Note: A lot of what I learned about Highly Sensitive People (aside from my own personal experience), came from Elaine N. Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. If you want to learn more about the info that’s not personal-experience-based, I highly recommend you check it out or visit her site here!
WHAT IS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON (HSP)?
Basically, Highly Sensitive People (HSP) is a term developed in the 1990s to describe people who pick up on subtleties that most others ignore. HSPs are more sensitive to external stimuli (sounds, colors, movement, etc.); they have strong emotional reactions to what they experience (though they might not express these emotions outwardly); they notice things others would not; they are easily overstimulated and overwhelmed in environments with a lot going on; they process things very deeply; they are very attune to others’ emotions; they have a rich, complex inner life; and they need time away from the world to regroup.
As with any trait, there are differences for each individual person, but there’s an HSP test that explores a lot of the traits HSPs may have. (I answer yes to all but the last two questions, making me very HSP). High-sensitivity is a trait that about 15-20% of people have, and, while it’s genetic, it can be influenced (for better or worse!) by circumstances, particularly those experienced in childhood. It might sound like it’s a bad thing (and sometimes, believe me, it is!), but there are a lot of benefits to being an HSP, too.
If you’re not an HSP, it can be kind of hard to understand what it’s like. HSPs might be labeled “dramatic” or “neurotic” or “anxious” or “fussy,” when, really, we just see the world differently. For an non-HSP, I imagine experiencing a day in the life of an HSP would almost be like being on some sort of psychedelic trip. Sounds are louder, colors brighter, scents more pungent. Every detail is heightened so that everything from someone else’s slight shift in mood to the slight flickering of a light is noticed and, odd as this might sound, felt. It’s almost as if the boundaries between the internal world and the external world are thinner. Or, rather, they feel thinner.
From the outside, it might sound neurotic or anxious behavior traits, but, while I personally am an HSP who experiences anxiety, high-sensitivity isn’t the same thing as anxiety. High-sensitivity is about how the environment (both internal and external is perceived); anxiety is a feeling of worry and unease. They can overlap, but they aren’t the same.
I’m certainly not an expert on this, but I hope that gave you a bit of an idea of what an HSP is. Now, here are some of the pros and cons that HSPs experience.
THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN HSP
- HSPs are often creative and imaginative because they are so tuned into details and notice what others might not. This makes them great at creative career paths.
- HSPs are attuned to others’ moods, making them potentially great friends and loved ones. (See the “Challenges” section for the flip side of this.)
- HSPs tend absorb and learn info quickly, which means they’re likely to be good students and to pick up new information at work easily. They’re often life-long learners.
- HSPs are very aware of their own thoughts and often prefer to think very deeply about things. This self-awareness can be helpful for cultivating a world that suits the HSP.
- HSPs are alert to potential dangers; they’re likely the first ones to smell smoke, to spot a rattlesnake, to notice a candle’s still lit before leaving the house.
- HSPs are experiencing a lot when they’re out in the world and taking it all in, which often makes them open-minded to new ideas and ways of thinking.
- HSPs will pick up on the little details that others might miss. They’ll spot the typo, notice that a shade of blue is off, or tell you that you’ve got a bit of pepper in your tooth.
These are just a few of the many benefits of being an HSP. But, as well many traits, with the good comes the bad. Here are some of the challenges…
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING AN HSP
- HSPs are likely to appear unhappy / moody, particularly if they are in a new or overstimulating environment. Frequently they are simply overwhelmed, but their mood can shift and it might not make sense to others.
- HSPs are alert to potential dangers, which, while this might be a benefit sometimes, can also be stressful for the HSP since they are always on the lookout for something amiss.
- HSPs are attuned to others’ moods (as mentioned above), which can result in them being really empathetic and loving or, if they are too overwhelmed by others’ emotions, can make them avoidant and distant. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s often that they care too much, and don’t quite know how to handle it.
- HSPs are easily overstimulated, making a lot of environments (particularly new ones) a lot for them to handle. This can be frustrating for loved ones who enjoy new things or lots of stimulation.
- HSPs, because they are so easily stimulated, are resistant to change, which can put limitations on they ways they live their lives (though this is something that can be improved with hard work and the right therapy!).
- HSPs might have physical challenges as a result of overstimulation (stomach aches in a stressful environment, difficulty sleeping after a highly stimulating event).
