Feeling overwhelmed is a very common psychological issue, affecting up to 1 in 4 adults at some point during their lifetimes. It is “feeling completely overcome in mind or emotion,” according to Marla W. Deibler. And for many people, it is simply a part of life. Kathleen Nadeau describes this common reality:
Overwhelm results from families with two working parents managing a household and raising kids. Overwhelm results from trying to work full-time while earning a degree in our “spare time.” Overwhelm results from workplace environments that keep piling on expectations with little regard for whether those expectations can be met within a 40-hour week. Overwhelm results from being a single parent trying to run a household and hold down a full time job. Overwhelm results from being “on” 24/7 through mobile phones, social media and the availability of movies and TV series on demand.
But for some people, the feeling of being overwhelmed comes from a much more personal reality.
Called highly sensitive people or highly sensitive empaths, some people experience life differently from the average person. Their sympathetic nervous system makes them walking antennae, perceiving and absorbing the emotional states of those they come in contact with. If you are highly sensitive, your brain is more “open,” and you actually have more nerve endings than the average person does. This open structure means that the highly sensitive empath absorbs or internalizes much more information than the average person, particularly emotional information.
In some ways, this sensitivity is like an emotional superpower. I call it “having massive ears,” and it works much like sonar hearing in dogs. A dog’s ears are designed to pick up sounds that human ears cannot. In the same way, because you’re highly sensitive, you pick up more emotional information than the average person. And this sensitivity has many benefits. “Highly sensitive people…tend to be creative, imaginative, individualistic and we can understand complex ideas, situations and people.” The highly sensitive person experiences emotions intensely, both joy and pain. And like Superman hearing someone who needs help from far away, highly sensitive people pick up on other people’s emotions and want to help. They have big hearts. They sense other’s emotional states and connect with them, feeling their emotions right along with them. In fact, many highly sensitive people go into the helping professions because of their emotional connectedness.
Of course, being highly sensitive doesn’t really make you a superhero. And it presents one very significant drawback. While they’re very good at hearing people, highly sensitive empaths often struggle with the extreme amounts of emotional information coming at them all the time and this abundance of emotional stimuli can leave them feeling overwhelmed. The metaphor of a flood or tsunami is a powerfully accurate one. It’s “a wave of emotion building energy as it moves forward and overwhelms us.” In a more practical sense, it’s like having your boss give you five stacks of paperwork to complete in a single day when everyone else only has one stack. As a highly sensitive person, you may struggle to cope with “the intensity of [y]our feelings.” And “whether those feelings are absorbed from the people around us, or we feel overwhelmed by too much sensory stimulation, the result is that we can feel overcome by emotion.”
Unfortunately, many highly sensitive people lack a good way to handle that overwhelm. Some people shut down. They are completely cut off and numb, becoming almost robotic because they can’t handle the stress and the emotions. As Deborah Ward comments, “Sometimes our sensitivity to the feelings of others can be so overwhelming that instead of jumping in we want to run away and avoid relationships altogether.” Others absorb all the emotional information around them and, without an outlet for it, become sad and heavy-feeling and overwhelmed. Neither of these responses is healthy or effective. But there is a better way. You can deal with the overwhelm that you experience as a highly sensitive person. And it starts by accepting who you are, for better or for worse.