10 effective self-care rituals for stressed out, overwhelmed highly sensitives

A few years ago, my idea of relaxation was video gaming and tv watching. “What could be more re-charging than disappearing into another world for a while”, I thought. And it did relax and entertain me. But it doesn’t relax my brain or ground me in reality. Sometimes it even makes me feel more stressed out, irritable or anxious. 

As a highly sensitive person in an age of technology, information overload and massive distraction, I’ve found that I need a different take on self-care. Since my everyday life demands that I sit in front of a screen, feeling mostly like a brain hovering in mid-air, disconnected from my body, my senses and my humanity, I need daily rituals that bring me back into physical reality.

During these past few months, I’ve experimented with different habits that help me do this. And some of them have really stuck, and made a huge difference to my overall mood and wellbeing. They allow me to better cope with overwhelming situations. And they bring me simple, visceral happiness. 

There are no groundbreakingly innovative ideas here. These are all deceptively simple things that might even disappoint you with their trivialness.

Here are my top 10 self-care rituals:

1. Yoga

I’ll be honest: I really struggle with meditation. Just sitting still and breathing for even 5 minutes can feel insufferable for me.

Moving meditation works better, by occupying my body so that my mind can relax.

I have been in love with yoga since my early twenties. But I’ve also found that as soon as I take it too seriously and set up a yoga schedule for myself, or use yoga as a form of exercise, I lose all motivation to do it. Because I sometimes struggle with a mild form of eating disorder and orthorexia, I have to be really careful with all forms of deliberate workout. 

So when I do yoga, I do it as a form of moving meditation. I focus on the feeling of it, without any pressure to perform or push myself. That’s when it’s really effective in bringing me back into my body.

2. Dry brushing and oil massage

dry brushing oil massage

Morning routines are pivotal in setting the mood for the rest of the day.

Up until recently, mine have consisted of reaching for my phone and overwhelming myself with the news of the day, followed by getting up, throwing on clothes and diving directly into my to do list. I establish a feeling of stress and overwhelm from the very moment I open my eyes in the morning, and this feeling sticks with me for the rest of the day. 

Dry brushing and body oiling is something I’ve always wanted to make a daily habit of, but haven’t gotten the time or peace of mind to do. It increases blood circulation, improves skin and drives toxins out of the body. It can promote body awareness and acceptance. And it simply feels good. 

I have now kept up my dry brushing and body oiling ritual every morning for over two months and it feels as natural as brushing my teeth. I wake up every morning and look forward to it. And afterwards, when my body is tingly and smooth, I'm ready to deal with my day. 

3. Long walks in nature

long walks in nature

I used to be a frequent runner. If was to go outside and expose myself to the elements, I needed those trips to be short and effective. I wanted to burn calories, tone muscles and then be done with it so I could go inside again.

And I do still love to run sometimes. But I’ve fallen even deeper in love with walking. I don’t have to change into workout clothes, I can cozy up with hats, gloves and scarves, and take more time to enjoy nature and moving my body. 

Being in nature is scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, ease stress and promote mindfulness.

This really holds true for me. Whenever I feel frantic, worried and too much in my head, going outside for a while always does the trick. It brings me back in touch with earth and the seasons, and more in tune with my own humanity. My mundane problems melt away and I get a healthy perspective on life. 

I also find walking to be the perfect way of enjoying my favorite podcasts, or listening to audio books. Taking an hour long stroll with something inspiring to listen to is my preferred method of therapy right now. 

4. Singing

Using my voice for something other than talking, and my hands for something else than hammering away at a keyboard, is really important to me. 

As a child and teenager, I would sit by my piano for hours and hours. I went to music school and was a very artistic person. I could spend an entire day drawing or painting. Or being outside and carving blocks of wood into staffs or swords. I was creating stuff with my hands, something I rarely do anymore. 

That feels to me like a personal tragedy. Like I’ve lost a big part of myself. Sometimes I wonder if my mind has become so restless by years of internet and smartphone use that I no longer have the patience and concentration to really dive deep into creative work. 

But one thing I still do often is singing.

Whenever I get some time alone at home, I listen though all my favorite playlists and sing along. Immersing myself in the music this way puts me in contact with my emotions and sends shivers all over my body. And, since a functioning vocal organ has to be relaxed, singing also helps me to loose the tension in my neck and shoulders, and to breathe more fully into my stomach.

5. Looking at animals

I don’t just love birds. That word is not enough. Whenever I see a bird, whether it’s by the sidewalk or in a documentary on YouTube, I get a surge of oxytocin through my blood stream. My eyes tear up and my heart swells. I can’t explain it. I just feel such intense appreciation, adoration and gratitude for birds, and animals in general. 

I use these emotions to heal myself when I’m in pain or soothe myself when I’m sad. When life feels overpowering and excruciatingly hard, I look at birds and can’t help but feel uplifted.

