Here are my reflections on what it was like for me as an HSP coping with a crisis that occurred in our family in the past two weeks.
Three weeks ago, my dad fell and broke two ribs. He had fallen 20 times in the month before that, but miraculously had not been seriously injured. This time, he ended up in the hospital for two days.
My sister happened to be visiting. She sprang into action to help my mother. Two days later, as my dad was released to a rehab facility, one of my brothers arrived. The other flew in a week after that.
I was the last to come, 11 days after the accident. I had cleared my schedule for ten days and booked a 6:05 AM flight. On the day of my departure, my partner dropped me at the airport at 4:15 AM.
I had never seen the airport so empty. I pulled out my phone to take this picture, then promptly forgot about it. Only on my way home did the image catch my eye. I realized it was a perfect visual metaphor for the trip.
Those hours in the airport were quiet. The next 10 days, however, were a blur. I was as if I had entered a chute. Events sped up. My focus narrowed to whatever was in front of me. All I could do was to hang on, try not to get too overwhelmed, and do my best to respond in a helpful way.
Not my usual routine
I typically start writing these articles two weeks before they go out in this newsletter. As I packed for this trip, I vaguely wondered how on earth I would manage to write something, considering the next publication date fell only three days after my return. But the moment I arrived at my parent’s house and “entered the chute,” the ensuing crush of essential, urgent activities crowded any thoughts of writing out of my mind.
Ten days later, sitting in the Indianapolis airport waiting for my flight home, I came up for air. Dad was home from rehab. Thanks to a massive effort by all of us, my parents now had a wonderful group of caregivers providing close support for 14 hours a day. I could exhale. Now I had three hours to wait.
I decided that rather than re-broadcast an old article, I would see what I could write before my first flight departed. I was beyond exhausted, so I kept it simple. I asked myself, “What can I say about this experience that might be useful or make sense from an HSP point of view?” This is what came.
I need to sleep
In a prolonged crisis like this one, I find it nearly impossible to stop and rest. But the harder it seems, the more important it is. This sounds obvious. However, having shorted my sleep for nearly two weeks, I’m reminded how quickly lack of sleep becomes a crisis for a highly sensitive person.
We each have our own signs of exhaustion. I make weird mistakes. I can’t remember something I just looked up or heard. I can’t tell how I feel. A sort of numbness sets in, accompanied by an unpleasant whole-body tension.
On the brighter side, this whole experience reminded me yet again how restorative even a short rest can be when I am exhausted, particularly if I drift off while doing coherent breathing.
I found only three chances to rest during these ten days: once for 20 minutes, once for 40 minutes, and once for 90 minutes. Not surprisingly, I felt better when I rested longer. However, even 20 minutes of rest gave me relief from the unpleasant fatigue symptoms I listed above.
Again, this sounds obvious. But I urge you to remember it when you are in the crush of a crisis. You will be tempted to ask yourself, “Why bother to lie down for 20 minutes?” The answer is, “Because it can really help.”
I remember what I know about myself
I find it surprisingly tricky to recognize the symptoms of exhaustion when I’m in the middle of them. It’s as if a part of me takes over that lives in a world where it can only rest when it has crossed off every item on its list.
Needless to say, that magic moment never comes. In the meantime, this “get it all done, then rest” stance leaves me overwhelmed and exhausted. During these intense 10 days, I repeatedly had to grab myself by the scruff of the neck, sit myself down, and ask myself, “Do I really need to do this thing right now? What is most important here? What do I need to be most effective?”
Here’s where proactive self-knowledge is my most powerful too. I call this my “mental sticky note” strategy. For example, I have an imaginary note pasted on the inside of my forehead that says, “When you find yourself making the same list over and over and you can’t decide what to do next, GO TAKE A REST.” Another note reads, “If you feel pressed and stressed, pause to check in.”
I also have real written notes that I keep in a 5×7 spiral notebook. The entries from the past 10 days may look like a scribbled mess, but they are there because I know myself. If I’m under stress, I have to write things down or I will forget them.
