Top 3 Things Sensitive People Need to Avoid Burnout and Find Balance

Sep 08, 2023
Find Balance and Avoid Burnout

Did you know highly sensitive people (HSP) are more vulnerable to burnout?

Of course you did.

But did you know that you can use your unique strengths to create an ideal balance of self-care, boundaries, and support? In this article, I’ll share practical ways to identify and avoid burnout so you can honor your sensitivity and navigate daily routines in a more balanced way. What I'm sharing with you comes from my first-hand experience of burnout recovery as a highly sensitive person, and my professional experience teaching thousands of students yoga and mindfulness for over two decades.

First, you’ll learn what it’s like to be an HSP, what burnout is, why it has become such a problem, and why our sensitivity can lead to burnout. When we’re aware of the need for change, we move closer to healing. Then I'll share three practical foundations you can use to enhance your strengths and care for your highly attuned nervous system, so it becomes your ally. 

 Why Highly Sensitive People Are Magnets for Burnout, and What to Do

What it's like to be a highly sensitive person:

To be highly sensitive means you have a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the world around you, and the world inside you. It is a personality trait that is found in roughly 20% of the population. 

Highly sensitive people care more and feel deeply. We notice things that others might miss - like changes in tone or temperature, and we're highly attuned to other people's moods and emotions. We also pick up on the subtleties of the world around us - from the softest sounds to the faintest scents and textures. Being highly sensitive means that we feel things more intensely than others. We are like artists, weaving intricate tapestries of emotions, meaning, and love. 

Many highly sensitive people were born wired differently, but we may have become more aware and accepting of our sensitivity over time. With other HSPs, circumstances in our lives overwhelmed our ability to cope, which created the conditions to become highly sensitive. Either way, in this article you will find practical ways that highly sensitive people can embrace and care for our sensitive nervous systems. 

While being highly sensitive can sometimes feel overwhelming, it's not a disorder or weakness. It's simply a different way of experiencing the world. In fact, it can be a strength that allows you to see and feel things that others miss. So, embrace your strength and welcome the support you need so you can enjoy the rich, colorful world that you experience! 

It is, however, important for highly sensitive people to prioritize self-care and manage overstimulation. We need to recognize our limits and take care of ourselves to prevent burnout. We can do this by practicing meaningful self-care. creating loving boundaries, and reaching out for support. 


The incidence of burnout is skyrocketing.

It’s become far too common for people to experience burnout symptoms such as fatigue, cynicism, apathy, and disconnection. In fact, 52 percent of American employees reported feeling burned out. Parental burnout in the U.S. is among the highest in the world - and that's even before schools closed during the pandemic. Levels of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion in healthcare workers, caregivers, and therapists have skyrocketed. Despite their best intentions, that exhaustion can have serious consequences for those they help. Left unchecked, burnout can lead to health issues like insomnia, depression, immune system disorders, and heart disease. 

Burnout is characterized by a loss of enthusiasm, as opposed to stress, which can look and feel a lot like excitement. Unlike stress, with burnout you might be so exhausted that you feel stuck and/or hopeless. Stress is exhausting, too, but with stress you might feel on edge, or reactive.

Burnout may stem from your career, or your parenting or caregiving, but it can dramatically impact every aspect of your life, including your health, well-being and relationships. 

If you've had any of these thoughts, you may be experiencing burnout:

  • How can I get through the day?
  • I can't do this anymore.
  • I can’t keep up.
  • What is wrong with me?
  • I can’t think straight.

If this resonates, you're not alone. In this article you'll see that your sensitivity can be your greatest strength on the path towards sustainable wellbeing.


