I’ve been surprisingly stressed for the past several months. I say “surprisingly” because I generally keep myself well-fed, watered, exercised, and rested, and I’m lucky to have a happy life. I’ve been busy, but that’s nothing new. And while challenges have come up, there has been a manageable rhythm to them: I’ve been able to address them, then they’ve passed, leaving a sense of resolution.
But this spring, underneath that rhythm of resolution, I felt a nagging sense of stress that wasn’t going away. Finally, I got a sign I couldn’t ignore. I had this nightmare:
I’m in the passenger seat of a car. Everything is dark. I can’t see where we are going. I can’t see the driver, either, but he or she is driving way too fast. We miss a curve, go off the road, and hurtle over a cliff. As we fall, I know we are going to die, and I’m screaming, “I love you!” to my partner, like people do who know their plane is crashing.
I woke up shaken, knowing my “dream director” was desperately sending me two messages. First, there was an issue somewhere in my life that badly needed my attention. And second, I wasn’t seeing the issue clearly: I was literally in the dark.
Nightmares: a doorway to insight
Like many highly sensitive people (HSPs), I have vivid dreams that offer me with valuable insights. So, waking from my nightmare, I looked up “driving off the road” in my dream book. It said, “You have relinquished command to another person or to chance. You can’t see where you are going and you do not have any control. You are driving yourself too hard.” The nightmare meant I was not facing something or someone I needed to face. I asked myself, “What do I most fear? Whom do I most fear to confront?”
I was at a loss to answer these questions. Reading further in the “Nightmares” chapter, I found, “Make a list of the people, situations, and events that are most annoying, upsetting, or threatening to you. Who or what do you wish were not in your life? Make a start with your closest guess….you will get a correction if needed.”
I still had no idea what the problem was. But over the following days, my deep-processing HSP mind chewed, like a dog gnawing a bone, on that question: “Who or what do you wish were not in your life?” Four days later, the truth hit me: my nightmare was a project I had taken on over a year ago for someone I respected very much and wanted to help.
This burst of clarity felt like waking from a dream, or seeing the sun suddenly shine out from behind impenetrable clouds. I looked back and saw what I had not seen before: before having the nightmare, I had passed through three earlier stages of this “in-over-my-head” feeling over a period of many months. But not until now had I recognized each stage for what it was:
Stage One: General uneasiness
This stage was marked by vague feelings of guilt and uneasiness about the project that began many months ago. I wasn’t getting done what I thought I should be getting done, partly because I wasn’t clear what I was supposed to be doing. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get clear. My uneasiness morphed inexorably into real distress.
Stage Two: Elevated stress
When I try to solve a problem that contains too many variables, I get a very distinctive feeling in my head, like a balloon blown up too full. My head feels like it might explode. I started to have that feeling whenever I thought about this project.
In addition, I noticed myself engaging in another Stage Two behavior: obsessive list-making. I’ve got nothing against lists. On the contrary, I’m an INFJ, and that’s how we roll: when the going gets tough, we get more organized. But this time, I was stymied. No list or strategy seemed to relieve the stress I felt. But I still wasn’t able to connect all these dots and relate them to the project. I thought the stress was from general busy-ness. And, not having identified the true source, I sank into Stage Three.
Stage Three: Chronic exhaustion
This fatigue was different from a temporary, “I didn’t sleep so well last night” feeling. It spanned weeks and defied relief. I tried to imagine an amount of time off that would give me time to recover, and couldn’t: no matter what I did, I’d end up stressed again. But why? I still couldn’t figure out what was causing this level of stress in me. That’s when my body/mind resorted to the nightmare strategy.
Stage Four: Nightmares
Nightmares are our sensitive mind’s way of shouting at us when we haven’t been able to comprehend more subtle messages. And they are effective. It’s hard to ignore images of driving off a cliff. I got the message this time and made it an urgent priority to solve this mystery. In a meeting about the project a few days later, I noticed my head felt like it might explode….and this time, I began to connect the dots.
I realized that the time commitment for the project would likely be massive; the objectives were complex and changing; and the stakes were high. For a conscientious person—and like most HSPs, “conscientious” is my middle name—it was a set-up.
I also realized that the only choice that felt right was to withdraw from the project. I saw I had been unconsciously suppressed this option, yet my body had been pushing back with increasing urgency, as if to say, “Please, please withdraw!” The irresistible force was colliding with the immovable object, leaving me stressed and exhausted.
