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A Recovery Guide for Overexerted Highly Sensitive People

I know exactly what my breaking point feels like.

Probably because I get there more often than most people.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I always describe it the same way (and usually not in the most collected voice).

“It feels like THIS,” I say to my husband, while spreading out all of my fingers and pointing them in toward my shoulders and chest. I bounce my hands up and down a few inches while mimicking the sound you’d hear in a horror film, right before the attacker strikes, a high-pitched and ominous, “IRK IRK IRK.”

Have you been there before? Have you been there lately?

Overexerted

If you’re an introvert or a highly sensitive person {recommended reading: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron}, then you may be intimately familiar with the feeling of being pushed to your edge.

When we’re on top of it, we highly sensitive people recognize where we’re headed before we’re too far gone. Some mindfulness practices and purposeful self-care get us back to a healthy head space.

But sometimes we like to pretend that everything is just FINE (thankyouverymuch), that we’ve totally got this covered, and sometimes it creeps up on us so quickly that there’s really no easy way to push reverse.

So this is a recovery guide. Aptly named, in my opinion, because it really can feel like recovery.

Colie James Photography

Even if you don’t consider yourself highly sensitive, I think all of us get stretched to this point from time to time. Raising kids and loving your partner and being involved in the world is really all it takes. This is my personal map for getting back on track.

What NOT to Do

Ignore it, discredit it, downplay it. These just make agitation build.

What TO Do

1. Communicate where you are and what you need to the people around you. 

If we don’t convey our feelings to our people, they’ll proceed as normal around us, and given a bit of time, we’re likely to interpret their actions as personal affronts. Overexerted people—especially highly sensitive people—are even quicker than normal to internalize the actions of others.

On the flip side, when we DO communicate how we’re feeling and what we need, the people we love can give us more space, support us in our requests, and (hopefully) treat us with grace if we step on any toes as we move back toward a healthy baseline.

2. Check out. 

On a recent long weekend, my husband and I packed a group date, a neighborhood party, and an outdoor family adventure into three days. Add to that the usual routine of making meals, wiping down counters, switching loads of laundry, and organizing the garage… and by the end, I was simultaneously grateful we had enjoyed such a beautiful and productive weekend—and utterly spent from it.

On the evening of day three, I hedged at how I was feeling to my husband but didn’t take the steps I really needed. So naturally, I snapped at him for the smallest thing. I basically snapped at him for being himself. (Insert “hanging head” emoticon.)

When I’m overexerted, the surest way for me to recover is to check out altogether for a while.

Checking out spares an overexerted highly sensitive person from negative interactions with others (like snapping at your spouse…), and it provides a quiet, controlled environment where we can begin to shake off the stress and decompress.

Note: During the “checked out” stage, I tend to check out mentally as well as physically. I usually dive into an episode of a well-loved show or get lost in the plot of a new book after my kids are in bed. This step isn’t science; it’s just what my gut tells me to do. (I like to trust my gut.)

3. Fill yourself back up. 

If step 2 is about removing something (stress), step 3 is about restoring something (wellness).

I suggest finding a few activities that consistently fill YOU up. Think: listening to soft music, taking a bath, or rubbing lotion into you hands and feet. For more ideas, check out this post: 24 Self-Care Practices for Mothers.

4. Let someone in.

Too often I think I need to do it all on my own. In contrast, I find that opening up to someone about how I’ve been feeling accelerates the process. (People matter.)

4. Get outdoors. 

I often think that nature tethers us to our truest selves. Whether it’s by yourself for a quick jog or with your family for an epic adventure, getting outside is the best way I know of to reinforce the work you did in the steps above.

Colie James Photography

To the highly sensitives:

“Because you’re so in tune with your environment and other people, life can be pretty exhausting… But there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not alone.” Jenn Granneman


If you’re an introvert (and if this post resonated with you, I’d be a bit surprised if you’re not!), I’d love to send you a PDF of 12 key tips for introverted parents, from introverted parents.

Learn more about the PDF here, or simply sign up here! (Be sure to check the box for “Printable: 12 Tips for Introverted Parents.”) By signing up, you’ll also be the first to know when I re-open registration for my ecourse, Learn to Thrive as an Introverted Mom, in the early spring of 2018.

Welcome to our community!

23 Comments

  • Reply
    Katie
    June 14, 2016 at 6:07 am

    Oh, how I loved this post. I’m always trying to deny the fact that I feel over exerted more quickly than I’d like. I feel envious of my friends who go, go, go a lot more than me. The acceptance is slowly coming!

    Anyway, this post was wonderful.

  • Reply
    Tina @AMindfulFairytale
    June 14, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Great post! It’s so easy to become overexerted as a stay at home mama to 2 littles and I never even knew I was a highly sensitive person until I had my first. Thank you for this post and the great tips!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      June 14, 2016 at 8:59 pm

      Same here, Tina! I definitely think kids bring out the “highly sensitive” in us! 😉 Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  • Reply
    Cindy
    June 14, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    I’ve never exactly thought of myself as a highly sensitive person, until reading this post. I DID however, think of myself as weak, touchy, and prone to anxiety and depression. I much prefer the descriptor “highly sensitive”! I’m on my road to recovery now, and learning what I can handle, and when I need to scale things back. I appreciate this post, it reminds me that it is ok to slow down and simplify, and recognize my boundaries….without comparison to anyone else’s. I’ll be looking up your self care practices, as that is an area I need much improvement on! Thank you for the wonderful post.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      June 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      Oh man, can I relate to this?! I’ve thought those exact same things about myself in the past—”weak, touchy, and prone to anxiety and depression.” That’s what I love about the concept of highly sensitive people (HSP); it comes with strengths, not just weaknesses. Like how well we read people or how we can judge the mood of a room as soon as we walk in. If you haven’t already, it might be worth checking out the book—https://www.amazon.com/Highly-Sensitive-Person-Elaine-Aron/dp/0553062182/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1465963334&sr=8-1&keywords=highly+sensitive+people

      Best wishes, Cindy! Keep me posted on your progress!

