How to deal with stress when you are a highly sensitive person
It is unavoidable for most of us to deal with stress every now and then. Especially for highly sensitive people, this can be challenging. Try these tips!
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, stress is a common issue amongst highly sensitive people. Besides the daily tasks, expectations and errands that we have to run, we also have a strongly-alerted 'alarm system', causing us to react more intense towards external stimuli. Accordingly, highly sensitive people are more prone to suffer from stress. In this blog, I collected the best tips on how to deal with stress.
I don't know if any of you can relate, but as a highly sensitive person, I sometimes have panic moments. Moments where unexpected tasks enter my path and it feels like I freeze. Or when the idea of a specific social situation frightens me and I don't go. In those moments, I seriously struggle to deal with stress and can't function properly anymore. Moreover, due to not being able to function properly, I feel even more stressed out. Can you relate?
In fact, science explains this phenomenon: it is a so called fight-flight-freeze response. This is the F3-system that protects us from danger. However, this system can also be initiated when there is no real danger. How? Through anxiety. Your anxiety might tell you that there will be a danger occurring and hence, your F3-system is responding. Examples on how your anxiety triggers your F3-system:
- When you yell at your partner because he tries to push you to go with him to a social gathering that you feel anxious about (Fight).
- When you leave a party early because you get a strange vibe from the people there and start feeling anxious (Flight).
- When your boss observes what you are doing, you are anxious about what he thinks of your work and you suddenly have a blackout (Freeze).
When your F3-system kicks in during safe situations, it is the part in your brain called Amygdala responding towards signals that it is receiving. As our brains are highly complex, they sometimes tend to create wrong connections based on earlier situations. As a result, your alarm system might go off without any actual threat.
Within highly sensitive people the Amygdala is responding more strongly towards external input compared to less sensitive people's Amygdala. As a result, highly sensitive people might feel more easily pushed into fight-flight-freeze-mode compared to less sensitive people. Hence, the overwhelm!
Now that you know why you react the way you do when you feel stressed, you can start to deal with stress by learning techniques that get you out of this fight-flight-freeze-mode.
When your F3-system is kicking in, your emotional brain is responding more quickly than your rational brain. Accordingly, your rational becomes confused of why you react the way you do. It literally tries to make sense of your emotional response. Along with your emotional response, your body starts to react; you breathe more quickly, your muscles become more tense and you might feel light-headed. Moreover, your blood streams away from your stomach area to your arms, legs and other muscles needed for the fight-or-flight mode. As a result, you might even feel nauseous, your legs might start shaking and your mouth might feel dry. Panic mode!
Because of your strong physical reactions, the first and best thing that you can do to deal with stress, is to be aware of your body responses at that moment. Control your breathing by slowly breathing in and out and try to step out of the stress situation for a while. Give your rational brain room to make sense of what just happened and help your emotional brain to calm down.
If you want help with controlling your breathing, there are smart watches that measure your pulse and give you a warning when they acknowledge an increased heartbeat. Also, you might want to try this breathing exercise in such a stressful moment:
In moments where your Amygdala kicks in, it reacts because the current situation reminds it of something negative that happened to you in the past. However, because highly sensitive people have an overreactive amygdala, even the tiniest signals related to that negative experience were acknowledged. Hence, your Amygdala reacts in situations where it is not necessary.
Therefore, in order to deal with stress, you should acknowledge what the current situation reminded you of. Try to dig in your rational side of your brain for memories that relate to what you currently are experiencing. An example;
Last year, our house almost caught fire when a shed nearby burned down. It was a very traumatic experience that I still struggle with today. Everytime I smell fire, my heart starts beating faster and I go into flight- or freeze mode. In those momens, the first thing I do is to breathe. Then, I try to rationalize the situation; "Is there a fire nearby or is it just a barbecue?"
Once you get into rational mode, you will notice that the stress within you will decrease.
When you suffer from depression, anxiety or long-term stress, your brain becomes programmed to activate the F3-system more quickly. Hence, stressful situations will appear more often. Therefore, in order to avoid continuously going into the F3-mode and deal with stress, you should work on the core of the problem. Are you feeling anxious and stressed very often? Try some of these tips to re-wire your brain and body and prevent heading straight into F3-mode:
- Exercising; exercising has proven to reduce stress hormones and improve sleep and confidence. By trying out activities such as walking in nature, going for a run or dancing, your body will start to produce more endorphins. Endorphins are responsible for improving your mood and act as natural painkillers.
- Light candles and burn essential oils; another effective way to re-program your body and reduce stress levels, is to burn essential oils. For example, you might try lavender oil to calm down.
- Write; journaling is a proven method to increase mental well-being and feel less anxious. By regularly writing about what worries you, you give your brain some space. Therefore, you might want to consider buying a journal.
- Say no; try to acknowledge your stressors and work on reducing them. Highly sensitive people and empaths are very kindhearted, causing them to often be people-pleasers. When you learn to say no to situations that cause you stress, you will feel more relaxed and calm in the long run.
- Meditate; a wonderful way to feel more relaxed, is to meditate regularly. For example, you might want to try out this 10-minute meditation to release stress.
If you are looking for more ways to take care of yourself and reduce stress, you might want to check out these 111 self-care ideas.
Hopefully, after reading this article you found some useful ways to reduce stress. When you are learning to deal with stress, you might expect immediate results once you start. However, reducing the stress hormones in your body takes time. Like you would be for a friend, also be patient for yourself. You deserve to invest time in your well-being and to feel less anxious.
Good luck on your journey towards a less stressful life!