When my HSP brain slides into overarousal, making lists calms me down and helps me keep it together. My little notebook serves as my brain on paper. When I stood in the drugstore last week struggling to remember what I was there to buy, I whipped out my book, and there was the list I had made in an earlier, calmer moment.
I do my breathing practices
My usual morning routine went out the window during this crisis. I meditated exactly once. I got out for a total of two walks. The one thing I never missed, though, was my breath practices. Day after day, given fifteen minutes to do something to take care of myself, I consistently chose my Breath-Body-Mind routine.
No matter how late I’d been up the night before or how poorly I’d slept, the practices would wake my body up gently but thoroughly. I’d start out feeling like “death warmed over,” but end up feeling calm, relaxed, and energized.
Most importantly, these effects held well through the day. As a result, I was able to be more patient and kind than I would have been in the past. If I started to lose it—as I often did—I’d pause at the next opportunity and breathe. Then I could get myself back on track.
I discovered this is not a small thing during a medical crisis. I had to interact with many different people who had various kinds of power over my parents’ well-being: doctors and medical support staff, administrators, medical equipment purveyors, and of course my siblings and my mom and dad themselves.
I saw clearly in these nine days that the more self-regulated I was, the more effectively I could connect with others and get things done in a way that worked best for everyone. Coherent breathing was an ideal tool to support self-regulation during this crisis, because I could do it invisibly, anytime, anywhere.
I try to enjoy the galvanizing quality of the crisis
HSPs can struggle when we have too many things going on at once. We know this. Yet I’ve observed that in certain ways, I am at my best during a crisis. How is this possible? I talked to a fellow HSP who has noticed the same pattern in himself, and came away with a better understanding of the reasons.
We agreed we certainly aren’t out looking for trouble. Rather, we’ve each noticed that when presented with a crisis, we feel a particular kind of relief: the relief of unconflicted priorities. The path is clear. We just have to follow it.
In my “normal” everyday life, by contrast, I constantly have to decide what to focus on. I’m my own boss, so no one else tells me what to do or when to do it. As a result, I often end up with a feeling of inner conflict. I’m doing one thing, while a voice in my head wonders whether I should be doing something else.
In a crisis, though, this inner conflict drops away. During those 10 days in Indiana, I knew exactly what we needed to accomplish. I simply focused on the next task that presented itself to me. As a result, I experienced feelings of simplicity, focus, and clarity—even in the midst of intense fatigue or overarousal.
In other words, when I’m dealing with a crisis, the part of my HSP brain that processes every decision intensely gets a break. I still have to make decisions, but I’m crystal clear which decisions I need to be focusing on. In addition, I can put my HSP foresight and conscientiousness to good use, anticipating needs, reactions, and events in order to field them with more skill and effectiveness.
I need other people
I am lucky to have three siblings who are all equally involved in caring for my parents. My parents themselves are conscientious planners with extensive support systems in place. On top of all that, I have an extremely supportive partner and daughter.
I’m keenly aware of the countless crises playing out even as I write in which people have few resources and little support. This whole experience reminded me how very much I—we—need each other, and how lucky I am to have a caring, involved family and friends. We need our dear one’s help, company, and perspectives.
What I learned during this crisis, though, was how much smaller interactions can help too. As I was out running errands last week, I noticed how a kind greeting by the drugstore clerk calmed my frazzled brain. Later at the airport, I observed that when I put aside my own worries and paused to ask the gate attendant how her day was going, I felt better.
As human beings, we regulate—or dysregulate— our nervous systems as we interact with each other. Understanding this more clearly, I found myself highly motivated to initiate interactions in a way that would be more likely to leave me and the other person feeling better, rather than worse. Once again, this seems obvious…but essential.
Now, I’ve emerged from the chute. I’m back home. Even as I sit here alone in my office, though, I can feel the calming power of human interaction as I imagine you, my reader, reading these lines. Thank you for your company.
Photo ©2021 Emily Agnew