Why highly sensitive people need more time to process things

2 June 2019
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In 2017, I had to organize a big conference for my job. It was a lot of work and a huge responsibility, which I basically had to take on all by myself. I was under a lot of stress but pushed through until the dreaded event, during which I managed to keep standing.

The nights were different though. Whereas I didn’t have any sleepless nights in the days preceding the conference, I was wide awake during the conference itself, mulling over every detail that had happened, as if every single event needed to be replayed in my head. Needless to say, by the last day of the conference, I was a shell of a human. When my name was mentioned during the closing ceremony and I had to stand up while a small crowd of academics applauded me, I struggled to contain my tears. By the time the event was finally over and I could let go and relax, the exact opposite happened. I had a panic attack.

What I just described is not an isolated event. Sure, the amount of stress I had and occurrence of panic were just part of a moment in time. But the intense processing of events, and occasional insomnia? Those things are quite common for me. And they are common for many other highly sensitive people.

Sensory processing sensitivity

Not everyone knows that the brains of highly sensitive people are wired differently. Research on sensory processing sensitivity (the term used for HSP in scientific contexts) shows that highly sensitive people have “an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli”. This means that highly sensitive people have a heightened response to external stimuli and process these stimuli on a deeper level than most other people. As a result, highly sensitive people may need more time to react to and process information.

But if you read about high sensitivity online, there seems to be a huge emphasis on only one aspect of high sensitivity. Due to the fact that high sensitivity is often conflated with empathy, there is a lot of focus on the emotional life of highly sensitive people. Of course, much attention also goes to dealing with things that trigger overwhelm. Think of things like loud noises, big crowds, and intense emotions from yourself and others. A lot of stuff has been written about this.

But what is often missing, is the way that highly sensitive people deal with different kinds of stimuli. If highly sensitive people are more sensitive to external stimuli, this doesn’t just mean that they have more empathy, or are easily bothered by noises or bright lights. Surely these things are a big part of the experience as well. But what about the overwhelm caused by mental stimuli, such as new information? In my search for tips and tricks on dealing with overstimulation, these things are often left out of the equation.

In this post, I will explain the different kinds of overstimulation and how to deal with it.

Different kinds of overstimulation

Roughly, there are five types of overstimulation:

  1. Sensory overstimulation: loud noises, strong smells, big crowds, specific textures, touch, extreme temperatures
  2. Physical sensations: pain, thirst, hunger, high energy or fatigue
  3. Emotional overstimulation: anger, sadness, joy, fear, grief, anticipation
  4. Social overstimulation: anything that has to do with other people, such as attending parties (or hosting one!), spending time with friends and family, going to concerts or big events, even virtual social contact
  5. Mental overstimulation: new information, excessive worry and ruminating thoughts, replaying conversations in your head, processing situations

Highly sensitive people are easily overstimulated by all of these things. This may seem self-evident, but given that many articles focus so much on the first three types of overstimulation, it’s easy to forget that social and mental overstimulation also come with the package. High sensitivity is not just about having lots of feelings. It’s about being sensitive to all types of stimuli.

The aftermath of overstimulation 

So, if you’re highly sensitive, it takes you much longer to process new things and intense or difficult situations. That explains why I rarely have or had panic attacks during stressful situations, but almost always some time afterward. Think of it as the feeling you sometimes get when you just get back on shore after spending time at sea. Although your feet are walking on solid ground again, parts of your mind and body still think you’re at sea. As if the internal waves have yet to calm down.

Almost everyone has experienced that feeling at some point in their lives. But highly sensitive people feel that every time they do something new, or experience something overly stimulating.

Although this knowledge has helped me understand myself better, it doesn’t come with clear-cut advice on how to live your life. Because if you only feel the effect of overstimulation sometime after it actually happened, how can you prevent things like burnout, stress, and panic? In other words, how do you know your boundaries, if you don’t feel it when they are crossed?

Tips and tricks for HSPs

Get to know your triggers

Take a look at the five different kinds of overstimulation. Is there one that particularly overwhelms you? If so, what are the characteristics of feeling this kind of overwhelm? Many highly sensitive people have active minds and take a long time processing new information and situations. As a result, they can have trouble sleeping as their minds are still buzzing with information. Or there is one type of overstimulation that doesn’t resonate with you at all. For example, if you are a highly sensitive extrovert, you may not be as sensitive to social stimuli as an introvert would be.

