During grad school, I did a particularly bad job protecting myself as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) because I didn’t understand that part of myself very well back then.
I spent a lot of time in environments that were too noisy, too bright, too crowded and otherwise very not HSP-friendly. I made all sorts of decisions at work and in relationships that didn’t take my high social, physical, and emotional sensitivities into account. I didn’t eat well, sleep well. My self-care was deplorable. I wore myself very thin without realizing it.
I didn’t know it then, but payback would come essentially as soon as I finally had some real breathing space. As soon as life was calm and beautiful again, that’s when –on an internal level– it would seem worse than ever.
After a really stressful final year of grad school, my husband and I got married in the midst of three months of ‘homelessness’ — traveling around the U.S. visiting family and friends before moving to Germany. I was writing my last final exam paper while on our honeymoon …
The day before we left for abroad, my husband was meticulously packing and re-packing our [TOO.MANY.] bags based on weight while I was finishing up our scores of wedding ‘thank you’ cards.
When we finally went to bed, we had this conversation:
Husband (wearily): OK, to calculate backward … our flight is at 8, so we should be there by 6:30, which means that we have to leave here at 5 … we should wake up at 4 so we can both shower …
Me (with exhausted, pleading eyes): So … how soon do we have to wake up?
Him (matter-of-factly): 15 minutes.
*Ensue half-insane laughter and tears*
(We literally did take that 15 minute nap, btw.)
Once in Germany, we started some major recuperating — no work, all play, lots of time outdoors, nothing stressful at all.
Except that right away and over the following months, I had High Sensitivity Flare-Ups.
While living in Germany leading a darn quiet, peaceful, stress-free life, I started having panic attacks for the first time in my life. I developed eczema, which quickly proved itself to be very psychosomatic.* I had psychosomatic back pain issues. Even more bizarrely and unexpected, I rarely wanted to ‘go out’ in any way (I’m an extrovert, remember!), was generally reclusive, and developed a particular aversion to traveling (something I love!), especially if it involved an overnight stay. Our time in Germany ended up looking very different from what we had planned.**
To be a Highly Sensitive Person means, literally, that you have a differently wired brain from 80-85% of the population. We have heightened senses, intuition and empathy at overdrive levels, and a lot of classic introvert characteristics (even when we’re technically extroverted, like I am).
It’s not some sort of medical or mental condition, but the ramifications in real life do make HSPs often feel less than ‘normal’ compared to the 80-58% majority of people.
High Sensitivity is somewhat unique to each HSP, though we share broad categories in common.
HSPs are prone to anxiety, OCD-like behaviors, allergies, digestion issues, skin problems, and more. We have lower tolerance thresholds in pretty much every way — I personally don’t think of this as ‘weakness’, but ‘delicacy.’
Some of my highly sensitive quirks are wearing sunglasses outdoors always, no matter the weather (cloudy days are actually the worst!); wearing earplugs in movie theaters (if I go at all …) and despising loud sounds in general (or anything that ticks or pulsates); hating flying; general claustrophobia; being extremely ticklish and also easily startled; not liking pudding-like or powdery textures; and having very specific ideas about what equates comfortable clothing (there are all sorts of fabrics I don’t wear). My definition of hell is being stuck in a mall or amusement park.
As you might imagine, on the positive flipside, HSPs are generally above-average intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, artistically, etc. There are benefits, and not just disadvantages, to being a highly perceptive, deep-feeling, intuitive sort of person.
If we don’t take proper care of our highly sensitive selves, though — if we push ourselves too hard and try to live like the majority of people who truly experience the world differently from us — our sensitivities ‘flair-up’ into hyperdrive and what was previously manageable starts to feel incredibly limiting and we ourselves often feel pretty ‘crazy.’
HSPs have brain-wiring that’s essentially already ‘dialed up’. This means, practically speaking, that we are more quickly and easily overstimulated and thus overwhelmed than our non-HSP counterparts.
If you’ve been repressing your HSP nature, ignoring your sensitivities (read: pretending to be perfectly comfortable with XYZ when, really, you’re not), then it will eventually bubble up to the top and completely take you under in a chaotic, over-compensatory wave of ultra-sensitivities much worse than if you’d just been honest with yourself about your sensations and feelings along the way.
Since being highly sensitive is still a pretty widely unknown or misunderstood disposition, chances are that you’ve already been repressing yourself — maybe for a while.
So, when it’s time to pay the piper, try out these suggestions (and then keep them going so he doesn’t come back):
- BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF — HSPs get nowhere fast by shaming themselves for being different, berating themselves for being ‘weak’ or ‘silly’ about whatever. Practice simply acknowledging and accepting whatever you’re physically or emotionally experiencing. Hold onto it loosely: don’t assume you’ll always feel this way and life as you know it is over. Don’t put yourself into a box. Let yourself be at whatever you’re at, and to be at a new or different place whenever that organically happens. Practice non-judgment toward yourself: unapologetically give yourself whatever you need in the moment to be OK, so long as you do neither yourself or any other any harm. Don’t label things as ‘crazy’ and invalidate yourself.
