What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like for a Highly Sensitive Person? By Julie Bjelland, LMFT
Before we discuss how to reduce sensory overload, let’s look at the ways highly sensitive people (HSPs) describe the feeling of overload.
• Feeling out of control. Trapped in a burning building.
• Like someone poking your body and eyes and ears relentlessly and saying, "What? I'm not doing anything."
• Like there is too much of everything, and it's all coming at me . . . sights, sounds, smells, colors, actions, people, thoughts, pressure. My mind and body try to shut it all out. . . . I start to shut down . . . go numb and blank . . . need to get away . . . to quiet and peace.
• It's like electricity and light pulsating through my body, brain, and soul. Pure exhaustion and weight that I want free of. Makes me want to run and hide anywhere calm and peaceful.
• Chaos, like an out of body experience where I'm watching my life fall apart, and I have no control to stop it. My bed or a small room is the only way to feel somewhat safe. Isolating is protection for me.
• I feel like I’m in a daze and can’t really process what’s going on around me completely. Feels like my head is all foggy. It’s all overwhelming, and I can’t figure it out.
• I can't think straight. My mind reels. A kind of slow panic. Feeling I need to escape as quickly as possible
• Like a physical assault.
• DRAINING. Mental and physical energy completely depleted.
• A nervous break down.
• A bit like a panic attack. I get shaky, my chest tightens, and it’s hard to breathe. Instantly drained of all energy. And if I can’t remove myself from the situation, the room starts to spin, then I completely shut down.
• Like spider man . . . when he can hear everyone's conversations and a pin drop . . . or those photos where the crowds are rushing past but one person is standing still in the middle . . . like someone turned the volume up on everything. The brightness.
• I always say my spidey senses are on overload!
• I seem to have superhuman senses too.
• While I am in a sensory overload situation, I feel like what I imagine it feels like to free fall when you jump while sky diving. When the situation ends, it feels like the sudden jerk of the parachute and complete fatigue.
• Just wanting to run away and hide, but not being able to makes me want to cry and die.
• Head pounding, energy drained, overwhelmed, anxious, emotional, tears will no doubt come.
• I feel like my inside is spinning out of control with increasing anxiety. I want to run away to a safe and quiet place.
• Muscles all tense, people sounding like they're in a tunnel, fibro pain acts up, wanting to smack people.
• Crazy making, heart palpitations, migraine, vertigo, anxiety, claustrophobia. Brain shuts down and goes into survival mode. Chaos! Circuit overload!
• Let me go.
• It starts as exhaustion, then escalates toward a panic attack. I also get extremely spacey. I have difficulty focusing on anything and make stupid mistakes. Afterwards, I am exhausted, and it can take me several days to recover.
• It feels the same as when my blood sugar drops, minus the clammy sweat (well, most of the time).
• Cognitive and physical fatigue.
• Muscles in knots. Unable to sleep. Wiped out.
• Like an itch you can't scratch. Feeling raw and exhausted but being unable to relax.
• Sadness: Like cutting onions.
• Anxiety: Like you’re underwater. Intense!!!!!
• Irritation and exhaustion.
• Like ten cups of espresso coffee in ten minutes.
• For me, it’s like something is sucking the life out of me.
• Overwhelming feeling of the need to get away from the person talking my head off. Why do people talk so much? About nothing?
• Negativity and emotional struggle, and people who are feeling overwhelmed!!
• Survival. Like I’m caught in a horrible nightmare and fighting for my life.
• Wishing I had an immediate 'cone of silence' ready to activate.
• Can’t breathe or make decisions.
• Gotta get outta here!
• Like my brain is pulsating or vibrating
• Like I’m in a bell tower and the bells are ringing 2 inches from my face.
• My vision starts to blur, and I often get a headache. Sounds start to seem to fade out, almost as if I am stuck in my own head. That's extreme overload. In the beginning, average overload, I get anxiety, and I have a hard time focusing. Because I'm always trying to take in the entire room. I think I shut myself down when it gets to the point I can't take any more. It's as if I'm in a bubble that cannot be penetrated.
• Heart start racing abnormally; heavy feeling in the brain; eye get drowsy to the point of getting closed; start yawning; wants to run away from meeting or retire in calm place and sleep for some time; shoulder start dropping; complete energy loss to the point other people start feeling uncomfortable; looks very tired to other folks
• Like your brain is pushed to its absolute limit. It badly affects your relationship with yourself and with people close to you. Hate it!
