Navigating Change as a Highly Sensitive Person
Some weeks ago I filled my car with some belongings. I left my country of birth, the Netherlands, and drove to Sweden. Today, while writing these words, I’m living in a wooden cabin overlooking a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and forest. While I sit here with a lot of gratitude, anticipation, and motivation… I also feel pretty overwhelmed.
This seems to happen to me almost every time there are transitions in my life. I experience the big excitement of change, almost always accompanied by quite a rollercoaster of overwhelm. Big transitions, or even small ones, can take a lot out of those of us who are sensitive.
Many, if not all things come to us at their right time, and so did the book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ by Dr. Elaine Aron for me. As it turns out, in her research she discovered that a subsection of the population has nervous systems that are simply more sensitive, and therefore more easily overwhelmed, than those of the rest of us. Highly sensitive people (HSP) experience things more vividly, feel more deeply, and are affected by subtleties that many others wouldn’t even notice.
It’s a gift to be sensitive. It means that you are able to experience the beauty around you intensely, let it enter fully through all your senses. It means you can more easily sense the subtleties of human emotions and energies, and because of that feel into the experiences of others with deep empathy. You are probably gifted with a strong intuition, a rich inner life, and a vivid imagination.
At the same time, being sensitive comes with drawbacks. In our fast-paced world where we’re constantly swimming in a vast sea of stimuli, it's hard to remain centered for anyone. It's extra challenging when your system is wired in a way where everything comes in much more intensely. Highly sensitive people can easily become uncomfortable with too much stimulus, whether this comes from external sources like bright lights, loud music, or social interactions, or from internal ones like the experience of hunger or pain. HSP can also struggle to adapt to new or unexpected circumstances... like uprooting yourself and moving to Sweden!
For navigating feeling overwhelmed by all the sensory input, highly sensitive people use different coping strategies. However, the very nature of overwhelm causes your focus, memory, emotional regulation, and decision-making abilities to decrease. This makes it challenging to get clear enough to understand why you feel so off in the first place, and what you could do about it.
It took me a long time to get better at recognizing my overwhelm and regulating it. My first signs of overwhelm are usually that my system tries to reduce unease and anxiety by shutting down in different ways. I enter a state of functional freeze where I (unconsciously) dissociate by retreating mentally, emotionally, and physically. The best way I know to describe this experience, is that it's like walking in a fog, with a mind playing a repertoire of anxious thoughts while having a strong desire to crawl in a hole and hide from the world. In this state, life doesn't enter my system as it normally does. I feel disconnected from the world around me and myself. I feel 'frozen'; emotionally and physically numb, and not knowing how to move forward or make any decisions. When the overwhelm has passed, these periods seem to disappear forever in a greater fog, and details about them become hard to remember.
I have tried to cope with this experience in some less productive ways, and sometimes still do. I would find distractions in hopes of alleviating my uneasy feelings, or force myself to 'act normal' and keep up with the fast pace of life. In an attempt to relieve thoughts of failure, feeling useless or ineffective, I would even create more tasks or goals for myself to complete. This of course would only make me feel even more overwhelmed and less productive. Oh silly me.
Like in the rest of nature, you can't remove fog by ignoring it, or use force to calm the waters of a raging stream. We have to allow them to return to their natural form. This requires our attention, patience, and acceptance. Like when handling a delicate ripe berry, it's important to learn to take care of ourselves much more tenderly; especially in moments of feeling overwhelmed. When we allow ourselves to connect with what is present, we create space for balance to return. Nature provide us with infinite opportunities and lessons to do this. Living here in a little cabin surrounded by forests, lakes, and bogs, I couldn't have been in a better place to practice this.
Here are a few ways nature helps me find balance again. Maybe they can help you too in moments where the world is just a little too much for you.
When going for a walk in nature, we humans often plan for a certain goal, route, or distance. What if, instead of treating your next hike as a workout or something to accomplish, you simply see it as an opportunity to experience the magic of the moment? There can be only one simple goal: to be present in the moment. Even if that means you end up walking a total of only a handful of meters or yards!
Go to a natural area where you feel good. Slow down, and become aware of your footsteps. Do you feel your feet touching the ground with each step? Is the ground soft, bumpy, or maybe covered in moss? Breathe deeply. Do you feel the air entering your lungs? Does it feel warm, refreshing, or maybe moist? Now open your mind and body to your senses. What sights and sounds are you experiencing? What different colors do you see? Do you maybe smell the scent of the trees and the earth? Can you hear the calls of birds or the crunch of leaves beneath your feet? Do you feel the warm sunshine or cold wind on your face? Slowly and gently, absorb these different sensations. Simply be aware of them and give them time. You are here, in this very moment, connected to everything around you, and your beautiful senses are here to help you experience that. Experiencing connection in this way while getting out of your head and into the body, can be a powerful remedy to the experience of overwhelm.
Exploring little worlds
As a young child, I would spend hours outside laying on my belly, looking at all the tiny life happening in the shallow waters of a pond, or between the blades of grass in a lawn. In those moments, I would forget about everything. All there was, were me and the magical tiny communities of creatures right under my nose. In those moments, there was only here and now, and life felt simple and beautiful. Still to this day, exploring miniature life is one of my favorite things to do. When you slow down and become still, you will see that new worlds become visible for you that remained hidden while living life through your busy mind. You might also see, that the the overload of your daily life fades to the background, and life temporarily becomes more quiet, uncomplicated, and magical.
Find a little world you want to explore. This could be a large rock covered in moss, a flowering bush buzzing with insects, or perhaps a tidal pool by the sea. Any natural place will do, as long as you feel comfortable spending some time with it. See what you feel drawn to, and just follow your intuition.
Sit down comfortably, and slowly become aware of the little world you have chosen. Take your time, and stay as long as you want. What are the first things that you see? Is there maybe some little life crawling on it, and if so, where are they going or what are they doing? Might this be their home? Are there any plants growing on it? What shapes do they have? Really take your time and get to know the inhabitants of this place. What textures do you feel? Maybe there is soft moss growing there, or you feel the rough bark of a tree. Now get really close to your world. Is there any scent you can detect? Maybe there is a subtle scent of flowers, or of moist earth. Where might this scent come from? Take your time to really let it in. Is your place dry or wet? How do water and light interact with it? Does it feel like your place has a personality or feeling to it? Maybe it feels shy and mysterious, or it could feel vibrant and full of expression. How might your miniature world be part of the larger surroundings? Can you imagine how it is connected to the rest, for example through the weather, root systems, or other beings coming and going there and leaving their traces? ... just like you while you're visiting it. You too are connected to this little world now, and have left your traces with the energy you spent in its company. When you feel complete, if you feel called to do so, express gratitude for the experience this little world has given you. Maybe you will feel drawn to visit this once hidden place again, and get to know it more and more.