Here’s why being highly sensitive can lead to burnout:

Do you see signs that you're getting close to burnout? You’re not alone. Being highly sensitive can lead to burnout. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Overstimulation: Loud noises, bright lights, and other sensory stimulation can be overwhelming to highly sensitive people. This can lead to exhaustion and burnout over time.
  • Empathy: Highly sensitive people often feel emotions more strongly than others and have a strong sense of empathy. Constantly absorbing and processing the emotions of others can be emotionally draining and contribute to burnout.
  • Pressure: Many highly sensitive individuals have a tendency towards perfectionism. They put excessive pressure on themselves to do the impossible. That's right, impossible - because nobody is perfect. Often that pressure comes from loved ones or cultural conditioning, making it hard to find a way out even when we recognize how unattainable perfection is, and how unsustainable striving for it is. This can lead to overworking and stress, contributing to burnout.
  • Self-Criticism: Highly sensitive people are more prone to negative self-talk, rumination, and self-criticism. The villain is calling from inside the house! It’s hard to take a break from our inner ‘mean girl’ monologue. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and decision fatigue, contributing to stress and burnout over time. 
  • Blurry Boundaries: Sometimes highly sensitive people struggle with setting and maintaining boundaries, especially those of us who have a lot of empathy. We struggle to say no, and then take on too much responsibility. We don’t make time for self-care, which can eventually lead to burnout and physical and emotional exhaustion. 

Remember, being highly sensitive is not a weakness. There are many paths to managing and preventing burnout. By applying what you learn here, you’ll start to appreciate your sensitive nature and enjoy life more often. Accepting help, taking care of yourself, and setting boundaries can help you thrive. We're going to look into each of these foundations in more detail. But first...

First, you need to be aware that there's a problem. 

Burnout: What Can You Do When It's Headed Straight for You?

I remember a retreat participant who asked me how to bring home the relaxation and vitality she felt over the weekend. She told me how she schedules her medical clients back to back, with no more than 3 minutes in between.

I gave her some 1-3 minute practices, kind of like triage, but now I wish I had told her the truth: you may have to make some changes! Get off the hamster wheel before you fall off in a heap. 

It may feel impossible to slow life down or even make temporary changes, but if you had to I bet you could find a creative way. We often don't realize how close we are to burnout until we're right on the precipice. We feel invincible until we're suddenly not. If you absolutely can’t change your life in any way now, you can find a way to reframe it. You can focus on the higher purpose in what you're doing, like my retreat participant who did such meaningful work that she couldn't see how to create more space for herself to discharge energy in between clients. You could add in a simple gratitude practice, or visualize your end goal and pre-celebrate that success with your future self.

But if you're highly sensitive, techniques like these are a short-term solution. It is only a matter of time before your nervous system will force you to rest. By becoming aware of the need for change, you get closer to healing. Your intuition can help you to uncover your feelings and needs, which may have been buried under the agendas of other people in your life.

Self-inquiry is simple, but not easy. Start by asking yourself these two questions:

  1. How am I feeling?
  2. What do I need?

The more detailed and honest you can be, the more you will attune to yourself. It gets easier with time. This self-inquiry and self-awareness takes nothing away from the other relationships in your life. In fact, as you practice, you may become more emotionally present, grounded, and confident in your relationships. 

When you're ready for the next step, continue reading to learn the first of three foundations to a burnout-proof life for HSPs. You will focus on these three foundations to create emotional balance:

  1. loving boundaries,
  2. support from others, and
  3. meaningful self-care. 


3 Foundations to Help You Create Emotional Balance and Avoid Burnout


1) Set Boundaries, or you won’t get around to the other 2 tips.

Highly sensitive people often experience emotions more deeply than others, and can become easily overwhelmed by the demands of others. This is why setting boundaries is essential for maintaining our emotional balance and physical wellbeing. Here are some tips for setting boundaries with family, friends, and coworkers:

  1. Identify the boundaries you need to set: Think about your core values. What’s most important to you? Ask yourself, “What must I say NO to so I can honor my values?“ Consider areas of your life that you need to protect. Since you can’t do everything, saying yes to something means you will be denying something else. For instance, you might decide that family dinners are a priority, because you value daily routines with your kids. If you say yes to staying late at the office, you are saying NO to dinner with your family. We know in our guts when that “yes” feels wrong, but even then it is going to be hard to say no because disappointing others is hard. Disappointing yourself isn’t nice, either. Ask yourself, “What do I need in order to be at my best?” With burnout looming, you need to take your boundaries seriously. With practice, guided by your core values, it gets easier.