• emotional and verbal shutdown, inability to concentrate, headache, fatigue, irritability, feeling trapped, need to escape
• feeling very drained by my environment
• Panic attacks
• My system goes into shock. I get dizzy, I can’t process ANYTHING mentally. My heart pounds, I may get nauseous. Time slows down and I become disoriented. Feels like I’m outside of reality watching. My mind keeps questioning, with disbelief, what has just occurred and as I process the feeling of shock it washed over me like a wave...over and over and over. I am speechless. When the initial shock wears off I am, by then, probably collapsed on the ground sobbing uncontrollably.
• Similar to how a piano would look like if all its strings broke at the same time (picture a baby grand piano with its cover in the 'up' position so that you can see all of the strings)
• nothing goes in and nothing comes out. i completely shut down. tears and agitation until i can get to a place to escape some of the input
• It’s like I can’t handle one more thing in my head. I become very irritated, short tempered and ready. I sometimes also feel like I am overcome with anxiety.
• I felt completely lost and out of touch with everything that was around me. I could not focus on anything.
• Like silently screaming. Just need to get away.
This all sounds pretty awful, right? It is! It’s a horrible feeling when sensory overload takes over. One of the patterns I’ve noticed most about sensory overload is that it worsens when we are tired, sick, or too depleted. It’s almost like turning the nervous system volume up in everything.
Working with and researching HSPs worldwide has allowed me the opportunity to discover the default tendencies of our trait and target and understand our patterns. It has become my life work to research the trait of sensitivity as much as I can and relay whatever I learn to help other sensitive’s. We have such enormous gifts within us, but we are often so buried by overwhelm that we end up just existing in a sort of survival space, meltdown after meltdown. We give up our needs by default, and most of our focus is external by default as well. We tend to put everyone’s needs ahead of our own and often are not even sure what our needs are when asked. It seems easier to make sure someone else is comfortable and has their needs met, rather than having to deal with the feeling of disappointing someone. Sound familiar?
How does this impact us over time? We usually over-compromise in our relationships, our work, our friendships, and our family, so we end up pretty far from what we actually need. We may feel irritable and even angry, and it is very common to experience a lot of resentment. In my observations, HSPs often feel the most resentful in relationships with partners, family, and friends. How many times have we said yes to going somewhere or doing something when what we really wanted and needed was to have some alone time to recharge?
If we are walking around with our battery low, we are running on fumes. This makes our stress numbers go up, and our sensory systems go on overload. It is kind of like flooring the gas pedal of a car all day long. The car engine eventually burns out. How do we deal with this burnout feeling? We might get irritable and snap at someone. We might withdraw and retreat. Often, those lead us toward a spiral of shame and what I call the HSP hole. This hole is dark for us, and we feel terrible in it.
What I have learned by specializing in HSPs is that we are remarkable when we get the right amount of nervous system self-care. When we are living closer to our centered, balanced state, we really thrive. We get to access our internal gifts that way, and we even create brain space for the creative center of our brain to light up again. What is the right amount of self-care, and what does that even mean? The right amount is when you could say your stress number is a 2 or 3 out of 10. Most HSPs, before they come to work with me, say their stress numbers are as high as 8 to 10 on a daily basis. This means we are too close to activating our already overly activated limbic system. The fight, flight, or freeze system of our brain is meant to protect us when we are in danger. The problem is that the brain doesn’t know the difference between real and perceived danger. That means that when you are highly stressed and another stressor occurs, your brain starts to get your system ready to either flee or fight.
The following is an excerpt from the HSP brain-training book and course that offers some insight into understanding our overly activated limbic systems.
Understanding the Limbic System
What’s happening in the brain when we go into our limbic system? There is an almond-shaped part of our brains called the amygdala that gets activated when our brains think there is something it is supposed to protect us from. Its job is to help us run away if we are in danger or fight to protect ourselves, which is why it is referred to as the fight-or-flight response.
When the amygdala receives a signal that you are in danger, it sends signals to your body to release adrenaline, certain other hormones, and even more oxygen to your muscles so your body can defend itself (in other words, run away or fight). It happens so fast that we don’t even realize it is happening. Remember, this is not the “thinking” part of your brain, so it doesn’t know when you are in real danger or when you just perceive a threat.
