The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back – dealing with stress as an HSP

Photo credit: mister ebby via / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: mister ebby via / CC BY-NC-ND

I’m guessing that many of you may be breathing a big sigh of relief as the children go back to school after the busy Christmas holidays.The frenetic activity probably continues after school drop-off, with your ‘To Do’ lists growing longer by the minute:

‘Mop floors, clean bathroom, tackle laundry mountain, take down Christmas decorations, cook dinner, do some work’ etc, etc, etc…

Daily life for everyone is busy and can easily become overwhelming. Add a Highly Sensitive Child or Parent into the mix and the tendency to become overwhelmed faster becomes a real issue. For the Highly Sensitive Person, it is often the cumulative effect of lots of trivial little things that can lead to their bucket overflowing and stress to kick in.

January is a challenging time of year for me, when the Christmas celebrations are over and the lack of sunlight and short days start to take their toll. This year I’m also dealing with the extra challenge of a suspected hand fracture (Tip – don’t put your hands down to break your fall while ice-skating)!

All small issues in the scheme of things, especially when I remind myself that millions of others have much bigger problems to deal with. Nonetheless, these small stressors can quickly add up and lead to overwhelm, eventually affecting my health if I’m not careful.

Photo credit: BrittneyBush via / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: BrittneyBush via / CC BY-NC-ND

‘Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action’.

Fight or Flight

Highly Sensitive People, with nervous systems that are more reactive, may find themselves in this ‘Fight or Flight’ mode for much of the time.

In physiological terms, we have an autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is a large network of nerves reaching out from the spinal cord, directly affecting every organ in the body. It has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which have opposite effects.

In stressful situations the sympathetic ANS initiates the fight or flight response to help us deal with the situation, but when the danger passes, the parasympathetic ANS takes over by decreasing the heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels. When things are functioning as they should, the two branches of the ANS maintain a balance – action followed by relaxation. With a Highly Sensitive Person, their sympathetic ANS can stay on guard, meaning they can’t relax and let the parasympathetic system take over. This inability to relax can lead to a variety of stress-related symptoms and illnesses over time (heart problems, high blood pressure, susceptibility to infection, skin problems, backaches, migraines, diabetes).

Things to look out for

If you find yourself experiencing any of the following, you may be displaying the symptoms of stress:

  • tight muscles
  • raised heart rate
  • high blood pressure
  • rapid breathing pattern
  • poor digestion
  • emotional distress
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • frustration
  • irritation
  • boredom
  • insomnia

Remember that there doesn’t have to be one major event or situation that is causing you to be stressed, it could be the accumulation of lots of small things – think in terms of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. As a Highly Sensitive Person (or child), you are primed to notice and take in more – that is one of your strengths and helps to keep you and the people around you safe. The flip-side to this strength though, is that you need to actively teach yourself how to recognise when you are safe, to turn off the fight or flight response and turn on your relaxation response.

How to Turn on Your Relaxation Response

When we’re caught up in the activities of daily life running from one thing to the next, it’s hard to recognise that we are feeling stressed and even if we do recognise it, we’re too busy to stop and do anything about it.

The first step to becoming more relaxed and less stressed is to PAUSE. Take a breather, take a break. Force yourself to stop and drink a cup of tea and reflect. Check-in with how you are feeling. If you find it hard to do this by yourself, talk to your partner or a friend. They may notice that you’re stressed before you do!

Try and identify what is causing the stress – remember that it may be lots of little things. Ask yourself whether you can do anything about it.

Adopt a different attitude to whatever is causing you stress, and see whether this helps you to react less intensely to the original stressor. Again, enlist help with this if you need to! Talk to someone you trust to get a different perspective.

Photo credit: Ⅿeagan via / CC BY

Photo credit: Ⅿeagan via / CC BY

Build in relaxation to your daily routine. Do yoga, meditate, go for a walk outdoors, exercise, whatever you can comfortably do every day that helps you to relax. Even 5 minutes of deep breathing will help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system & our relaxation response – breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6 – the key is to make the out breath longer.

If it is your Highly Sensitive Child that is acting out and you suspect they’re stressed, do all of these things with them. Find a time to talk to them in a non-confrontational way, and ask them questions to find out what is bothering them. Make it a game by saying ‘What’s a different way to see this?’ or ask what someone they admire would suggest they do in this situation. Do some fun yoga postures with your child and play some breathing games. I sometimes get my girls to ‘breathe like dragons’ to help calm them down.

I’m off to turn on my relaxation response with a meditation! I hope you find some of these tips useful in minimising your stress. May you and your Highly Sensitive Children feel safe, relaxed and happy in the new year and years to come.



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