If you are highly sensitive, there’s no way around it: you need space in your days. Without it you’ll get overwhelmed and exhausted.
My partner and I hiked in the Adirondacks in August. We savored five days of gorgeous weather and spectacular views. This has been an unusually dry summer in the mountains—except for the torrential rains that fell as the tail end of Hurricane Irene passed through.
Thanks to Irene, we were treated to a bumper crop of beautiful mushrooms. We saw red mushrooms, orange mushrooms, yellow mushrooms, vase-shaped mushrooms, and mushrooms that looked exactly like a pancake. They stood out like jewels against the emerald green groundcover.
As we ate our lunch one day, an elderly gentleman stopped to ask us if we knew which mushrooms were edible. We didn’t, though I was flattered to be mistaken for a genuine forager. His question piqued my curiosity, so back in our cabin I visited the wildadirondacks.org website. I forgot all about edibility as I read that mushrooms are actually “the fruiting bodies of a fungus – the part of the fungus that typically appears above the ground.” In other words, like all fruits, mushrooms pop up in order to disperse seeds—or in this case, spores.
But I also learned there’s much more going on with mushrooms than meets the eye. Underground, and out of sight, is the real fungus – a complex network of fungal threads called mycelium. Mycelium are so tiny that one cubic inch of soil can contain enough mycelium to stretch for eight miles.
Eight miles in one cubic inch of soil? As I groped to conceive of such complexity packed into such a small space, I couldn’t help but think of our awe-inspiring human brains. The brain contains an estimated 86 billion neurons, and its similarity to the mycelial network struck me. The mycelial network expands its range by generating spore-producing mushrooms. Our highly sensitive brains expand further into the world by producing ideas and actions.
This growth process requires certain conditions
Adirondack mushrooms typically appear from two to five days after a soaking rain. Different varieties grow in different habitats and at different seasons, but they all require two elements: nurturing rain, and time. Without these conditions, no mushrooms appear.
Similarly, sensitive people need our own variety of “rain,” in the form of nurturing. And we need time to rest, to process, and simply to “be.” Without these conditions, our creativity and our energy dry up.
When I push myself too hard for too long, I end up feeling dry, brittle, and vulnerable. Here are some of the symptoms I experience. These may be familiar, and you may have your own to add to the list.
- Compressed posture: My shoulders come up, my neck pulls down and out like a vulture, and I curl forward, compressing my heart, lungs and stomach.
- Pushing: I feel as if I’m behind, trying to catch up.
- Obsessive list making: I’ll make the same list several times, as if writing it all down yet again will make it easier to fit everything in.
- Pressure: My head starts to feel like a balloon that has too much air in it.
- Collisions: I find myself bumping into people, both physically and verbally (accidentally interrupting them). I bark my shins, cut myself chopping onions, and trip over things.
Learning to catch the cycle sooner
I wish I could say this never happens to me. That’s not true. It happens all the time. I have many commitments and many interests, so I’m always pushing the limit to see how much I can fit in. As a result, my level of ease, spaciousness, and creativity goes through cycles, like the mushrooms appearing and disappearing in the forest.
However, I’ve learned to catch myself much sooner in the cycle, before I got too “dry.” My “drought” symptoms start with a vague uneasiness. If I’m about to overschedule myself or take on too much, I get an internal sensation like a door is squeaking inside me. It’s like a warning voice in me that says, “Errrrrrr…are you sure you want to do that?”
When I get that squeaky door feeling and start to feel pushed and pressed, I know I need to refocus my attention from doing to being—from achievement to self-nurturing. This is not a mutually exclusive equation, of course: in my current life, “achieving” means holding presence for others and writing, both of which are deeply satisfying and rewarding to me.
But if I’m drained dry, I stop enjoying life. My writing becomes forced. And it’s harder for me to hold a space for others. Then I need to “rehydrate,” both literally and figuratively.
Nurturing + time = spaciousness and creativity
How do I “rehydrate?” For starters, water itself refills my well. In The Highly Sensitive Person (p. 59), Elaine Aron emphasizes the power of water to counteract overarousal:
Water helps in many ways. When overaroused, keep drinking it—a big glass of it once an hour. Walk beside some water, look at it, listen to it. Get into some if you can, for a bath or a swim. Hot tubs and hot springs are popular for good reasons.
I fill a big water bottle each morning and keep it near me so I can track how much I’m drinking. I have a picture of a lake on my desktop. And I take advantage of the opportunity to be around or in water any time I can. Even a quick shower notably improves my mood.
Internal “rain” is even more important than actual water, though. This metaphorical rain takes the form of—
- Spiritual connection: Cultivating my connection to the ultimate source of peace and wisdom, through meditation
- Self-compassion: Engaging my self-awareness to sense what is going on in me and what I need
- Self-nurturing: Taking action on the needs I’ve identified
In addition to these special kinds of “rain,” I need time. Spaciousness is a sanity requirement for HSPs. I haven’t yet met a sensitive person who can tolerate a non-stop schedule for long without getting unpleasantly stressed. Because I’m sensitive, I need time in these forms:
- Adequate time to transition from one activity to another: Because my sensitive mind engages so deeply in what I’m doing, I need time to change gears and refocus
- Time to reflect: I need lots of time to pause and turn inward to process my experiences
- Time to rest: I need plenty of sleep….and time to daydream, putter, knit, work in the garden: anything to give my brain a break and help my body recharge.
Give yourself the nurturing space you need
Do you know your own signs of mental, spiritual, or creative dryness? What does your life feel like when things get too pressed, pushed, and stressful? When I’m in that mode—hurried and harried—I’ll catch myself impatiently telling myself to relax. Then I’ll laugh and remember the truth. As Portia so beautifully put it in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
Portia is talking about mercy towards others. But we need mercy towards ourselves too: one can’t exist without the other. When we treat ourselves harshly and skimp on self-nurturing and spaciousness, we begin to feel dry and barren on the inside, and our relationships show the strain on the outside.
Fortunately, the underground network that feeds our formidable energy and creativity is always there, just beneath the surface. And, unlike mushrooms, we don’t have to wait for rain. If we hit a dry spell, we can pause to allow the gentle rain of compassion and self-nurturing to soak in. We can take time to rest and to simply “be.” Then we can watch with delight (and relief) as our energy and creativity spring back to life.
Image ©2020 Emily Agnew
How long does it take to figure out how much space and rest we generally need individually as HSP’s? I went for a lovely 2 hour walk today in the crisp cool air, by the shore ,and this afternoon when I returned home I found myself extremely relaxed. However this evening my brain is feeling like pins and needles, my eyes are sore, I am hungry but can’t figure out what to eat. Is this overwhelm? Did I go for too long a walk?
HI S, it’s hard to say for sure what is causing all these things. You’ll need to do some detective work. You can sense what might be contributing to your eye soreness (perhaps a lot of sun? or dryness from the wind? or were you on the computer a lot the rest of the day?); and do the same with your brain (when has it felt this way before? do you see any pattern?) etc. Getting over-hungry, and not drinking enough water, can both have a big effect on your sensitive nervous system, so that’s where I’d turn first.