  2. Communicate your boundaries clearly, and repeat them: Once you've identified your boundaries, it's important to communicate them clearly and assertively. Reframe your boundaries as what you will do, not what you want others to do. “I will leave work by 5,” not “I need you to let me leave by 5,” or “I told you I needed to leave by 5, but you made me late!” Stand up for yourself like you would stand up for a loved one who needs you. Use "I" statements, and be specific about what you need. For example, "I need to leave by 5, so I will start wrapping up meetings by 4:30… Okay, that’s all the time I have today. We can schedule another meeting if you need more time." Remember that it is your boundary, and your responsibility to honor it. You’ll need to remind others of your boundaries. Have a plan for that so you can avoid resentment. No one else is going to respect your boundaries like you.

  3. Be prepared for pushback: When you start setting boundaries, some people may push back or try to guilt-trip you into changing your mind, because they were comfortable with your willingness to bend over backwards. But would they really do the same for you, and would you want them to? Remind yourself that your needs, wants, feelings, and priorities deserve your protection. Anticipate objections from others, and make a plan in advance. Ask yourself, “How can I respond to other people’s discomfort about my boundaries?” You might be surprised at the pushback coming from inside yourself too! You know you need more sleep, but there’s part of you who wants to stay up late. You can ask for help with maintaining boundaries: see “seek support” below. Do your best to stick to your decisions, but don’t berate yourself when it gets hard.

  4. Practice self-compassion: Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially if you're used to putting other people's needs before your own. It is going to be hard at first, and you'll get more comfortable as you practice. To make it easier, check in with yourself. Put a hand on your heart. Notice when discomfort arises. You can say something to yourself like, “This is uncomfortable right now. I’m not alone, many people struggle to set boundaries.” You can ask yourself, “What would I say to my best friend if they were learning to set boundaries?”

  5. Evaluate and adjust as needed: Setting boundaries is an ongoing process, and it’s okay to adjust them over time as your needs change. Schedule time to evaluate how your boundaries are working for you, and make adjustments. As often as you can, make decisions about what you will do in advance, rather than in the heat of the moment.

Setting boundaries is crucial for highly sensitive people who want to avoid burnout. It’ll get easier. By communicating your needs clearly and maintaining self-compassion, you can establish healthy boundaries with family, friends, and coworkers. Remember, taking care of yourself is essential for sustaining your wellbeing so you can continue to be there for your loved ones. It’s worth the effort to make these changes. 



2) Seek support from others: therapists, groups, trusted friends, or family.

Reaching out to loved ones and professionals for help when we’re struggling is essential for our mental and emotional wellbeing. We need to make changes to avoid burnout and create more life balance, but our brains don’t feel safe with change. Having a support system in place can help us navigate those adjustments… and then maintain a sustainable life as a highly sensitive person. Here are some reasons why having support is important:

  1. Support from others provides a safe space to express your emotions: We may feel hesitant to share our thoughts and feelings with others, fearing judgment or misunderstanding. Having a trusted friend, family member, or therapist can provide a confidential and non-judgmental space to express ourselves more freely.

  2. It helps in gaining new perspectives: When we are going through a tough time, we may struggle to see things objectively. Trusted support can help us gain new perspectives on our situation and provide insights that we may have overlooked. Those insights can lead to personal growth and development. Seeking support can help us identify areas we can work on, and provide us with the necessary tools to improve our mental and emotional health.

  3. It offers emotional validation: Sometimes, we may feel like we are the only ones going through a particular situation. Support from professionals or loved ones can help us realize that we are not alone and that our feelings are valid.

If you’re looking for resources to find support, here are some options:

  1. Therapy: For me, therapy is essential maintenance, not an extra. Seeking the help of a licensed therapist can provide you with the necessary tools to manage your mental health. You can find a therapist through online directories such as Psychology Today.
  2. Support Groups: Support groups can provide a safe and compassionate environment to connect with others who may be going through similar situations. Ask about the community guidelines for the group, which are a set of values that everyone in the group agrees to. If there are none, you may want to create some together, or find a group that is more structured. The Compassion Club isn’t exactly a support group, but we are a group who support each other... and then we move and meditate together. 
  3. Trusted Friends and Family: Reach out to trusted friends and family members who you feel comfortable talking to about your situation with. You may want to set some ground rules for the conversation, like confidentiality - and whether you wish for advice or just a listening ear.

