How to cope with office life for the highly sensitive person?
April 27, 2016 8:58 PM   Subscribe

I've begun working as an assistant in an office after years of telecommute work, and very familiar, frustrating feelings have come flooding back. I am a Highly Sensitive Person and this whole week, I spend a ton of mental energy being on all day at work, beginning with an anxious morning routine where I struggle to even get everything done. Then, when I leave work, I come home and basically sit on my couch all night and do nothing, then repeat the cycle. How can I learn to cope?

I know it's a new job, one that I am thankful for, and it isn't my first office job, but at the time of my last office job, I wasn't aware of the concept of high sensitivity. But I check all the boxes there. Every night, I get home and I feel listless, drained, empty, and unable to get anything done (and I need to get things done - tomorrow's lunch isn't even made, and it's midnight). It's like I exhaust all my fuel at work and come home a shell in need of recharge. Then feel frustrated, sad, and guilty for that. And then, it's time to repeat it all. I try to reassure myself all day, like I'm parenting myself.

Eve at work, I sometimes feel tired in the sense of drained and want to cry. There are a lot of people on my floor and conversations, calls, people walking around. It's so much. I crash into a state of gray empty blah-ness where I do nothing, have creative ideas I can't wait to work on when I get home but do nothing with. Does it ever truly get easier?

How do fellow senstive people cope with this? Is there something that has helped you? Note that headphones/music isn't an option, it's not possible to quietly slip off to the bathroom that easily, or change environments. The office is small enough that everyone is around, there are a lot of people on the phone often, and walking all over and also social conversations.
posted by Fire to Work & Money (20 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
New jobs are exhausting for everyone, and I've heard the adjustment period can be months. As an introvert who recently changed from working at home to a long commute to an office, a couple of weeks adjustment have helped a lot already. Go easy on yourself for a bit and celebrate landing your job in low key ways.
posted by momus_window at 9:22 PM on April 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't know much about Highly Sensitive People, but I just went back to a traditional office job after more than six months away. And what I can say is, it gets better. A month into my current job, I felt like you. Three months later I can do stuff after work again and get everything done easily during the work day.

I find that, in a newish job, there's a lot of brainspace taken up by "how do they do things here?" and "which of those five brown-haired white guys is Jason?" and "did I forget one of my end-of-day tasks?" After a few months that stuff settles down. Also, as an introvert, I find all the phone calls and small talk and people to interact with draining, but as these encounters become familiar, it gets easier because some of those people are friends now, and I generally know what to expect with phone calls, etc. Also, there are a lot more people in the office than I ever actually have to interact with, so after a few months I've figured out who I have to say hi to vs. who is a stranger despite sitting 50 feet away. Certain people can be backgrounded so to speak because I know I'll never actually need to interact with them.

One coping mechanism is that I play games on my phone on bathroom breaks. Not for more than a minute or two longer than it takes to use the restroom, but being able to turn my brain off for 2-3 minutes of privacy helps a lot.
posted by Sara C. at 9:23 PM on April 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

Being an assistant is the worst kind of job for someone like this. Well, I guess maybe sales would be even worse. Basically you're having to be in constant contact with a variety of people all day as well as managing various sources of input: phone, email, in person. I also meet all the criteria for a HSP and I loathed the time I worked as an editorial assistant, but loooooved the years I worked at coding HTML. When I was writing HTML I had all of my work contact through email, almost never phone, and had a small set of coworkers that I talked to and enjoyed spending time with every day. So it's not really office jobs in general that are bad, but particular ones with a lot of variety and stimulus are going to be way harder for you than for someone whose nervous system isn't so attuned to input.
posted by MsMolly at 9:51 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

The job wasn't my choice. It was something I was pushed into but desperately needed anyway. I have to leave my abusive partner. Since that is going to be a stressful process, I wanted to settle into this job first, so I have to learn to cope if I want my freedom.

I'm an extrovert. Socializing I love, but being 'on' in an office with all its goings-on and unable to control my environment is the problem. (The jobs I've been trying to get that didn't work out were things like community management, marketing or social media management. I'm an empath, sensitive, understand people and how to speak to needs, likes, all of that. So my hope is that I can land something more suitable in the future again (hopefully flex or telecommute)).

