If you are highly sensitive, you know firsthand that sensitivity + speed= high stress. Don’t accept this as the status quo. Slow down.

When I passed this sign near our house, I laughed out loud. I rarely speed behind the wheel. But put me in front of a computer and I’ll push my limits without mercy. If I’d been policing my personal work-zone speeds all these years, I’d have racked up enough fines to buy a Mercedes for every traffic cop in the city

Fortunately, it’s never too late to mend one’s rotten ways. In my case, that’s an ongoing project. Each round necessarily begins with honesty. I have to be brutally honest with myself about how awful I feel when I push myself to operate at 80 miles an hour all day.

It hurts to speed

This act of noticing requires courage, because when I let myself get tense and frazzled, the deeper feeling underneath is desperation. Desperation is not fun to feel. When I “speed,” I deny myself the spaciousness I need to feel human.

My humanity isn’t limited to my physical body, but I experience my humanity in my body. I can only do that, though, when I am slowed down enough to be present in myself. I know that feeling. I love it. I want it all the time. Yet I still have inner parts whose fears can put me back on the hamster wheel of nonstop activity.

For a long time, when this desperation welled up, I’d rationalize it. I’d tell myself that my post-yoga bliss or post-meditation moments of peace were lovely, but that they were intrinsically fleeting, and it was too much to hope I could feel that way all (or even most) or the time. My inner critic chorus would chime in with helpful comments like,

“Life is stressful. Suck it up and deal with it.”
“You’re neurotic.”
“Wow, you are so high-maintenance.”
“How can you be stressed out? You were fine this morning.”
“________ [insert name of a non-highly sensitive friend, colleague, or family member] does everything you do AND they have six kids! What is wrong with you?”

Now, I’m far less tolerant of that stressed-out feeling. As a result, I’ve gotten way, way better at slowing down. But that desperation still kicks in sometimes. Why does this happen? Here are four reasons highly sensitive people (HSPs) may climb onto the hamster wheel and run like crazy, even when it hurts:

1—We are highly conscientious

We are keenly aware of the needs of others, and can be prone to offering help without checking in with ourselves thoroughly first. In the process, we bite off more than we can chew.

2—We are passionate and idealistic.

We have a vision of what could be, and we yearn to fulfil it. We may say “Yes” to people and projects that feed our idealistic souls, but don’t put food on the table…then we’re left scrambling trying to make ends meetfour

3—We are creative and imaginative.

We see possibilities everywhere. If we don’t curate our options and keep our commitments manageable, we can end up feeling like Harry Potter when he breaks into the Lestrange family vault at Gringotts: every object we touch—or in this case, every thought I think or project I conceive—multiplies explosively.

4—We attempt to live at a pace that works for people who aren’t highly sensitive.

The fact is, HSPs need more mental processing time, more physical rest time, and ample transition time. Unless you grew up knowing that—and not many of us did— then you too may have learned to push yourself too hard. Over time, you accepted constant overstimulation as “normal.”

Make the commitment to slow down

I’ve worked with many sensitive people who are chronically anxious, overstimulated, and overstressed. (I was, and still am, my own first client in that regard.) I have a healthy respect for the paramount importance of slowing down.

In fact, you could say that creating enough space is a meta-commitment: without it, none of your other self-care practices will be possible, let alone effective. No amount of meditation will help you if you leap up afterwards and run around at 80 miles an hour for the rest of the day.

To put this another way, finding the right pace is the key if you want to create a happy, sustainable sensitive life in which you have full access to your creative and relational powers.

The hardest part is deciding that feeling present, centered, and calm is a priority for you. If you don’t believe this is possible, or don’t think you deserve it, you won’t be able to commit to what it takes to make this happen.

Carrying out your new commitment might mean relatively simple tweaks in your schedule and habits. Or it might require serious soul-searching and significant change, especially if you work in an environment that requires inflexible hours and non-stop stimulation. However, no obstacle is insurmountable if you are truly committed to your own well-being.

Know yourself

Once you’ve committed to slowing down, you need self-knowledge to implement the right changes for you. This comes in two parts: recognizing your “speeding” behaviors, and knowing the beliefs that are driving them.

What are your speeding behaviors? When I “speed,” my breath gets shallow. My stomach feels tight. I hunch over whatever I’m doing: the computer, my oboe, the chopped onions. I talk faster. I feel pressure behind my forehead. To determine your speeding behaviors, use your HSP strength of keen observation.

What are your speed-inducing beliefs? I “speed” when I get identified with something in me that feels like it is not (and never will be) good enough. This part of me attempts to cope with this hopelessness by striving ceaselessly to do more and do it better.

If a “not good enough” belief is driving your speeding—and perfectionism is a very common HSP response to inner shame—you will not stop even though it feels awful. Perfectionism may lie underneath similar beliefs like these:

  • “Sure, I can relax—as soon as I have everything done.” (But…there’s always something more to do.)
  • “The universe is like a stingy matching-grant program. I have to do 150% for it to kick in 10%.”
  • “If I keep moving, I won’t feel the pain of _______[fill in the blank.]”
  • “I’ll never be able to do as much as I should. But no one will ever be able to say I didn’t die trying.”

These are false beliefs. With self-awareness, you can learn to catch them. Imagination helps, too. Ask yourself, “What would someone have to believe, to be acting the way I’m acting?”

Cultivate skills for slowing down

I have five primary skills I use to catch my speeding habits, slow down, and to notice and let go of limiting beliefs so I can avoid speeding up in the first place.

1. Focusing: Focusing is the best way I know to uncover the deep beliefs that underlie painful habits like chronic pushing and speeding. Without this clarity, my other efforts are futile.

2. Awareness, strengthened by intent: Intentional self-awareness is my internal “speed trap.” I have to notice I’m speeding before I can stop.

3. Meditation: Sitting in the morning increases my likelihood of maintaining self-awareness through the day, in addition to offering my mind the “reflective rest” it desperately needs.

4. Breathing: We each breathe about 20,000 times a day. There’s nothing like the breath to bring me back to self-awareness, slow me down, and help me stay slowed down. I practice coherent breathing every day.

5. Restorative yoga: Paradoxically, the more tired I am, the faster I move. Twenty minutes of restorative yoga— yoga done with supportive props that allow you to completely relax— breaks this cycle and gives me a “full system reset.”

Allow yourself to expand

When I was little, my grandmother used to send us expandable bath toy capsules. They were the size of a vitamin. I’d drop one in the bath, and watch with eager anticipation as the plastic melted away and the compressed sponge inside expanded into the shape of a little animal: a dinosaur, or an elephant, or a pig.

I adored those toys. No wonder. They are the perfect metaphor for the transformation we undergo as HSPs when we give ourselves the gift of spaciousness in our lives. Even as a kid, I loved that idea of release and expansion.

When you rush too much, you compress your sensitive self into a cramped space where you can’t breathe or be at ease. Remember that speed + sensitivity = high stress. Don’t settle for being chronically sped up and over-pressed.

If you know you need to slow down, yet you are inconsistent about making it happen, get support to examine and change the beliefs and circumstances driving your choices. Life is too short to tolerate feeling desperate.

Photo: ©2022 Emily Agnew
Note: An earlier, shorter version of this article first appeared here on January 12, 2016.