Again, these are just a few of the challenges HSPs might face. In addition, many societies don’t value the trait of sensitivity highly. In some cultures, this trait is praised (and even revered!) but in Western culture, sensitivity is frequently seen as a detriment rather than a strength. Most “fun” activities portrayed in popular culture (parties, amusement parks, holidays, etc.) are often enjoyable for HSPs, making them appear to be unsociable, lame, stick-in-the-muds for not thriving in those environments. But HSPs can have fun, exciting, and amazing lives, too — they just might look a little bit different from the norm, and that’s okay. The key, if you’re an HSP, is learning how to take what you’ve got and work with it.
Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to cope with being an HSP. (Again, I’m not an expert, but I always like to share what I learn in case it might help someone else too!)
HOW TO COPE WITH BEING AN HSP
Recognize when you’re overstimulated.
This has been such a huge game-changer for me. I used to just feel frazzled and panicky and it felt so out of control when I was overstimulated. I didn’t know why I was suddenly feeling cranky or upset. Now that I’ve identified this HSP trait, I can usually (though not always) pinpoint that I’m overwhelmed because I’m overstimulated. This knowledge sounds basic, but I can’t tell you how transformative it’s been. While before, I would just become moody or feel this intense pull to return home, I can now recognize my HSP-ness, try to evaluate the situation from a less emotional point of view, and do my best to determine how to lessen the stimulation or cope with my feelings if, for whatever reason, I cannot reduce or avoid the stimulating experiences. Self-awareness takes practice, but once you identify yourself as an HSP, it’ll become a lot easier to notice because you’ll discover that the slightest little things can be a trigger for overstimulation.
Pay attention to how you define a situation.
One of the best things that Aron talks about in her book, is reframing how you think about a situation. A “terrifying crowd” at a concert could be seen as “a bigger group than the concerts I’ve been too before.” How you talk to yourself and the thoughts you repeat have a big impact on how you see a situation and, potentially, how overstimulated you feel. While HSP is a very real thing (no, you’re not crazy; you are actually experiencing the environment in a more intense way than others), the mind is a powerful tool, and you can use it to work on lessening your emotional response. Not every thought you think is a fact, and you have the option to challenge you thinking and consider whether or not something actually is as overwhelming as it initially feels. (You might find that it is, and that’s okay — but it’s good to check and to consider whether you might be able to reframe the situation!)
Know what soothes you.
If you’ve spent time trying to reframe a situation and it’s still deeply overwhelming, it’s time to identify what’s soothing to you. Aron talks about treating your HSP self like a baby (an analogy I’m not a big fan of, but admittedly it kind of works). When you’re incredibly overstimulated (as a baby often is), you can’t just tell yourself to get over it. You have to take action. Knowing what works to soothe you might take some time to figure out. Some things that might work: breathing exercises, going for a walk, stepping outside, a cool glass of water, thinking of something very safe and calming. Every person has unique things that will help them tone down the overstimulation in the brain to feel more relaxed, and once you start paying attention to what works for you, you’ll be able to turn to these tools when feel uneasy or overwhelmed.
Trick your mind with your body.
Your mind often gets cues from your body, and you can sometimes use this to your advantage if you’re feeling overstimulated. See, if you’re super overwhelmed, your body is in that fight-or-flight mode, ready to take on a challenge or get the hell out of there. Your muscles are tense; your vision is focused; your blood is pumping to the places that need it most. But if you actively make an effort to breathe calmly, to unclench your fists, to relax your shoulders, your mind might get a message that there’s nothing to be afraid of. This doesn’t always work, of course, but it’s worth trying! You can also trick your mind into believing you’re more relaxed and less alert simply by shifting your body in subtle ways. Stand with confidence, even if you don’t feel it. Uncross your arms and leave them loose at your sides. If you’re frequently jittery, try to stand still. If there are too many lights, close your eyes for a minute. Too many sounds? Step outside or cover your ears. These small physical things can actually help you feel a bit less overwhelmed.
Identify intangible sources of safety.