I appreciate both insight and any advice.
posted by Fire at 10:23 PM on April 27, 2016

You mention being unable to control your environment, and that resonates with me, too; can you bring in some small thing(s) that might ground you - I always have my tea bags on my desk, also on days I need strength I put a little scent on.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 12:03 AM on April 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have to leave my abusive partner. Since that is going to be a stressful process, I wanted to settle into this job first, so I have to learn to cope if I want my freedom.

I wonder if possibly the degree to which you are overwhelmed by your workplace is being influenced by this situation - realizing your partner is abusive and making a decisive plan to leave is already a highly stressful process. My suspicion is that it will stay about the same until you act on this plan, and then it will get much worse for a while, and eventually things will improve to a tolerable level. But 1) this is a gut feeling, not evidence-based and 2) that doesn't mean you should necessarily grit your teeth and try to get through always feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated, or exhausted for an indefinite period.

It doesn't sound like there's much to be done about the work environment, though, so we're left with what to do to address feeling exhausted during what should be your recharging time. One way to deal with being drained might be to do some gear-shifting when you leave work. Something physical, like a brisk walk, followed by some non-work social interaction (since you say you're an extrovert and extroverts are generally recharged by being with people.)

I also don't know if this is practical given the fact you have an abusive partner (do you live together? it seems like that would also lead to problems trying to relax and recharge after work so you can be energized when you start the next day.)
posted by gingerest at 12:32 AM on April 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

This sounds so stressful with everything involved, sending kudos, love, and affirmation for trying to get out of a terrible abusive situation.

Do you have nice office toys that could help you with de-stressing and having different types of nice input? Kinetic sand is wonderful, and maybe you could put it into a nice, discrete box while you are doing phone calls or emails. My cousin uses a bluetooth speaker in her open plan office, and tries to buffer herself with pleasant sounds.
posted by yueliang at 1:46 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, friend. You are going through a lot right now. I really admire your strength, to be at a job that is such a challenge for such a difficult reason. When I was in a similar situation, I had similar feelings. My best advice for you is to be as kind as you can to yourself right now. This might not be the time for creative projects, or for getting things done at home. Instead, focus on just doing things that give you some autonomy and peace. Do you have the opportunity, for example, to go on a short walk during your lunch breaks? Or to stop at a quiet coffee shop on the way home and sit for an hour? Things that bring you some peace and solitude, without pushing you to do anything in particular, will be very important right now.

You are already doing a whole lot. And you are working on building and enter well of strength and reserve that you will really need in the coming months/year. So while it may feel like you aren't being productive enough or doing enough with your time off from work, you in fact are doing quite a lot.

I will also say that as someone who has a very stressful career, I have never experienced difficulty with my work the way that I did when I was in an abusive relationship. Things about my job that are usually just challenges were insurmountable mountains. I learned to cope with the job, but really it was not until I left and went through therapy for PTSD, that I was able to really meet any of the other challenges in my life. I'm not saying this to push you on your timeline, but you might need to recalibrate your expectations about things until you are able to leave. And that is OK.

Best of luck to you.
posted by sockermom at 5:32 AM on April 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Fellow HSP here. I work in an open office, it drives me nuts sometimes. I find when it's really bad it's because I'm not sleeping or eating well, or not giving myself restorative activities in my free time so my mindset going in to work is not great. To an extent you will habituate to the sounds of the office, right now your brain doesn't know which things are safe to ignore, and because of your relationship issue you might be on extra high alert. Because you want to perform well you may be interpreting all distractions as a threat to your productivity, that's a mindset that can be helpful when you can control the distractions (so deciding to stop browsing the internet, turning down your music, etc.) but will make you really miserable in a shared office space.

Try waking up earlier/going to bed earlier until you have a morning routine that isn't so stressful because there's not enough time. If you use caffeine consider cutting it out or reducing it. When you wake up, do something you enjoy, a shower, a bath, music, inspirational reading, or do those things before bed. Go to bed before 11, you might need extra sleep right now so 9 might be optimal.

Go for a nice slow walk on your lunch/coffee breaks if at all possible. If someone in particular is making a lot of noise or having a long conversation that is taking over the space I use that as an opportunity to use the bathroom, make myself tea, or go do something that requires talking to someone else/making a phone call, or any work that benefits from a less focused mind (making lists for example) versus trying to block them out and focus on my work. Remember to breathe through the day, just get in touch with your in breath and out breath whenever you feel overwhelmed or before you talk to anyone. It's great you're being kind to yourself all day, keep doing that.
posted by lafemma at 5:46 AM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're in a tough situation right now but I think you're doing a good job with it - vegging out on the couch after a tough day at work is completely appropriate and normal. Frustrating? Sure. But probably necessary right now.