(My boyfriend even uses pictures of birds to manipulate me into a good mood when I’m irritated or mad...)

6. Reading (physical) books

book reading and coffee

Over the years, I have gotten rid of most of my physical book collection. They where just too many and too heavy to move around. Today, I buy and read books in e-book format and almost all of my book collection is digital and portable. This is wonderfully freeing, but I still long for some good old fashioned page flipping every once in a while. 

I’ll go to the library and just browse the shelves, like I used to do back in the days. And then I bring home an entire bag of books and devour them. I love being able to visually see and feel the book, and my progress though the pages. 

I always start off my day by reading a book by the kitchen table while having my coffee and breakfast. It sets a mood of quiet reflection and inspiration that I bring with me into my work day. 

7. Keeping a journal

For many years, my journaling habits have been sporadic. I’m generally not good at sticking to daily habits if I don’t see an immediate gain from it. So when I have written in my journal it’s usually been to pour out frustrations, worries or confusion to try and make sense of it all. This form of self-counseling really works wonders for me and I recommend it to everyone, HSP or otherwise. 

But after having been curious about Bullet Journaling for quite some time, and tired of having my lists, ideas and notes scattered across several different digital platforms, I have decided to upgrade my journaling practices into something more encompassing and self-nurturing.

I want my journals to contain not only my troubles, but also my joys, dreams, goals and memories. And I want to incorporate long-hand journaling into my daily life as a form of meditation and self-care. A much needed break from the bright screens and distractions of digital life.

So I have started my very first Bullet Journal!

It feels exhilarating, while at the same time terrifying. My handwriting has deteriorated into something resembling a 7 year old’s. I can barely maintain a thought long enough to scribble it into a notebook, since I’m so used to accessing and inserting ideas immediately into my phone, which I carry with me everywhere. (Literally. It's embarrassing.)

So returning to analog planning and journaling feels both familiar and strange at the same time. And like a very healthy self-care practice.

8. Indulging the senses

Smell is one of my primary senses. I get really strong pleasures and associations from smelling things and some of my weirder habits include sticking my nose into fabric softener bottles and inhaling it like it was a drug. 

Sometimes I just need to take a tour around the house and smell my way through everything: the coffee and tea cabinet, the scented candles, the cleaning supplies and the shampoo bottles in the bathroom.

I really believe that practicing using our senses is important for sensitives. After all, our ability to feel and sense strongly is one of our superpowers. We should hone it on a daily basis. 

If that means enjoying the hell out of a bottle of fabric softener, so be it. ;)

9. Long baths

hot bath ritual

Seriously, is there anything more relaxing than slipping into a hot bath after an exhausting day, or when you’re home from a long walk in the cold. 

Taking baths is my favorite way of practicing body awareness. There’s so much to be aware of: the heat and feel of the water against the skin, the smell of scented epsom salt, the flickering candle light and the sound of the running water. 
Why lie there with an iPad under the bright ceiling light, when you can turn the entire bathroom into a self-care ritual chamber?

Some people need to go bungee jumping to feel truly alive. I just need a hot bath.

10. Unplugging

The most difficult, and most effective of all my rituals is that of disconnecting. If you only try one of these ten self-care practice, let it be this one. 

Our very resistance and fear of disconnecting is a clear sign that we have lost control. 

I struggle with this on a daily basis. Even though I know how it makes me feel to be constantly available, constantly in the flow of information, I still cannot bring myself to block it out or take a break. 

But whenever I do, (usually by force of the indispensable app Freedom), the rewards blow my mind. “So this is what it feels like to just be a simple human being in the world.” “This is what it feels like to lose myself in an activity for hours without interruption.” “This is what it feel like to just experience without having to compulsively share.”

It’s almost comedic how many impulses to go online, to “check this one thing real quick”, my mind is bombarded with as soon as I disconnect. 
But after an hour or so of unplugging, the stillness sets in. My monkey mind learns to calm down. My thoughts become clear. I can feel my body again. I notice things in my environment I haven’t seen before. I find rest in a task or creative project, ultimately producing a much better result than if I had impatiently hurried to the next one. 

No one needs these kinds of breaks more than highly sensitive person. Grant yourself the luxury of disconnecting often. 

What works for you?

Of course, not all people are the same, highly sensitive or otherwise. What works for me might not work for you, and only you can come up with the perfect self-care practices for you.

Hopefully, I’ve inspired you and given you some new appreciation of these simple ways to practice self-care. But I also encourage you to explore your own preferences:

  • What activities most effectively ground you in the here and now?
  • What activities truly calm you down?
  • What activities inspires you, and fills you with pleasant emotions?
  • What activities do you wish you “had the time” to do, but rarely “find time” for. These are exactly the things you should take time to do. Self-care means investing in yourself so that you can feel and perform better in your everyday life. It should be a priority. 

Take better care of yourself, my friend. Spend more time enjoying the gifts of your sensitivity than suffering from the disadvantages of it.