Clarity brings relief
So I made the decision to withdraw. And, although I had known this was the right thing to do, I was startled by the depth of relief I felt. I slept better that night than I had in weeks. I woke up more relaxed than I had felt in weeks. And all this relief came before I’d even had a chance to deliver the news.
As I’ve pondered this experience, I’ve seen how recognizing these four stages might save me grief in the future. In fact, I might be able to avoid the whole mess altogether by catching it even earlier at “Stage Zero”—that is, the moment I was approached about the project. For a complex set of reasons, I did not check in with myself the way I usually do before agreeing to do things. I overrode twinges of unease. I would pay more attention to those twinges now, just as I pay attention when I try on shoes, having learned the hard way that even a seemingly slight rub or pinch in the store can translate to serious blisters down the road.
Of course, we all find ourselves in over our heads sooner or later. We’re human, and in the complexity of life, it can be hard to tell what is causing what. What astonished me in this experience was how exhausting it was to be out of integrity with myself, and how huge my relief was when I faced the truth and recovered that integrity.
I wonder if this is one reason we HSPs process things so deeply: we find it excruciatingly uncomfortable to be out of alignment with ourselves and our values.
*Thanks to Kaitlyn for another beautiful photo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A few things – wondering why you use a dream book rather than dialogue with the dream elements to find your own truth? Dr Paul says bad dreams can be WS amplified messages – How would you determine what was a wake up nightmare versus a wounded self you’re stuck in a false belief nightmare? Lastly, thank you for pointing out that HSPs are highly Conscientious. I didn’t know that was one of our traits and that has driven me crazy wondering why I Always put effort into my committee work etc. Although I’m not Always conscientious about my own well-being.
Hi Ann, I use both a dialogue with the dream elements and my dream book. Many dream symbols are archetypes and it can be helpful to be pointed in a certain direction as to the meaning of a symbol, but I always ask myself first what it means to me, before getting more possibilities from the book.
I’m not sure I understand your question about a “wake up nightmare”, but I can say that most stressful dreams are from the point of view of a wounded part: it’s like that part is trying to show you what life is like from its point of view.
Yes, as an HSP, taking the conscientiousness you show towards others and directing some of it to your own self care is key!
Part 2 – i had a dream recently where I was enjoying this very sweet kiss with a man (I’m in the online dating crucible) And as we were kissing suddenly the building I was in was attacked by terrorists and they were shooting and I suddenly was by myself and knew I was going to die. My interpretation of the dream was I have this very deep WS belief that to be in a relationship means to have one’s Self die. Does that make sense to you for interpretation?
Ann, if this were my dream, I’d look at everything as parts of me, and the dream is from the point of view of the part of you that wants to connect with men. Buildings often represent your state of consciousness…and it sounds like the dream may be showing you that the part of you that wants connection is terrified of your “inner terrorists”–various wounded voices or inner critics perhaps.
Thanks for yet another wonderful and well written article helpful to we HSPs.
I think the “stress” you are referring to is a reflecti0n from the collective unconscious – never before have I known so many friends, acquaintances and colleagues who are experiencing a major decrease in their overall sense of well-being. It was not difficult at all for me to answer the question below posed in your article:
“Make a list of the people, situations, and events that are most annoying, upsetting, or threatening to you. Who or what do you wish were not in your life? Make a start with your closest guess….you will get a correction if needed.”
I think the majority of Americans would list current world affairs and divisive politics as a major situation that is causing ongoing chronic stress and dis-ease as our long-held values of civility and human rights seem to be under major assault. My own sense of well being has been slowly deteriorating since November 2016.
What has helped me the most is knowing there are thousands upon thousands who are now working hard to address these divisive times we live in. This gives me hope. Thanks for allowing me to share my own experience of my global angst and stress.
with love, gratitude for you dear Emily.
Hi Jacquelyn, I am grateful to you and Mary for clarifying the stress you and so many are experiencing from the collective unconscious, stemming from the ongoing political, environmental, legal and international events unfolding. When I wrote this article, that bigger-picture kind of stress was not on my mind, but you have called my attention to the dilemma we face when the “people, situations, and events that are most annoying, upsetting, or threatening to us” are completely out of our control.