As for stuff you need to get done after work, try shifting as much of it to before work as possible, and moving your bedtime as early as possible (after all, if you need to rest you might as well REST). Also batch up as much of it as possible - try packing all your lunches on Sunday night or Monday morning.

As others are saying, this will get easier. I love the idea of focusing on your breathing - it's a restful time-out that other people can't see. I like variations on the Farinelli breathing exercises, where you breathe in, hold your breath with your mouth open and without shutting down your vocal chords (folds), then breathe out.
posted by mskyle at 5:57 AM on April 28, 2016

I totally know the feeling – the feeling of being overwhelmed and wanting to collapse.

How I cope is I tell myself: this is one small problem, no need to catastrophize. So for example if I have to return a phone call, it is just a phone call, not the end of the world or some unsurmountable mountain. If so and so is noisy or the phone keeps ringing, it's just one sound not a wall of stimulation.

The glib phrase for this is keep everything in perspective.

So keep saying to yourself "this is one small task/stimulation, and I can handle it!"

Imagine the stimulation rolling off you, not building inside your head. Don't mentally fight it, just let it be a passing wave. It's the resistance "this shouldn't be happening" that causes the overwhelming feelings.

Also I imagine that there is a locus of consistency in my chest. So everything can be going to hell around me, but there's one constant in all the noise and stimulation, and that's my center.

Catching the train of thought before it leaves the station is really helpful.

PS. I also like to jot down my creative ideas on a notepad every few hours or so, that helps me feel like I'm having a break.
posted by serenity soonish at 6:03 AM on April 28, 2016

Also HALT - in the moment are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Making sure I'm well fed and rested goes a long way for coping. Send a joke text to a friend.
posted by serenity soonish at 6:04 AM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Given the abusive relationship, it may be worth considering whether some of your sensitivity is coming from hypervigilance and the feeling that you have to be on "high alert" to stay safe. If that seems like it might be the case, it can sometimes be helpful to use the new non-abusive environment to "retrain" one's nervous system a bit, into recognizing that, e.g., "raised voices do not always mean I'm about to be yelled at." Reframing it as hypervigilance (if that fits) may also give you a bit more compassion for yourself.
posted by lazuli at 6:41 AM on April 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

(That wikipedia link is not necessarily the best discussion of hypervigilance. This one from is better.)
posted by lazuli at 6:46 AM on April 28, 2016

See if you can find a way to control the lighting in a way that helps you. I used to start work as early as allowable (meaning, I started as early as I could get into the building while also being allowed to leave 8 hours later) and left the lights off until other people started arriving about an hour or so later. Usually that was enough to let me get into the flow of what I was doing enough to have a buffer by the time other people arrived and it got bright and noisy.

Other days I would find an unused conference room and work in there with a laptop and the lights off.

After that, I second everything else that's been said - focusing on getting enough sleep and good food (which can be hard if you are still living with your abuser, I definitely recognize that), modifying your environment in other ways that can be comforting, like with tea and pictures and such. Good luck!
posted by annathea at 6:55 AM on April 28, 2016

Can you have plants on your desk? If so, I'd get three: one for each back corner and one for the center back. They'll create a visual break from all the distractions and give you something green and peaceful to gaze into. I suppose they don't even need to be real plants. Just something to give you a screen. Also, take a five-minute break every hour (same principle as when driving long distances) -- even a walk down a long hall or around the perimeter of a big office -- it give your torso some stretching and movement gives you some extra oxygen. You said you can't have headphones, so try humming to yourself as an aural screen. Best of luck.
posted by MovableBookLady at 8:49 AM on April 28, 2016

It sounds like you're dealing with a) a work environment with a bunch of irrelevant sensory input that you can't avoid or turn off and b) hypervigilance/feeling like you NEED to be aware of it Or Else. No wonder you're drained when you get home.

- It's OK to be completely drained when you get home. It's not ideal and it's not fun but it's completely understandable. Try to forgive yourself for this. Recognize that you are in survival mode, that shit is hard, and let yourself do the bare minimum. Accept that sometimes half-ass is all you can do, that it's better than not doing the thing at all, and do what you can.

