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HSP Living: Understanding Overstimulation in the Highly Sensitive Person

Updated on August 6, 2016
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Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997, when he first learned he was an HSP.


HSPs and Overstimulation: A common challenge

One of the most frequently used terms used in association with being a Highly Sensitive Person is “Overstimulation.”

Most people probably have some sort of general idea what that might entail, but how and why does it manifest, and what does it really mean?

For starters, there’s a considerable difference between what pop culture believes and the scientific roots of overstimulation in HSPs.

When we hear "overstimulation," most people probably tend to think of their young kids having had too much sugar and not enough sleep. Or maybe we think of "that friend" who lives (and crashes) on a steady diet of energy drinks and activity. We might even think of ourselves, when we have 23 things on our to-do list, but only enough time to deal with ten of them.


The Highly Sensitive Nervous System

Whereas these can certainly be part of overstimulation in HSPs, there is far more to consider.

Let's take a moment to consider the Highly Sensitive nervous system. HSPs (who account for 15-20% of the population) are-- quite literally-- hard wired with a more finely tuned nervous system. This means we notice more, feel more intensely, are sensitive to the emotions of others and take in more external stimuli.

The flip side to this is that when a person takes in a lot more information, they are also more likely to become overwhelmed, or they become overwhelmed more quickly than someone who processes less information.

I like to use the analogy of "juggling balls." Think of two people who both know how to juggle. One person might be able to juggle two or three balls for hours on end. The other can juggle SIX balls, but it doesn't take very long before they grow tired and worn down by tracking all those balls.

So it is with being an HSP-- being able to track "six balls" may be a nifty gift, but it can soon become very overwhelming. The thing that makes high sensitivity particularly challenging is that we do not get the opportunity to just juggle "two balls"... HSPs notice everything, all the time. It's "six balls" or nothing. And so, we quickly end up with states of overstimulation in a world that expects people to "just keep going."

A "Must Read" for the Highly Sensitive Person!

The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
Elaine Aron's landmark book has changed the lives of millions of sensitive people around the world. I first read it in 1997, and it allowed me to change the way I live to work WITH my sensitivity... highly recommended!

A Few Words About HSPs and Sensory-Processing Sensitivity

Before going any further, let’s take a moment to consider “High Sensitivity.” In the context of this article, being a Highly Sensitive Person is based on the research done by Dr. Elaine Aron for her landmark 1996 book “The Highly Sensitive Person.”

Dr. Aron identified high sensitivity as an inborn genetic trait present in 15-20% of the population. Her research changed the lives of millions of people by showing there can be a genetic—rather than pathological or trauma-based—basis for heightened sensitivity.

Her book—see inset at right—is well worth a read for anyone who has been told they are “too sensitive” or who feel like they have “issues” with sensitivity.

"Sensitivity," in this case, is based on the scientific concept "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity" and has nothing to do with being "overly sensitive" as a result of abuse, bullying or other life events. It is not a condition or pathology, it is a neutral trait. You cannot become highly sensitive, it is a way your central nervous system is hard-wired. This is also not the kind of sensitivity associated with seeing ghosts and having ESP.

If you're interested, you might also read my introductory article describing the HSP trait.


Recognizing Overstimulation

In some cases, HSP overstimlation is pretty straightforward to identify.

In others, we have to "pause and check" what's going on, before we realize that we're actually overstimulated. A situation may arise and we feel uncharacteristically angry or frustrated... maybe to the point of even feeling like we're about to have a panic attack... overstimulation. Or we may feel almost immobilized by some task at hand, even though we know perfectly well how to do it, but the details have become overwhelming.

Sometimes overstimulation is related to our physical bodies-- the expression "hangry" (Hunger leading to anger) was probably coined by an HSP.

Much overstimulation can be caused by almost imperceptible factors most people are completely unaware of-- a slight vibration of a fan, sound from a fluorescent tube, a slight odor from carpet shampoo or maybe remnants of cleaning products in the air-- and leaves them wondering why we seem to lose our cool over what seems like "nothing."

And yet? To an HSP, these can all make us feel like crawling into bed and pulling the covers over our heads.

So what can we do?


