As an occupational therapist, I understand the sensory processing issues that can overwhelm people during the day. The “50 shades of sensitivity” are a continuum from high to low sensitivity. When the brain is over-stimulated, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), dumping chemicals in the body which creates a fight or flight response. For the HSP, this constant triggering of the SNS creates a mild state of shock in the body. People don’t think clearly and they begin to feel overwhelmed or emotionally drained. Their personal space (or energetic boundary) also becomes fuzzy as they start to absorb emotions, feelings and energy from others around them.
Last summer I spent the day at an outdoor festival in Washington DC with family. By the end of the afternoon, I was feeling very overstimulated with the noise, the heat and the people in the metro station. The overhead music was too loud, but I couldn’t turn down the volume. I found it hard to breathe. I needed some water and food. I felt like everything was moving in slow motion and my responses to others was delayed. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and hide from everything. My mild sensitivity to the environment was quickly inching up the continuum toward the high end of the scale.
Have you ever experienced this type of hypersensitivity to your environment? Some people live with this sort of overwhelmed feeling most of the time. These Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are unable to tolerate high levels of sensory input from their surroundings without feeling dazed or overwhelmed. They need to be intentional about caring for themselves.
Self care is crucial for regulating these high levels of sensitivity as people perform their daily activities. There are times when I shift to the highly sensitive side of the continuum and other days when I’m in the low to mid-range on the scale. I’ve become aware of my own need to retreat from the world when I can’t hear myself think in a noisy, over stimulating environment. I have learned strategies to teach my clients so they can regulate their bodies and re-engage with the world. Just like a computer sometimes needs to be reset in order to function smoother, our body and mind coherence needs to be rebooted with some basic self care techniques.
For the HSP, stimulation from the environment can be constant. Occasional strategies that other people use to increase alertness or decrease the over stimulation often don’t make much of an impact when used as a solitary solution. Highly Sensitive People require a regular self care regime throughout the day to keep their body, mind and spirit integrated and in tune with one another. Depending on your activities, the sensory input from the environment and how you’ve taken care of yourself the previous day can impact how much regulation your body needs today. Here are some areas of self care that I consider important for anyone with sensitivity to consider as part of a daily routine for overall health and wellness, but especially those who are HSP.
Silence: In an age of constant over-stimulation, it is important to start and end the day with a period of silence. Silence helps your body, mind and spirit feel grounded and stable. It creates a still point or fulcrum in your day, so that everything else can balance around this feeling of stability and being grounded. It is also important to take a 5 – 10 minute silent break midday (or as frequently as you need) to re-set this feeling of balance. Create a cozy, sacred space in your home for meditation, prayer or relaxation when you need to escape from the world. When in a group setting, a HSP may need to slip away for a few minutes of quiet time to recharge their energy levels.
Breath Work: Breathing techniques increase oxygen to our brain so we think clearer. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which creates a rest and digest response in your body, releasing the negative impacts of stress. It also increases the flow of energy in our body, needed for ease of movement and overall health. One simple breath exercise is to slowly inhale for a count of four, then slowly exhale for a count of four as you allow the tension in your body to melt away. After several cycles, allow your breathing to return to normal. I also like to use some of the breathing exercises that Dr Andrew Weil teaches on his website. HSP can use these techniques when needed in just about any setting.
Energy Flow: In Traditional Chinese Medicine, energy is the key to health and wellness. Acupuncture, Acupressure, Zero Balancing, Reflexology, Reiki and other forms of energy medicine can help balance the body’s flow of energy. Self massage is an excellent way to release the held tension in your muscles especially in the neck and shoulders. You can release blocked or stagnant energy in your own body with energy-producing practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong. You can also increase your energy by meditating, spending time in nature and eating healthy foods. Internal balanced energy flows will create clear energy boundaries around the HSP, so they can navigate life without absorbing everything around them.
Creativity: Creative outlets such as art, music and photography engage the right brain and integrate the emotions that sometimes get pushed into the subconscious. These practices help HSP access their feelings and emotions and process them in tangible ways. HSP often enjoy solitary creative activities. Coloring mandalas, playing the piano or taking a photo walk are a few examples of self care practices that balance the body, mind and spirit.