- Limit your sensory experiences at home to save your sensory spoons for when you're at work. I limit the amount of lights I have on, listen only to instrumental music (no TV, no vocals, no spoken language whatsoever), and try to limit my reading. On really hard days, I shut myself in the bathroom in the dark and lie on the floor and run the shower for 30-45 minutes. Do I enjoy this? Not really. But it makes me less likely to cry halfway through the next work day.

- Get yourself a physical object to focus on at work and give yourself permission to stare at this thing to the exclusion of everything else (the plant idea works here). Stare at the plant and pretend that your work environment doesn't exist for ~2-5 minutes when you need a break. Walking around every few hours is also a good idea if you can get away with it. If you can, take your lunch break OUTSIDE of your workplace, in a calm/soothing place.

- You may find it easier to keep going if you do high energy tasks back to back (even if this is incredibly exhausting, I'm talking about what it takes to get necessary things done). If this is the case, try to make your lunch immediately when you come home/before you go into "relaxed mode". That way it's not hanging over your head the rest of the evening either. You may also just need to batch-make something on one day and store it as individual servings (or just make a bunch of sandwiches at once). Reduce your lunch expectations, it's OK, you're in survival mode.

You are dealing with a lot of life crap at once. It's impossible to have enough energy to process an abusive relationship that you have decided to leave AND a new overwhelming job you don't particularly want/like AND still have enough energy left for something high bandwidth like creative work. One thing at a time. Reduce your expectations, reduce whatever stressors you can, and remember that you will be able to do creative work later. Focus on what you can do right now, try to limit the amount of self-judgement and self-negativity you indulge in, and do what you have to do in order to keep going.

Best of luck.
posted by buteo at 9:22 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been in this exact situation for the past 6 months and I can tell you that it gets better with time.
The first 2 months or so in the open office felt like Hell. Having to integrate into a group of people that already know each other, and in which you can't even take a break to be by yourself, is extremely stressful.

One thing to remember is that for the first few months on the job, no one expects you to know everything, so you can take all the time you need to figure out who's who and how everything operates.

Also, most of the horribleness you are feeling right now is due to the Newness of the situation. every day that passes, you are getting more used to it and the Newness is wearing off - so everyday is progress, and the worst is over! Once the situation is no longer New, it will be familiar, dull and pleasant because you won't be spending 90% of your mental energy adapting and trying to comprehend what's going on. You'll be able to tune out way more of the stimulation that happens on a day to day basis because it will become normal, mundane and usual.

Until that time just hang tight and make sure to relax in your off hours - take the pressure off yourself to be productive at night until your daily life has become normalized. For me the most helpful thing to de-stress and practice self care has been Yoga, which allows you to focus inward after a long day of being unable to.
posted by winterportage at 9:31 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The variety of experiences and tips here are things I'm going to try and sort through to see what might work. Unfortunately, i have little control over my surroundings, or my breaks, since I'm required to keep the same lunch and work my hours while my boss is in, and there's no touching the light and no windows in the main room.

As far as hypervigilance, there is some of that. I've never been officially diagnosed, but I've come to realize I've experienced a variety of PTSD symptoms for a long time (after bullying, a previous abusive relationship, and sexual assault). But the high sensitivity came first.

Today, the office was much quieter and my boss was offsite, so my work was extremely stable and calm, and it made such a big difference. The only thing to truly ruin it was feeling like prey trying to fend off texts all day from partner trying to get me to come deliver sexual favors after work (which he has been doing all week). it makes me question waiting to leave, but I have to be secure.

I just want to know that there are things that work and ways to cope as I try to get a foothold on my way to starting over. As for doing things, creativity makes me feel alive, writing is what I've been compelled to do since I was 5. That's who I really am. When I have ideas but feel listless, it often means something is wrong/ I'm in danger of becoming depressive again.

But again, all of this is very much appreciated.
posted by Fire at 4:12 PM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you really want to write aka become a freelance writer and support yourself, I recommend reading The Renegade Writer. Don't give up on your creativity, you are building strength for yourself. That is terrible what you are dealing with, but you have such a strong spirit. Keep checking back in with us :)
posted by yueliang at 3:51 AM on May 1, 2016

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