Remember, seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness. If someone you care for was struggling, you would encourage them to seek help and support. Turn that same compassion on yourself, and make the effort to set up some form of support. That support could be simply listening to your concerns, or walking beside you. 



3) Customize your self-care practices to suit your life

You don't need to spend hours at a spa or yoga studio to prevent burnout. You can take regular, short mindfulness breaks. Remember, taking care of yourself isn’t selfish – it's essential to sustain yourself so you can continue to be steady for your loved ones. When you establish a meaningful self-care routine that fills you up, you'll be stronger, calmer, and more present in your relationships. Plus, you’ll be modeling self-respect and fulfillment. 

Experiment with different self-care practices (like movement, meditation, journaling, sleeping, and spending time in nature) to find what helps you reignite and maintain your spark. 

Highly sensitive people possess a heightened awareness of our environment and are more susceptible to external and internal stimuli than others. While being highly attuned can be a valuable trait, it can also lead to increased stress and anxiety, especially when we deny ourselves time and space to metabolize all that sensory input before it overwhelms us. By practicing sustainable self-care, we can empty our energetic tank of experiences and emotions.

Here are 5 practical tips to incorporate self-care into your daily routine as a highly sensitive person:

  1. Meditation: Practice quieting the fluctuations of your mind and focusing on the present moment. By regularly meditating, you can improve your ability to manage stress and regulate your emotions. There are many types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, body scan meditationvisualization meditation, and more. Breathing practices are an alternative way to access mental clarity, especially if you're one of the many HSPs who knows that meditation just isn't for you. Experiment with different techniques to discover what works best. Then, stick with that for a while. Meditation isn't supposed to be exciting. It should begin to feel familiar, like a cozy blanket.

  2. Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a great way to process your emotions and gain clarity. By journaling regularly, highly sensitive people can identify our triggers and patterns, leading to greater self-awareness and understanding. Additionally, journaling allows for the release of emotions that may be difficult to express verbally. And finally, you can use journaling to coach yourself with compassion, and use your creativity to see an alternate perspective on your struggles. I regularly practice gratitude journaling. There's lots of research on the benefits of gratitude to saturate our nervous systems with the hormone oxytocin, strengthening the neural pathways our brains create as we experience positive feelings.

  3. Movement: Whether you love yoga, dancing, or jogging, move your body in ways that you love. Do it every day, but it can be for a short time. Just 5 minutes of any sort of movement every day has been shown to have a greater mental health benefit than an intense weekly hour-long workout. Remember that your self-care is not a performance, so don’t worry about how you appear to others. It’s all about your enjoyment! There will be days when you don’t feel so motivated, especially if you’re tipping towards burnout. Look into gentle yoga or somatic movement practices that are slow and low to the ground. If you're feeling bogged down in inertia, try this meditation for momentum.

  4. Sleep and deep rest: How would it feel to wake up calm and energized instead of drained? Guided savasana and relaxing breathing have been shown to reduce stress in 85% of mindful yoga practitioners. Restorative yoga can help you bring mindful attention to your body during relaxation, so the time you rest will have a longer-lasting impact on your nervous system. What one thing do you know would help you sleep better, but you’re not doing it? (For me, it’s getting to bed earlier.) Honestly, the good news about burnout is that you'll be forced to rest.

  5. Time in nature: Highly sensitive people can benefit greatly from spending time in natural environments. Being in nature has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and increase overall well-being. Whether it's going for a hike in the woods, a swim in the ocean, or meditating on your back porch, incorporating outdoor activities into your routine can help you avoid burnout.

Self-care is crucial for highly sensitive people to manage their emotions and maintain overall well-being. By experimenting with different practices such as meditation, journaling, moving, sleeping, and spending time in nature (or combining a few), you can discover what works best for yourself, and create a personalized self-care routine. You will need to set boundaries and ask for support to prioritize your self-care routine. Here are 10 tips to help you make time for self-care. 


Highly sensitive people CAN find balance and avoid burnout.

With a little bit of daily self-care, clear boundaries, and support from others, highly sensitive people can thrive in a world that often feels overwhelming. 


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If you get your buttons pushed often by other people's issues, you may be hypervigilant. You might feel it in your body as clenching, tension, or chronic pain.

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