Your home / car / spouse / pet might be your go-to for feeling safe, but sometimes they’re not available, so it’s good to have some mental retreats where you can go to calm down. When I was a kid and had a difficult time going to sleep, I would always imagine that I was in the Pastoral scene in Disney’s Fantasia. I used to think it was so strange that I did that, but now I realize that, for whatever strange reason, that scene made me feel very calm and relaxed. Whenever I couldn’t sleep, I would “go” there, and just thinking of it usually sent me off to dreamland. For HSPs, it’s important to have things like that to refer to mentally when you physically can’t remove yourself from an overstimulating situation. (My therapist once asked me to think of doing something calming when I was feeling really anxious and this helped a lot. If you ever see me sitting nervously in a doctor’s office, I’m likely thinking, Imagine petting a dog. Imagine petting a dog, to calm myself.) Having intangible sources of safety is key because they’re always available, unlike tangible safe spaces.
Remove yourself from the situation if need be.
Sometimes things really are too much for an HSP, no matter how much self-awareness or reframing you try. While it’s not always best to leave a situation simply because you’re overstimulated (after all, the only way we ever become comfortable in a place is after we’ve been there awhile!), it sometimes happens that an HSP is just too overstimulated to be anything by stressed and anxious in an environment. If there’s no way to find comfort or enjoyment in it (because, yes, I can be both overwhelmed and having a good time), it’s often good to leave a situation. But balance is key. You don’t want to leave every situation that causes discomfort or you’ll never stay anywhere, but you don’t want to force yourself to stay in situations that could cause long-term stress simply because you’re trying to power through your sensitivity. Personally, I’ve found that the more I pay attention and the more self-aware I become, the better I am at knowing when it’s vital for me to leave a situation. Sometimes I stay when I shouldn’t, and sometimes I leave when I should stay, but overall I think I’m getting better at finding a balance that keeps me sane and (somewhat) social.
Seek out inner / outer world balance.
As an HSP, it’s tempting to just say, “The world is too much! I’m going to shut myself away and live as a hermit!” But, the more you avoid stimulation, the more stimulating it becomes. You have to find a balance between being overwhelmed outside in the world and spending all of your time alone inside your own world. This one is definitely a struggle for me personally because, honestly, it’s a lot of work to overcome the overstimulation of the world. It can be downright exhausting and, if I’m honest, sometimes I’m just plain lazy and don’t want to do the work. But, after reading Aron’s book, I’m reminded that the less I go out into the world, the harder it will be when I do. As with most things in life, it’s all about balance and learning to do what’s best for you. And “best for you” includes in the long-run. Yes, in the moment, it might be tempting for an HSP to decline an invitation, but just because it feels right in the moment doesn’t mean it’s the best choice overall. HSPs have to work hard to cultivate balance between the internal and external worlds.
Set clear boundaries.
Boundaries are important for everyone, but especially for HSPs who can become super stimulated when boundaries are crossed. The key to setting boundaries is to pay close attention to the experiences that make you feel really overwhelmed. For example, one thing that can be particularly overwhelming for me is physical touch. I don’t enjoy hugging. I don’t want someone to touch my arm frequently when they are speaking to me. This boundary can be tough to set because I don’t want to seem rude or cold, but it’s important for me to speak up for myself in order to be comfortable. Other boundaries you might want to consider: the amount time you spend with others (balance is key! avoid isolation!); the number of people you interact with at one time (it’s alright to prefer small groups); the environments you choose to spend time in (for example, I love concerts, but I wouldn’t do well at a huge festival); the people who get your emotional energy (yes, even in your head!); the amount and type of news / media you consume (remember: you can be informed without being inundated). Sometimes you’ll need to push yourself a bit on these boundaries (both for personal growth and because not everything in the world will adjust for your needs) but, more often than not, if you have clear and reasonable boundaries, you can use them to shape your experiences and make them more positive for you and those around you.
Phew, that was a long one! I’ve been putting off writing about this for probably a year or so because, honestly, I feel kind of embarrassed about it. While I understand it and experience it on a daily basis, I can imagine how, from a non-HSP point of view, it might just seem like I’m a fussy, anxiety-ridden, introvert who just wants everything to be perfectly aligned to my tastes. But, having lived with this my entire life and only recently discovered what it was, I knew I had to share my thoughts on it because maybe other people are also HSPs and don’t understand why they’re so overwhelmed and overstimulated all the time. Honestly, if you don’t have a name for it, it can feel, at times, like you’re just crazy. But, if you’re an HSP, you’re not crazy. You’re sensitive. You’re really, really present. You’re paying attention. It can be a lot, sometimes, I know, but it can also lead to really cool, creative, inventive, interesting experiences. The world needs HSPs just as much as it needs non-HSPs, so keep being your sensitive self!