Whole brain integration: Cortices tapping is an excellent tool to integrate the right and left brain, necessary for whole brain interaction with the world. This helps you think clearly, process information and use your creativity for work and leisure. This simple technique connects both the right and left sides of the brain, so they communicate clearly with each other as you process information from your environment. It shuts down the SNS’s mild state of shock which many HSP function with, and allows clear coherent thinking and functioning. This technique can be used frequently throughout the day, but is especially useful when feeling overwhelmed or distracted. Other techniques such as the Cross Crawl exercise will engage both side of the brain simultaneously. HSP will find these techniques regulate the mind and body.
Movement: It is important for HSP to get some sort of exercise or movement during the day to keep the mind and body functioning at optimal levels. It is important to find practices that are enjoyable and motivating. HSP may enjoy taking a walk or bike ride to have some alone time while exercising. HSP will notice that music can increase or decrease energy levels depending on the tempo. It is important to choose tempos that match your body’s need to increase energy or decrease external stimulation. Create several mixes of music for with slow, medium and fast tempos, for purposes of relaxation, concentration, or productivity.
Foods: What you eat influences how your body functions. HSP benefit from a healthy diet. Avoid caffeine, sugar and excessive carbohydrates that can both increase or slow down metabolism, depending on the other stimuli from the environment. Make sure you eat every few hours so that your blood sugar levels remain stable.
Rest and Relaxation: A good night’s sleep is especially important for HSP. When you have an especially stressful day, it is helpful to have some “down time” for relaxation before and afterwards. HSP learn to block off time in their day for alone time, even if they are reading a book or catching up on Email or social media. Some HSP enjoy spa baths and essential oils, while others are overstimulated by the sensory experience. This can even vary from day to day, so the important thing is to check in with your body to discover what would feel good in this moment right now.
Community time: Most HSP do better with 1:1 or small group activities over large group interactions. They may enjoy interactions with others over social media because it allows them to choose the best time of the day for those connections. When it is necessary to attend an event, they may choose to sit near the side or the back of the gathering, where there is less stimulation and an easy exit for some quiet time.
Mental attitude: A HSP can become grumpy when there is too much stimulation in the environment. Learn to recognize when you are reaching this point and remove yourself from the situation. Set intentions and goals for yourself, using positive words and affirmations, laughter and other activities that bring you joy and improve your mood. Learn to be present in the moment by checking in with your body and adjusting activity as needed.Sensory input: Your senses take in information from the environment around you. This can arouse, calm or regulate your body. Tastes and textures of food can make you feel better. The rhythmic chewing of gum or the crunch of foods can be comforting. Essential oils and other scents can help or hinder your concentration. Sounds in the environment, including music, can have similar effects. Lighting in the room, clutter on the table or blinking lights on a clock can also overstimulate HSP. Even the feel of a tag on clothing or seams in socks and be mildly irritating. While these can be tolerable for some people, the combination of all these inputs at the same time can cause a HSP to be overwhelmed. Learning what calms or stimulates you is important for each individual to discern, because everyone is unique.
And now for the rest of the story. When I realized my body was going into a mild state of shock from the over-stimulation of the festival, I sat down in the Metro station and started doing the Cortices Tapping. I didn’t even care if anyone saw me doing it. Within ten seconds, the fog lifted and I felt a burst of energy move through my body. I found a water fountain and got a drink. When the train arrived, I sat quietly in a corner, shut my eyes and rested my head on the back of the seat. I quietly did a series of breath cycles to energize me. By the time we reached our stop, I was feeling much better. I was able to walk the few blocks to the restaurant where I had some protein and a healthy salad. I used a variety of self care techniques to reboot my body that day.
Each person is unique and your sensitivity can vary throughout the day. These are just a few techniques my clients and I have found helpful for self care. Each person needs to discern which techniques will be the most helpful at any given time. The important thing is to discover what is right for you, especially if you are mildly to highly sensitive.