  • Reply
    Whoo Knows
    June 22, 2016 at 6:59 am

    Well written!

  • Reply
    Beth
    June 25, 2016 at 4:25 am

    It’s so comforting to know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I wish I could do more sometimes but I always pay the price. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Anita
    June 30, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Absolutely Erica. I have two boys, 7 & 11 and when they come home from a Long day at school, all three of us just Chill for an hour. It helps me for sure but also helps them to unwind and be more gentle to one another. Then it’s homework followed by playrooms time.

    That hour of spacing out recharges all of us beautifully.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      June 30, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      This is the perfect illustration, Anita. I need that exact same hour—the concept of it—right after my kids go to bed. I did a post a few weeks ago on happiness hacks I learned from Gretchen Rubin. One of them was to watch for and utilize “transition rituals.” I think that’s the perfect name for what you and I are talking about.

  • Reply
    Andrea Clarke
    July 9, 2016 at 6:07 am

    Talking is important for overexerted highly sensitive people and I see it now. Thank you for enlightening me.

  • Reply
    Rosanna
    July 10, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    This is my first time on your blog, but I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post. I have recognized over the last 2 years that I am quite sensitive. I also have a VERY sensitive 8-year-old daughter. It’s been rough for me to parent her as her sensitivity can often irritate me and make me easily overwhelmed. We are learning and growing and we have a few strategies in place to help us both. One of our strategies is that my husband deals with all discipline issues when he is home with all our kid’s. This has helped me a fair bit to not be so easily overwhelmed by all those responsibilities when he isn’t around. As a homeschool Mom, this is especially important for me.

  • Reply
    Joanie
    August 24, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    This is just what I needed to read. I was born with a heart defect and have learned to be a pro at appearing normal to the rest of the world, no matter how I’m feeling. Work has been sending me to this place way too often.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      August 24, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      Wow, Joanie! I’m betting you have a pretty captivating life story. Best wishes to you!

  • Reply
    Samantha @sweetmemphoto
    November 1, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Wonderful post and finding it now was great timing with the holidays just around the corner! I have never expected people to read my mind… and even when I do finally break i can most of the time escape to just get over it on my own without involving or unintentionally hurting anyone else in the family… but there are just some days that logic overwhelms me and the “why don’t they just get its” come out full force. Thanks for opening these topics up for review and I will definitely add in some better communication in the future so they at least have a chance to understand why I need to check out! 😉

  • Reply
    Paula
    December 7, 2016 at 10:34 am

    This is my first time on your blog…love it! I just recently went back to working full-time after 5+ years off work with my 5yr old twin boys. I thought since they were starting school it would be a great time for me to start back at my career. I have never felt so overwhelmed in my life! Trying to work all day and come home to two 5yr olds, making dinner, house cleaning, etc is such a overwhelming feeling. Your post couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      December 7, 2016 at 11:48 am

      Hi Paula! I am SO glad you found this post at just the right time. Wow, I can only imagine what a handful that must be! Many best wishes on your transition! Wishing you minutes of downtime & recovery whenever you can sneak them!

  • Reply
    Sam Moore
    February 3, 2017 at 7:44 am

    What works best for me is Getting Out ! Going out partying or for a dinner is wonderful, better still is going out of town for a weekend or even a night. I think it completely flushes out the stress and makes you restart afresh 🙂

  • Reply
    Paint It White interiors
    February 10, 2017 at 6:53 am

    This is so true. Everyone needs a time out at some point. I guess the trick is not to wait ’til breaking point. I’m loving your blog today Erica. I came upon it while researching ideas on what colour to paint my piano. (I’m wanting to paint it Napoleonic Blue but after seeing your black one I might change my mind. It’s beautiful!! Okay, now I’m off to read your ‘mindfulness post on my next tab.
    Cheers,
    Marie:-)

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      February 11, 2017 at 6:50 pm

      Yes! The trick is figuring out where your breaking point is at any giving time and steering clear! 🙂 Thanks so much for reading, Marie, and good luck with that piano!!

  • Reply
    Anisa
    August 22, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    I love this. Im happy i found u all. As an Hsp a mom of 2 . A police officer and the list goes on there are times i checkout. But realising atm how i feel o dont snap. So im mindful of my emotions….

  • Reply
    Jolene
    November 20, 2017 at 3:16 am

    So happy to have found your blog today. This post resonates with me so much. I’ll be sure to look at the self care link as I’m sure I could use to incorporate some. Finding myself super sensitive while I dig into some crucial inner work with a counsellor. Desperate to develop some mindfulness so I can pause before I react when parenting. I’ll be digging into your resources to find your treasures. Thank you 😊

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      November 20, 2017 at 7:56 am

      Thank you, Jolene! I’m so glad you found some material here that might help you in your journey. Best wishes!

  • Reply
    Stevi
    November 23, 2017 at 9:50 am

    What do you do when you don’t have an opportunity to check out, or any people to support you? I’m a homeschooling mom of a 4yo, in a failing relationship, living hours away from family and friends. I feel like I’ve been scraping the bottom of my emotional and physical energy barrel for so long, I’ve dug a well.

    I work nights while kiddo is with his dad, but I hardly call that a break, since I do phone tech support and do a lot of managing of other people’s big emotions, which drains me just as dry as managing my kiddo and his big emotions, plus an unpredictable co-parent in the mix that I walk on tiptoe around.

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