A little-known secret among highly sensitive people is that they become easily overwhelmed. This may be something you’ve worked hard to hide over the years or perhaps you are unaware it is a major source of stress. You likely become overwhelmed by the emotions, feelings or subconscious cues you pick up on others, yes, but you also become overwhelmed by the constant sensory input you receive because you are picking up more data than the average person. And until you learn what to do with this information, you’ll be stressed by it.
As a highly sensitive person you are like a computer constantly receiving information that you begin to process, internalize, store, and try to make sense of despite it contrasting with your internal operating system. Additionally, you are surrounded by many people who are either narcissistic or not empathic which means you’ll be the only one noticing the data to begin with. This generates cognitive dissonance which adds to your burden and stress level.
In fact, if you are empathic there’s a good chance you slipped through the educational or medical cracks and were never given an appropriate diagnosis or support for how your brain and senses work differently. That’s not to say that every empath needs or requires a diagnosis (sometimes it can be counterproductive), but to say that we do operate differently and often are unable to fit into the left-brained groupthink which costs us relationships, educational or career goals, and more. Some such diagnoses includes high functioning Asperger’s or other forms of Autism, sensory processing disorders, developmental delays, auditory or visual disabilities, and more. It can also include “secondary” conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD, hyper activity, belly aches and G.I. distress, adrenal fatigue, blood sugar imbalances, and perhaps even PTSD. By and large, we get overlooked because we try not to stand out.
These talented people often get overlooked because of their high emotional or intellectual intelligence (“if you’re smart or too sensitive, there is no need to help” is the groupthink) and because of their uncanny ability to blend in. Because of these things, your family, teachers, or medical providers probably were led to believe you possessed no neurodiversity that should be supported and encouraged, rather than ignored to your own detriment.
Like I’ve mentioned before, in addition to attending nutrition school years ago, I also have a Bachelor’s degree in Education which led me to work with children with disabilities over the years. It was frustrating for me to witness brilliant children who both had clinical diagnoses (Autism, PDD-NOS, ADD, ODD, etc) and no formal diagnosis written off as behavioral problems when in fact the behavior of the adults or other people in these children’s lives were creating the environment which caused these kids to become overwhelmed and unable to cope. While, yes I certainly understand this is not always the case because much can be traced back to genetics, heredity, chemical exposure, dietary allergens, and more, by and large, if we begin to look at children or highly sensitive adults as products of their environment, we would see there are safe and effective holistic solutions to help the whole person in challenging environments rather than only rely on heavy discipline, neglect, and brain-altering medications.
Sometimes the triggers for these kids was as simple as being rushed to put shoes on or head out the door with no warning. Other times it was loud chaotic background noise which set them off. Sometimes it was doing something out of the ordinary which caused their internal compass to start going haywire and left them feeling lost because they couldn’t anticipate what would be expected of them or how to do something that others considered “common sense” (side note: groupthink “common sense” is never “common” to a highly sensitive person; it’s viewed as completely backwards because it discounts the intuitive human experience to appease the narcissists in power). Often it was being forced to touch “strange” textures with their hands or feet, or the way their clothes rubbed on them. Other times, they were frustrated with adults and authority figures who could not perceive their needs or who directed them around like little robots with no personal freedom or choice. Ultimately, they couldn’t deal with the build up of internal energy they got from the external stimuli. It felt as if they were about to burst, which spilled over into their attitude or behavior. Outbursts were a way of releasing that which they had been unfairly given or a way for them to express that which they couldn’t put their finger on.
It was amazing to see how small simple and strategic changes made huge differences in the lives of these kids. Giving them a heads up, explaining what would transpire or what was expected of them, allowing them to choose clothing that felt comfortable to them, allowing them to move around freely, allowing them to make choices for themselves when appropriate, and more. You see, the cultural expectations were by and large the problem; not the individuals. These people couldn’t be standardized and succeed, unlike many others.
As an adult, your sensory triggers may include being in crowded spaces with lots of people, having little to no privacy, being checked in on constantly, little freedom to do things in a way which makes intuitive sense to you, being rushed, bright lights or loud noises, incessant repetitive movements, pointless soulless conversations, energetic strings or expectations from others that leave you feeling trapped, being backed into proverbial ethical corners, feeling misunderstood, or not knowing how to communicate what you actually want or need, and more.
Your triggers will be unique to you and your life experiences thus far. For example, if you always ate in a rush at family meals growing up, you may prefer to eat alone so you don’t start picking up on external sensory cues that cause you to “speed up” and feel internal tension in your gut or kidneys/adrenals which wreak havoc on your digestion and nervous system. You may hate rooms with no airflow, feel claustrophobic often, or refuse to travel by airplane. Or you may hate shopping because of the crowds or feeling like you are not trusted by employees to purchase the goods before leaving the store (you’d be surprised how many people subconsciously feel that way). You may always be looking for an “out”: the exit, the place to hide and replenish, a calm amidst the storm.
In the end, highly sensitive children and highly sensitive adults are not too dissimilar: they both take in much more stimuli (through their sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, temperature, proprioception, facial cues and body language from others, physical pains in their bodies, emotions of others, expectations of others, clutter in home or school environments, and more). In fact, both are reading subconscious cues without realizing it. And they are unable to reconcile how they feel inside with what the external stimuli is demanding of them. In the end, we internalize such stress as physical pains, feelings of sadness, directionlessness, hopelessness, confusion, extreme fatigue, and isolation or loneliness, despite perhaps trying to hide it.
In order to overcome the sensory overload that leads to chaos, confusion, stress, and overwhelming burdens, first identify that you posses these abilities. Without recognizing them, you will end up a slave to them. You pick up on more external and internal data than the average person who is not empathic. Bottom line.
Next, change any external circumstances to make them more comfortable for you. You likely have been discouraged from doing this thus far. As an empath, your instinctual reaction is to make life easier for others, at your own expense. Do you need to find a job in which you don’t sit in an office or cubicle all day? Do you need more time to eat lunch? Do you need to find people on your wavelength to connect with, rather than changing your energy to build superficial friendships? Do you need to assign one day a week to chores or other necessary tasks so they don’t feel like a weight hanging over your head all week?
Finally, once you recognize this ability, you can begin disconnecting yourself from the stimuli you receive. Unless something pertains to you, your situation in life and relationships, or how you can help others/the world, let it go. Just because you recognize it does not mean it is your responsibility to address. Ideally, you would address anything in your life that causes you inescapable pain (such as relationship problems, unethical choices by others, and anything else that is keeping you from self-actualizing). However, sometimes you also have to learn the art of letting go and letting others stew in their own unhealthy subconscious habits. After all, it is theirs to deal with at the end of the day, not yours. You have simply assumed this burden for yourself because of your sensitive nature. And you can still be kind and loving and change yourself to make your true nature work better for you.