What Emotional & Sensory Overload Feels Like for HSPs


Today’s HSP Tip: When you feel overwhelmed or overstimulated: Close your eyes and breath in for the count of 4, hold for 2, then exhale for 7. Do 5-7 cycles of this and it sends a calming signal to your brain.

From a survey I conducted for HSPs, on my HSP Facebook page I asked the question, Have you ever experienced a feeling of complete emotional or sensory meltdown? Please describe it as best you can. It’s fascinating to read the responses:

  • Yes, quite often.. I usually start to feel stressed and then emotional, I don't think very rationally at the time, depending on where I am I may have to just "troop through it" so if I'm at work (and crying is not really an option for me at the time) the feels tend to morph into a physically heavy feeling, and then feeling completely drained, almost like the beginning of a flu. This usually wipes me out for the rest of the day.

  • I feel waves of energy going up and down my body, I then start feeling clammy and faint and nauseous, like I am about to pass out, weak like I am unable to hold myself up. I have to sit down or lay down wherever I happen to be.

  • Emotional - I cannot stop crying. Even when I think I’m “done” and have gone back to whatever it is I was doing, I am very easily triggered to start crying again the rest of the day. Sensory- I shrink into myself to try to get away. It feels like I don’t have skin on so everything is super abrasive to my nervous system. I feel like I need to run from whatever is causing the overload.

  • Absolutely. My brain went to complete mush when panicked and stressed. I could not think, plan, anticipate or function. It was very scary, disorienting and humiliating.

  • Yes. If too many things are happening for me (not to me) at once. Too many balls in the air, too many people talking to me at once, too many tabs open in my life.

  • I become numb. I sit in a chair and stare at the TV and before I know it, hours have passed by. I can’t do anything - it’s agony to just do simple things.

  • Yes. Many times similar to what I guess an anxiety attack feels like but it changes according to the source of the sensory.

  • Everything is just too loud. My ears hurt and I can't function properly. I just need everyone to stop. It feels like my head will explode if the noise doesn't stop.

  • The only way I can think to describe it is "head spinning". With so much incoming sensory stimuli, you don't know what to attend to and what to ignore. It feels like an ocean wave crashing over you as you stand on the shore, looking up at it.

  • Yes and when it happens I need to be alone and in a quiet space to recharge

  • All the doors are closed in the room of bad emotional feeling and I cannot get out!

  • Tight chest, shortness of breath, mind spinning.

  • It feels like (emotionally) a ball machine on a tennis court is spitting out balls uncontrollably.

  • A total emotional mess. I get totally devastated and heartbroken when I'm having a meltdown and it's disregarded or I'm made to feel like a burden instead of shown patience or compassion.

  • Heart starts racing abnormally; heavy feeling in the brain; eye get drowsy to the point of getting closed; start yawning; want 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!

  • Yes—emotional and verbal shutdown, inability to concentrate, headache, fatigue, irritability, feeling trapped, need to escape

  • Yes feeling very drained by my environment.

  • 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 occured 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)

  • Yes 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

  • Many times. It’s like I can’t handle one more thing in my head. I become very irritated, short tempered and ready. I also feel like I am overcome with anxiety.

  • Yes. 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.

  • Yea, usually start disassociating, crying for hours on end, Have to go into a quiet room, go into bed, and my mental processing goes into total doom and total Fear (Sweating, heart pounding). LOTS of fear, and needing to ground above all else. Usually extreme tiredness from the heavy processing of crying and then dealing with life post processing. The whole thing is distressing. Usually a feeling that I need someone to help RIGHT NOW. Like even my adult brain coming into say "well people are busy you can't rely on them always" but that extreme urgency in needing others to help me doing it myself won't work ( or hasn't worked) usually in the realm of survival.

  • It feels almost panicky but without the fear element. I have a strong urge to get away and be on my own. I tend to feel on the edge of tears.

  • It is like being tortured from the inside out... like waves that don’t stop. I have felt at times that I just wanted to switch my brain off for a bit. It physically feels painful and when you get to that point you know there’s no stopping it and you just have to ride it out in a darkened quiet space until it stops.

  • Yes. I have had this experience which manifests as a classic panic attack. Inability to remain in the over stimulating environment (Flight) Also avoidance of certain places where I've experienced extreme anxiety in the past. Bodily reactions: tense muscles, flushed and or blushing, sweating, racing heart and thoughts, feeling conspicuous as if others can sense my panic. Very unpleasant and scary.

  • My nervous system felt suddenly overwhelmed and I had to get into bed with minimal stimulation immediately.

  • It's like I can't take it anymore, nothing, not even myself, I want to switch off and just somehow wait until it ends. Nothing anyone says or does could be the right thing because it's past the receiving end point. Maybe there's a desire to crawl out of my own skin.

  • Yes. I feel like the world is spinning around me, like everything is moving too fast and I have lost control. I want to scream and run away.

  • Crying, feeling out of control, wanting to be alone.

  • Yes! Overwhelmed, unable to think or function, the need to leave the situation.

  • Total fatigue, sometimes headache...feel like my head is going to burst. Can't deal (sometimes even tv or music is too much). Sometimes I just have to go where it's dark and quiet to recoup.

  • Extreme stress, pacing, frustration of lack of control, wanting to run out of my skin, isolating self, prone to triggering extreme anxiety/panic attack. Need space, need air.

  • I believe so, but it's hard for me to put things into words. I think the best way I can describe it, is that I feel like I'm literally going to crawl out of my skin and it is so insanely uncomfortable that I can't focus on anything, all I want to do is burst into frustrated tears and scream.