I am very sorry to hear the effect this is having on your sense of well-being. I don’t know what to do in the face of all the above developments except to be meticulous about the basics (sleep, exercise, food, “downtime”, etc), to try to live my own life with as much integrity as I can, and to try to remember that on a spiritual level this is all a big movie. But it does not feel like a movie…or like a movie that I would choose to watch?! And there is certainly an enormous level of powerlessness in seeing things unfolding as they are…and all the self care in the world does not always do the trick. I send you much love.
I completely agree with Jacqueline. I think because the underlying program of stress about our current political situation is running non-stop, we are more vulnerable to overwhelm from things that we might otherwise be able to handle.
I can remember many times when I have felt the relief of which you speak when suddenly it dawned on me that I could opt out of an obligation, even if it was just an item on my to-do list. It’s difficult when one places a lot of value on loyalty, persistence and keeping commitments (no matter what). Becoming kinder to myself through Focusing has helped me a lot with this. I appreciate that you have offered a framework for recognizing the pattern. Thank you. Reading your blog is a joy.
Mary, first, you are welcome…I’m grateful to you and to Jacquelyn for your kind words! And yes, thank you for this insight…I had not thought of this, that there could be an even deeper underlying stressor over which we have no control, acting as a backdrop to the more local kind of stress I wrote about.
Regarding opting out of an obligation…I hear you about the difficulty of doing that when you have a value for keeping commitments. I guess that is why I have become more and more choosy as I’ve gotten older, about what commitments I take on, including on the very local level of my daily to-do list: it’s amazing how a list of relatively trivial things can weigh on me if I put them down without really checking with myself if I a) have time to do them and b) truly intend to do them that day.
I agree with Jacqueline and Mary. I’m an ex-activist who just cannot help minimally following what’s going on in our country and our world. But when I’m online, “minimally” can easily turn into “maximally” — which it has done over the last week+. Unfortunately, maximally” leads to my feeling anxious.
I’ve been looking at it this way: Since I know that I know things that many Americans don’t know, I feel conscientious about posting articles and information I find after I research the current news for deeper info, or for the “big picture” and what to do.
However, it really, really can become TOO MUCH, so I’m now trying to limit myself to an hour or less per day. I’m 73, not working now, so I (supposedly) can afford the time.
But I have to start working p-t soon, so I doubt that I’ll be able to continue doing this.
I’m midway thru a Foscusing course I’m taking by Ann W. Cornell. When I don’t get overwhelmed by identifying with feelings, Focusing is excellent for me. I like it now even better than Inner Bonding, tho IB was very helpful for 3 years.
I am finding that with Focusing I can resolve emotional and some physical pain, as well as stuck situations and inner conflicts. Reading her book, “The Radical Acceptance of Everything,” has helped me to understand Focusing conceptually and from a bigger picture point of view. This seems to aid me in not getting overwhelmed as I did at first.
Sally, it sounds like there is a “wanting to contribute” (through research and sharing of information), AND a body sense of “too much” about contributing— even when you limit it to an hour a day. I’m happy to hear you are taking a focusing class and have been able to use focusing to actively sense what feels right for you. Holding both the wanting and the “too much”, then saying, “I am the space where all this can be,” can help you dis-identify from all the feelings. Thanks for your comments!
This is avery helpful suggestion which I will try soon. Thank you.
OK Sally! Let me know how it goes.
This is a very interesting article for me. Back in October I was really feeling in over my head, and one morning as I was hurrying to get ready for work I badly broke my toe. I couldn’t walk and was forced to sit and rest for 2 weeks. I realised that my life was feeling totally out of control, far too many demands, and I was ignoring it and pressing on, meeting all that was expected of me while feeling stressed and out of touch with myself. When that happens again I’m determined to go onwards and support myself and look after myself better.
Fiona, your story is a powerful example of how we become accident-prone when we push ourselves too hard. For me, it has been a life-long project to catch the signs of pushing earlier and earlier…it has gotten much better so I no longer injure myself before listening to my body, thank goodness. Hoping your toe has healed.
There is so much to read here. My thoughts are in fast forward mode, and I haven’t read the whole article yet. My first thought was that now I realize why any kind of dream is bothersome to me. Having the HSP trait of feeling emotions intensely, I have felt the emotional intensity of dreams all my life and just recently have realized that is because I am HSP. I haven’t read much about our dream life, but I really prefer not to dream as I find the emotions of the dreams are with me when I wake up. I am the kind of HSP that even positive emotions that are too extreme bother me, so I try to keep myself on an even keel, not laughing too much, not talking to loudly etc.