If you were about to be attacked or hurt, your amygdala does a wonderful job of preparing your body for defense. But research shows that HSPs have a more activated amygdala, so we spend even more time in an activated, defensive brain state than most people. The problem with the amygdala is that it cannot tell the difference between something that might actually hurt you and something that won’t.
If you don’t need to fight or run, then the amygdala has flooded you with adrenaline, other hormones, and oxygen you don’t need or use. As these build up, you are overwhelmed with the feeling of being anxious.
Increased Oxygen Effects
During a perceived threat, our brains send signals to slow down our breathing so that the oxygen can be used for our muscles to run or fight, causing a shallow type of breathing pattern. That’s why we may feel out of breath or even feel a sense of flushing in our faces. If we don’t use it for fighting or fleeing, then the oxygen builds up and causes carbon dioxide to drop, which can give us that familiar dizzy and overwhelmed feeling. Our heart starts to beat faster, too, in order to move all the increased oxygen throughout our bodies. A racing heart often makes us feel sick and dizzy as well. With all this extra, unused fuel, our muscles can tense up. And, as our bodies start to overheat, we can start to sweat to cool ourselves down.
Our bodies start to prioritize what they need available during a threat and what can be shut down in order to conserve energy. Our digestive systems get affected because the fuel that our bodies need to digest food isn’t needed for fighting or fleeing and is therefore perceived as being wasted. This is why we may feel that familiar butterfly sensation in our stomachs, feel nauseous, or even vomit.
Bypassing the Limbic System
It’s pretty remarkable how our bodies shut down what they think we don’t need in an effort to preserve more energy for our muscles so that we can run faster or fight harder. The problem is when there is no real threat, our bodies don’t use that extra fuel well, which leaves us feeling quite bad physically.
I think it is helpful to understand what the brain is doing and why we experience the feelings we have when we are stressed or anxious. By understanding what is happening, we can work on ways to prevent it.
The brain-training program I’ve developed helps us get out of our limbic systems, even allowing us to bypass it over time. This means that we don’t have to go through the physical and emotional symptoms that feel so awful. It takes time to be good at this, but you can get better at it if you use the tools correctly and consistently.
One thing to keep in mind is that there is no such thing as perfection. Sometimes we are consistent, and sometimes we fall off track a bit. From what I have observed, part of what makes us get off track is when our own daily stress levels are very high, when we haven’t slept, or when we are ill. When our stress levels are very high on a daily basis, we are too close to activating our limbic systems so it becomes nearly impossible to bypass it. Fortunately, there are tools that can teach us how to lessen our daily stress and, therefore, be more successful at getting out of and bypassing the limbic system.
Throughout this book, we will learn about our brains and how to train them. Once you start realizing there is a better way to live as an HSP, you will be amazed at how your life can transform. I know many of us as untrained HSPs walk around feeling quite worried about our emotional and physical reactions to stress and anxiety. But once you start using the tools effectively, you begin to trust in yourself and that can begin to open up your world.
When was the last time you felt really relaxed and centered? There are many available consciousness techniques and tools that work incredibly well for our particular sensitive systems. You deserve to feel your best, and the world needs you out there thriving in it.
Now that you’ve learned a little bit about the limbic system, re-read the descriptions of how highly sensitive people described sensory overload. It makes sense why we experience it in the way we do when we understand what our brain is experiencing.
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~Julie Bjelland is a licensed psychotherapist and author of several books, including Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person: Techniques to Reduce Anxiety and Overwhelming Emotions and The Empowered Highly Sensitive Person: How to Harness Sensitivity into Strength in a Chaotic World. Julie developed and teaches an innovative online global HSP brain-training course, serves on the advisory council of the Global Cooperative for Sensitive Leaders, is a consultant to other therapists, teaches workshops, and coaches HSPs globally. Her passion and expertise is in neuroscience and determining how to successfully train the brain so people can live their best lives and thrive. Julie specializes in working with anxiety and the highly sensitive person (HSP), couple's communication, self-esteem, and the LGBTQQ community.
Learn more about Julie’s HSP brain-training techniques in her online global course and books: www.juliebjelland.com