  • It feels like being completely overwhelmed by whatever is going on in your life and then every little thing that comes afterward feels more intense or annoying or irritating. A question from a family member makes you snap back at them. Music from a car on the street feels too loud. It usually ends up with me in tears, and all I want to do is block everyone out, turn down the volume on the world for a while.

  • Generally it manifests as flu-like symptoms. These have occurred after a day at work in a loud, open, cold, busy work environment where I was required to interact on a fairly intimate, demanding level with patients (PT)--seeing as many as 20 a day. Not ideal on so many levels.

  • Yes, it feels like the world has slowed down. It takes longer to think about things but you also get distracted by the next thought before you finish the last one. You become numb. Whilst your brain is telling you on one hand you need to focus and do something, it’s also telling you that it doesn’t care right now. You eventually stop trying to make sense of it all and get overwhelmed with a sense of fatigue. 

  • Feeling of overwhelm. The worst case scenario will happen. Feel like nothing will ever be the same again in my life.

  • I feel like I have a crushing weight on my chest. Noise causes me physical pain over my whole body. I feel so overwhelmed at the thought of doing day to day tasks. My body aches, my digestive system shuts down, I don’t feel hungry just queasy. I detached from others around me so I do not have to pretend I’m ok.

  • Yes. I struggle in crowded spaces and noisy restaurants. I leave immediately before I have a panic attack

  • Yes, I feel like I am coming out of my skin and that someone just turned the volume of the world to full blast, everything is irritating, I am cringing and gritting my teeth

  • Emotional meltdown for sure. I go into defense mode and become very angry, quite out of control, but yet very aware of needing to keep some level of restraint. I try not do become cruel or say things I will regret (which I usually don't) so I'm still in the middle of it, trying to be guided by my higher self. I feel like I down spiral into all emotions and the one I don't want to feel the most is sadness or depression, so I try to prevent that because the result of all that will be weeks, months even, of my mind thinking all sorts of things and being all over the place.

  • Yes. I'm especially sensitive to noise and physical contact. Although extremely unpleasant, I can usually handle noisy places like train stations and downtown when I'm in a comparatively positive mental state. But when I'm already stressed out for other reasons, I can't keep it together. I remember standing in the middle of the station hall frozen as the world rushed around me and drowned me in noise. And I remembered how so many people were walking while playing on their phones or just not paying attention and bumping into me. I remember being on the verge of grabbing my head and screaming. I had to back up against a large pillar and squat and tuck my head between my knees and close my eyes. This was a larger episode I had, but I have miniature episodes almost every day. I always find time every day to go into my bedroom, switch off all the lights except for my fuzzy yellow-toned night light, curl up in the covers, and just do nothing. My mind wanders off and I feel safe and at peace.

  • Tingling sensation all over (similar as when some people are scared), an awareness of being overwhelmed, feeling similar to having a hot flash -feeling flushed physical symptom like when someone gets embarrassed, fearful.. Overload is like feeling ALL these sensations at the same time.

  • Yes, I usually have an anxiety attack which means hyperventilating and the tightness in my chest.

  • Everything seems too bright, too loud, too much. I can’t think complete thoughts. I find it very difficult to focus

  • Yes I have. I feel a buzzing sensation in my head and a feeling of disconnect from reality. I feel dizzy and scared.

Did you relate to many of these? For those of us that have experienced sensory overload we can see it is a terrible, out of control, and an often frightening feeling. As HSPs we have more activation in the amygdala part of our brain that is often responsible for this flooding. Our brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat so it sends alarm bells through your system to prepare you to to run or fight. Activating this fight/flight/freeze response almost daily for many HSPs is incredibly hard on every aspect of our life, including our health. Flooding our already overloaded nervous system is especially hard for the sensitive system. I want you to know that you can actually train your brain not to respond this way. The amazing thing about the brain is that it is trainable! If you intentionally activate calming centers in the brain you deactivate these stress responses and many can be done immediately and even prevent the flooding of adrenaline and stress hormones. 

One of the reasons I am so passionate about educating highly sensitive people is that I know we can prevent most of this from happening and at the very least minimize the impact.  A quick brain training tip to practice is like having a button in the brain to tell it that you are not in danger so don’t activate those alarms. 

Close your eyes and breath in for the count of 4, hold for 2, then exhale for 7. Do 5-7 cycles of this and it sends a signal to your brain that you are not in danger. We don’t breath like that when we are in danger so that is how it sends the signal. I have so many other easy techniques to teach you and I encourage you to check out my HSP website for education of the trait and to see all the resources, including my HSP blogs, videos, podcasts, books, courses, etc.

For anyone that has been following my work you know I love to teach brain training techniques.  Every week I put out tips and education about the trait of high sensitivity in my free weekly HSP newsletter.  I encourage you to subscribe and start receiving tips and information that can make your life so much better as an HSP! We need you thriving in the world and things can get so much better! 

Check out all the blog posts I have already created for HSPs and be sure to subscribe now to get new ones in your inbox. I also encourage you to share these posts with your family and friends so they can better understand your experience. You have so many positives and gifts to offer the world and finding that balance and training your HSP brain will help you truly thrive in the world!

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About Julie Bjelland, LMFT

Julie is a psychotherapist, author, and leader in the field of high sensitivity, and has helped thousands of highly sensitive people (HSP) around the world. As an HSP herself, Julie understands what it's like to live with high sensitivity and strong emotions, and is on a mission to empower HSPs to live their best lives.

Julie has developed proprietary tools and techniques to help reduce the challenges and increase the positives that HSPs experience on a daily basis. These techniques have been developed over years of working with highly sensitive people and have proven extremely successful for her clients and students.

In her free time, Julie loves being in nature, around animals, gardening, learning, and daydreaming about having a little farm one day. She shares her home with her partner, two children, and a houseful of pets and plants. www.juliebjelland.com