In dance school, I had a friend who always liked to be at the centre of things. If there was a crowd, she ran straight to it. If there was something happening, she was in the thick of it.
She was always on the go – literally spending very few hours a day at home – and she’d bounce from activity to project to life commitment like a butterfly flower-hopping.
It was exciting to be around her because it was novel, there was always something going on. And she had a group of friends that was as eclectic and creative as she was and always had people wandering in and out of it (literally also each other’s apartments!).
But just being with her in a room was exhausting. She was always talking in a quick-paced and excited manner, eager to be a part of as many conversations as possible, smiling from ear to ear.
She was fun to be around, but it was exhausting. One day she invited me, and a dozen other of her classmates, to go see a band she knew at a club near her apartment.
At the end of the day, I usually went from school to my extracurricular dance classes which would take me until 8 or 9 in the evening before heading home for dinner, stretching and sleep.
And I spent weekends mostly at home. Alone. Where my cozy corner on the sofa was never too far away. Watching movies, reading books, drawing and painting, playing games.
But on this day, I didn’t have any classes and I figured since I was free I might as well try something new. People were always telling me to get out more. Do more things. Did I mention this was a Friday night?
But she was insistent and I was eager to please. I said yes. Though I had that sinking feeling that I was going to regret it.
I spent the afternoon hanging out with her – or, what I thought (based on her invite) was going to be a chill afternoon at her apartment. Instead, we spent several hours going from here to there, meeting this person or catching up to that person.
We didn’t actually make it to her apartment (which was around the corner from the venue) until about an hour before the set was going to start. And she still wanted to cook food and vaccuum and change and get her make up done and…
The real disaster was the club, though. An old factory floor, dark and full of fluorescent painting and graffiti, strobe lights, dancing and a pressing crowd well into their third pint or seventh pint of beer.
And the noise!
The cacophony that is a live band well into their cups on a Friday night, mixed with everyone else trying to have intellectual conversations on Marxist theories and legalising pot, was like being in hell. And I mean actual purgatory, not some theatric semblance of it.
Everyone was yelling and making strange gestures in an attempt at communicating in this place. While everyone around me was getting plastered recreationally, I was feeling dizzy while I was still nursing the same drink I had started the evening with.
The wave of noise felt like an actual force crushing me physically. My whole body felt like it was on high alert, maintaining the state of fight-or-flight for that long was pushing my emotions into overdrive and my energy levels took a nose dive as the adrenalin had completely flooded my system.
Everyone else was having the time of their lives. Why wasn’t I? I wondered what was wrong with me as I sat there, wishing desperately that I was at home with my books and my movies instead.
It took me many years to learn the answer: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. In that situation, and many similar like it, I was simply reacting like any highly sensitive person would.
If this sounds familiar to you, maybe you’re a highly sensitive person, too.
What is a highly sensitive person?
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person with a sensory processing sensitivity. This means that you’re highly sensitive in your central nervous system and have a tendency for deep cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.
People who are highly sensitive make up about 15-20% of the population. This sensitivity is considered a personality trait and is characterised by a greater sensitivity to subtle stimuli and a tendency to ‘pause to check’ in novel situations.
All this is driven by your heightened emotional reactivity to both positive and negative stimulus.
You may be a highly sensitive person if…
- a normal day at school or at work completely wears you out.
- you feel an overwhelming urge to retreat from loud and busy places, such as malls, crowds and parties.
- you need a lot of time to recover from fun and exciting activities.
The term “highly sensitive person” was created by Dr Elaine Aron, a psychologist and researcher, to describe someone who is extra sensitive to stimulation of any kind (heard, seen and felt).
Although being a highly sensitive person comes with its challenges, it also brings gifts with it: the ability to notice details and patterns that others usually miss and increased empathy, to name just a few.
Why do highly sensitive people get overstimulated so easily?
I’m not the first person who’s run away in horror from noisy, social engagements, like bars, nightclubs, festivals, malls etc. Black Friday shopping has the power to stress you out whether you’re highly sensitive or not.
But for a highly sensitive person, overstimulation is a serious battle.
When I was finally able to extricate myself from that horrid club – a lot earlier than most people deem appropriate and to many, many pleas to stay a while longer – every nerve ending felt raw.
My ears were ringing. My heart was pounding. The adrenalin was leaving my body and I was feeling it.
I was mentally and physically exhausted. I went home and didn’t emerge until I had to go back to school on Monday.
According to Dr Aron, highly sensitive people get overstimulated easily because we’re always processing a lot of information.
And science agrees: you pick up on a lot more social and emotional cues, you have more mirror neuron activity, feel emotions more intensely and the emotional centres in your brain are more active.
