily, and on all levels -physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

This can include taking the time to cook yourself a nice meal, listening to your favourite music, (music can change an emotional state) or doing some gentle exercise like yoga (there are lots of free online classes to do at home).

You can also do something creative like painting or journaling – the latter is great for getting your thoughts down on paper and switching off your overactive mind.

Most importantly make sure you get some deep sleep, so the body can rejuvenate itself.

9 Emotional Freedom Technique: EFT involves tapping on the body’s different energetic points, known as acupressure or meridian points in Chinese medicine, with your fingertips in order to clear energy blockages and restore your natural state of wellbeing.

It works by literally ‘tapping into’ your body’s own healing power. It can be used to release emotions and to stop the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response in the body’s autonomic nervous system and hence stop feelings of overwhelm. It can also help shift negative thought patterns, limiting beliefs, or any challenging issues that you are dealing with. You can read more in my book The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People.

What I also learned from lockdowns at the prison…

I consider those ten years of working at the prison a huge part of my own personal development and spiritual journey. For eight of those years I was a prison governor. When I faced challenges, I learned to find the gifts in them.

When I felt frustrated because I couldn’t get on with my normal day to day work, the gift was learning about ‘acceptance’.

When I felt anxious or overwhelmed because lockdowns were linked to incidents or potential riots, the gift was learning about faith and trust. Not just in my colleagues that were trained to deal with it, but in a spiritual sense that I was looked after and protected.

Part of my job was managing a 12-step programme, and every day prisoners would recite the ‘Serenity Prayer’ as part of their recovery, it goes:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Years later, I find it still pops into my mind at times of uncertainty and helps to restore some inner peace. Maybe it can help you in these uncertain times too.

We may not be able to change what is happening in the world right now, but we can change our thoughts and how we respond to the challenges that we are facing. When we change our thoughts, we change our feelings.

So, I’ll leave you with a positive affirmation that you can repeat throughout the day:

‘I am safe, I am healthy, I am sending healing thoughts to everyone in the world right now.’ 

Mel Collins is a qualified therapist, healer and author of ‘The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People’. Buy it now from Amazon.

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