The Importance of Alone Time

Given that HSPs have no choice in terms of being sensitive, and can't just "tune it out" or "get over it," what can be done about overstimulation?

One of the most important ways HSPs can manage their tendency to become overwhelmed is to honor their need for “alone time.” Since stimulation often is associated with being "out" among people, solitude and stillness is one of the best recipes for recharging and becoming grounded again after periods of overstimulation.

Alone time doesn’t necessarily just mean actually being alone, it also means putting yourself in what might be called a “low stimulation environment.” Many HSPs find that being in nature is an excellent way to counter overstimulation. If you don't have access to nature, similar benefits can be had from creating a "personal quiet spot" in your home, a sort of "cave" you can retreat to in comfort.

There is not a specific recipe for how much or how often an HSP needs to be alone to recharge-- each person is individual, and must discover their own balance.

Something to keep in mind is that some HSPs are "short cyclers" and others are "long cyclers," when it comes to how they process environmental stimulation. For example, I can be very out and "in public" for for periods of weeks at a time... but then I also need weeks to recover. Conversely, some get overwhelmed after an hour, but feel refreshed again after 30 minutes of alone time.


Sleep, Meditation... and Movement

Other important factors in managing your stimulation levels include getting sufficient sleep. Sleep doesn't directly counteract overstimulation, but being adequately rested makes us more capable of facing the challenges we may run into.

Meditation is a fairly common and popular practice among HSPs. Although meditation might be lumped together with "alone time," it deserves special mention for its ability to help us get centered and grounded when we have become overstimulated. The primary purpose of meditation for HSPs is to "calm our racing thoughts," which can be an issue for many.

Last but not least, "movement" is very important as part of HSP overstimulation management. Movement doesn't necessarily require exercise or working out... activities such as Yoga or walking can be equally beneficial. Again, the purpose of physical movement is to "get us out of our heads," and paying more attention to our bodies.


Finding Your Optimal Stimulation Level

In time-- and with practice-- you can become familiar with your optimal stimulation level. As stated above, an important thing to remember is that overstimulation affects different people at different rates and with different intensities.

Finding your optimal stimulation level is not just about “avoiding” everything that might overstimulate you, it’s about knowing your trigger points and becoming very familiar with the points at which “enough is enough.” Simply practicing avoidance of all things that could lead you to overstimulation is not recommended... although it might sound nice and "safe," but that type of total withdrawal tends to leave us feeling like something is missing from our lives.

As an example, I quite enjoy going to public arts and crafts fairs and festivals... which typically have lots and lots of people, music, smells and noise. Rather than avoid them, I have learned that I am "good" for about a couple of hours, and then I have to walk away. Being mindful of the time allows me to have enjoyable experience without overdoing it and wanting to crawl into hole for a couple of days.


Special Consideration: The “High Sensation Seeker” HSP

Before we conclude, a special note must be made of the “High Sensation Seeker” HSP.

In most cases, HSPs are thought of as cautious and wanting to think possibilities through before making decisions. Most HSPs prefer "the known" and following a measure of routine-- and when faced with new experiences, they want enough time to thoroughly understand what they are getting into, before taking the first step.

In her original research on HSPs, Dr. Elaine Aron identified a subgroup of HSPs she named "High Sensation Seeker" HSPs.

The challenge for an HSS/HSP is the constant state of curiosity and wanting to try new things... while still having the primary traits of all HSPs, including a tendency to become overstimulated. Often, HSS/HSPs experience an inner conflict of sorts, as they want to GO and do new things, even while also wanting to STOP and be cautious.

Because of the High Sensation Seeking HSP's predisposition to try exciting new things, they must stay especially alert to the fact that they DO need to take down time and alone time, or they can quickly become very overstimulated.


Learn more about being an HSP!

Thank you for reading this article about life as a Highly Sensitive Person!

It has been almost 20 years since I first learned about the trait, and in the course of those two decades the best advice I can give is "learn all you can." Being highly sensitive can be very overwhelming and confusing, but knowledge is power!

If you enjoyed this article, and/or found it useful, please share to social media-- the more people are familiar with the trait, the better off we ALL are!

I also have over 25 articles about this topic published on this web site-- please visit my author profile to see a complete listing!

© 2016 Peter Messerschmidt


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