“If you are going to notice every little thing in a situation, and if the situation is complicated (many things to remember), intense (noisy, cluttered, etc.), or goes on too long (a two-hour commute), it seems obvious that you will also have to wear out sooner from having to process so much.”– Dr Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
There’s a lot going on in your head and your body
Other people, simply don’t pick up on all the cues you do.
Flashing lights don’t seem as bring to them as they do to you. Loud music isn’t as loud to them as it is to you. Abrasive people don’t bother them as much. Violence in movies or on TV isn’t that big of a deal. And the amount of silence and alone time you crave is oppressive to them.
So, they often end up thinking that you’re kind of weird. Or uptight. Or boring.
But your sensitivity is a beautiful thing, when you know how to manage it so that you don’t get overwhelmed.
It opens you up to a whole world of subtle information and you have the ability to navigate complex interpersonal situations with a clarity that most people can only dream of.
And you can read between the lines to an extent where people will feel like you’re peering into their soul.
tips for dealing with being overstimulated
It can be a busy day at work (or just a normal day at work), a big party or a crowded event that leaves you overwhelmed and exhausted.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a positive or negative thing causing it, being overstimulated sucks ducks.
Tip #1: Go in fresh
When you have a big event coming up, the kind that exhausts you just thinking about it, it’s crucial that you go into it with your physical and emotional well-being at maximum level. This way, you’ll have resources to spend as a buffer before getting too tired.
It may mean skipping big errands or projects in the days leading up to the event.
Or drawing some boundaries to manage your emotional stimulus – i.e. not meeting toxic or draining individuals. Or maybe it means not watching movies that are violent or aggressive. Or documentaries that are about upsetting subjects.
Tip #2: Give yourself permission to say no
I know this is a hard one. As a sensitive person, disappointing people is almost like you’re denying them air to breathe.
Because you pick up on all the subtle cues – body language, tone of voice, tiny pauses – you know when you’ve disappointed someone even if they aren’t saying it.
When your empathy runs deep, what’s not to hate about it?
But you’re also going to disappoint them by agreeing to an activity when you can’t be fully present. If you agree to go even when you know you’re going to be a total buzzkill is just a different way to accomplish the same thing.
Saying no, isn’t being mean. It’s taking care of yourself. Declining activities that are too much for you is just how you are and it isn’t fair for others to not accept that about you.
If it’s important that you go, make sure you take care of yourself before and after the event – and train the people around you to give you enough advance notice so that you can plan your schedule to include crucial self-care.
Tip #3: Give yourself permission to leave early
Contrary to popular belief, introverts and empaths don’t hate socialising (in fact they love it) – but too much socialising makes them tired.
The key to having fun, is learning how to recognise your own limits. Listen to your body and leave overstimulating situations before your energy levels crash.
If that means setting a 60-minute limit on being at parties, then so be it. Listen to how your feelings change as time goes by.
How is the energy in the room affecting you? Are you trying to have conversations with loud music playing? Can you move away from the band or speakers? Do you feel physical discomfort anywhere? If a room is crowded and you’re drinking alcoholic drinks, remember to drink a lot of water (this gives you the added benefit of excusing yourself to the bathroom more often).
When you learn how to recognise the signs of overwhelm and tiredness, you’ll know when it’s time to abort mission and go home for some peace and quiet.
Remembering to take some quiet time just before attending an event will also raise your tolerance for being in a noisy and crowded environment.
You may be disappointing some people by leaving early, but that’s just how it is. Simply say that you’ve had a lovely time but that you’re just too tired and need to get going. Offer to do lunch/coffee/other less crowded events in the near future instead.
Once you get into the habit of doing that, people get used to it and it won’t raise eyebrows anymore.
Tip #4: Train yourself to recognise triggers
Emotional overwhelm typically goes hand-in-hand with overstimulation. When you learn to recognise your emotional triggers and train yourself to pause and think critically when you do, you can avoid slipping into that full state of fight-or-flight.
The more you’re surrounded by different noises and stimuli in your everyday life, the more prone you will be to overstimulation. The modern world just isn’t made with introverts, empaths and highly sensitive people in mind – it’s often chaotic and noisy, two things we hate.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t life a happy and balanced life, even if you’re living in one of the largest cities on the planet!
When you train yourself to recognise what sounds, smells, people, environments, situations etc. trigger stress in you, you’re building new neural pathways in your brain. The more you reinforce this behaviour of recognising triggers and pausing before reacting to them, the stronger those pathways will become and the behaviour will become easier for you to do.
When you can catch yourself before you’re totally overwhelmed, you can remove yourself from the most stressful situations and guard against complete overwhelm.
Get my emails for more tips like these 👇