Assess your life and plan wisely

Now that you have identified your particular triggers, take a look at how you spend your time. Does your job require you to spend a lot of time traveling and meeting new people? Or have you just started something new, like a new course or a business? Try to plan and schedule potentially overwhelming things wisely. Take into account that you may need some extra recovery time afterward. I personally don’t like to schedule more than one ‘social activity’ per day, and if possible, I don’t plan them multiple days in a row. Because I’m a highly sensitive introvert, I need a lot more alone time than most other people. Make to sure to schedule enough time for solitude.

Unwind in the evenings

Unless you are a big night owl and have the luxury to sleep in every day, I would advise any highly sensitive person to not plan stimulating things in the evenings. Sleep is important for everyone. It gives your mind and body a chance to relax and reset. But if highly sensitive people don’t take time to seriously unwind in the evening, they might have to compromise their ability to sleep well. I have had to learn this the hard way, through weeks of insomnia. If I really listen to my needs, I can’t watch a scary movie in the evening. I can’t meet new people, go out climbing, or read disturbing facts about climate change, unless I enjoy staying awake all night (which I don’t).

Limit social media intake

Oh, social media. We love it and hate it at the same time. I’ll be the first to admit that social media are awesome. Through platforms like Facebook and Instagram I have been able to establish deep connections with many people. But if you look at social media from a stimulation perspective, it ticks many of the overstimulation boxes at the same time. Social media provide sensory stimulation (sounds and images), emotional stimulation (think of the anger you feel when your uncle posts something racist on Facebook), social stimulation (talking to different people at the same time), and mental stimulation (information, information, information). Physical stimulation is probably part of that too, because that constant release of dopamine must have some effect on our bodies.

Social media are definitely great tools in this modern life. But we also have to be mindful of how overstimulating they can be. So, if you weren’t aware of your own habits yet, take some time to think of what social media do to you. Maybe you can schedule some active offline time?

Check in with yourself throughout the day

Since there is no end to stimuli in our modern day society, it is easy for all of us to “keep calm and carry on”. However, for highly sensitive people this often means that they cross their own boundaries many times throughout the day. Some time ago I was walking around the train station in Utrecht. The station was new, there were many people, loud sounds and massive advertisements, and in my head, I was stressed out because I was late for an appointment. Silly as it may seem, at that moment I had already reached my limit. But I still had an entire day ahead of me.

Sometimes, that’s just the way it is. And if you want to participate in the conventional ways of life, you have to be resilient enough to take that blow. Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t be mindful of the fact that you might feel tense or overstimulated. Even if you have one of those days where you can’t have a single moment of rest, you can still check in with how you really feel. And maybe you can alleviate the tiniest amount of tension and stress. Every little bit helps.

Hold space for yourself

I love this term: holding space. Although it confused me at first, I have now come to understand it as being compassionate, with yourself or with someone else. Even if none of the above tips helped, it is important to be compassionate with yourself. Take a moment to think about the things you tell yourself. Are you frustrated or mad at yourself every time your mind is buzzing with information? Are you talking yourself down whenever you cancel plans in order to recharge? If you notice that your inner critic is having a field day, take some time to send yourself compassion. Give yourself space to feel overstimulated from time to time. It happens anyway, so why fight it? And if you suffer, try to be kind and tell yourself that it’s okay. This too shall pass.

It’s normal to take your time

Almost every highly sensitive person reports that they have felt different from other people. I may speak for myself only, but as a child, I felt very lonely. Among my classmates, I was by far the most sensitive. I cried often and easily, and needed more time to be alone. It sometimes felt like I was weird and unable to make close friends. Sometimes I felt misunderstood.

It took me years to understand my sensitivity and to realize that I’m not alone in this. There are other people out there who are just like you and go through similar struggles. High sensitivity is not some made-up term or mental disorder, but an actual personality trait. Remember that it’s okay to be sensitive. It’s okay to need more time for things.

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