- CHALLENGE YOURSELF ONLY WHEN YOU’RE READY — You’ll only dig yourself in deeper if you try to force yourself out of whatever you’re experiencing before you’re ready. Don’t be a masochist. ‘This too shall pass’, but things need to run their course. Don’t over-analyze, don’t psych yourself out. When you’re ready to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you’ll do it without it costing you so heavily.*** Push too hard, too soon and you’ll likely just further entrench whatever undesired habit or fear.
- GAIN PERSPECTIVE — Remember that, no matter what, you may never be completely rid of whatever sensitivity you don’t particularly like. Being highly sensitive is a temperament thing and we can’t just completely re-wire ourselves. Don’t pursue the futile. Don’t exhaust yourself by trying desperately to be something other than yourself. Take the pathway of least resistance and learn how to peacefully live with your sensitivities by managing them more effectively. Be aware of your particular HSP-downsides, but don’t forget to highlight the definite pros of being highly sensitive.
- TAKE CARE OF YOUR PHYSICAL BODY — The right amount of sleep, exercise, physical touch, etc. is important for all people. Not abusing stimulants and being careful to eat well, again, a good plan for everybody. But remember that as a Highly Sensitive Person, your body is even more sensitive to all these variables! We have to be extra careful because the drawbacks are extra-bad when we’re not. If you still suffer from low energy even after regularly eating well and getting enough sleep (10PM-2AM are the most regenerative hours to sleep!), consider taking supplemental vitamin D and/or vitamin B-complex. Not to qualify as medical advice: I take 10,000IU Vitamin D every day during at least the fall and winter, plus B-complexes. Based on the research I’ve done and the input of health care professionals, I consider it difficult to overdose on these vitamins and the extent to which they’ve helped me regulate my energy (which has direct baring on our tolerance thresholds!) has been life-changing.
- DEVELOP A DE-STRESSING ROUTINE — You know the drill. Whether it’s dancing, yoga, acupuncture, massage, sports, hot baths, painting, concerts, knitting, fishing — whatever! — find the things that de-stress you and designate regular time in your life for them. If an HSP is stressed or anxious, our already low tolerances levels are that much lower, making simple everyday things sometimes unmanageable. Regulating your energy needs is crucial. Make sure you make yourself your #1 priority, or there won’t be anything there for anyone else either.
- MAINTAIN STRONG BOUNDARIES — When life overstimulates and overwhelms, we need to be our own best friend. Most people mean well, but no one can read our minds and no one can make better decisions for us than we can make for ourselves. Know what activities, places, and people cause you more stress than they’re worth and simply stay away! Being lovingly protective of yourself is not the same thing as being unhealthfully avoidant. Consider your choices carefully. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t allow others to bully you. Be secure in your own self and the boundaries that are important to you. Don’t share of yourself with unsafe people. Don’t invest more time and energy in anything than what you truly have to give. Don’t stay at that party for 4 hours to ‘be polite.’ Don’t offer excuses or apologies for your needs — offer explanations and educate (e.g. I often have to ask people to please lower their [presumably completely ‘normal’ volume] voices because I have very sensitive ears).
Being an HSP isn’t a curse, so don’t treat it as such. Having high sensitivity isn’t ‘abnormal’ — we’re simply in a minority group. You are not a victim, so don’t act like one!
There are trade-offs to everything under the sun and, personally, I’d take the struggles of being an HSP any day in order to still have the benefits.
How about you? What do you consider to be the advantages and disadvantages of your unique blend of high sensitivities? What additional management strategies have you found useful? Please share your tips with the rest of us!
*Quick definition: ‘psychosomatic’ doesn’t mean ‘in your head’, as in ‘you’re just making this up’; but rather that the physical condition you’re experiencing, rather than rooted in the physical (you made a bad movement and thus wrenched your back, thus the back pain) is grounded in some emotional stress. For example, as my work situation in Germany eventually deteriorated, my eczema would essentially disappear every weekend, but would be back full-force Monday morning.
**For the record, I don’t believe any of my sensitivity flair-ups was related to being in a foreign country surrounded by the stresses of the new and unfamiliar — I’m fluent in German, had previously visited/lived in Germany extensively, and feel quite comfortable there.
***In my early 20s, I had the obsessive habit of brushing my teeth 7-8 times a day. Realizing that my need was simply for my teeth to feel clean (not necessarily be as clean as possible), I tried out chewing a lot of gum and using mouthwash in order to halt the incipient receding of my gums. Today I brush my teeth 1-3x / day and rarely chew gum or use mouthwash; I’d slowly and organically built up a higher tolerance to ‘dirty’ teeth.
During the same period of my life, I started to notice that I was getting more and more obsessive about washing my hands. I don’t have a count on it, but it was a lot. Furthermore, though, again, the mental record-keeping wasn’t precise, I was keeping loose track of the doorknobs I’d touched, hands I’d shaken, pens I’d used, etc. For a solid week I challenged myself to eat finger food at every opportunity … without first washing my hands. I still have a strong preference for clean hands, but I don’t feel as if it stops me from enjoying life (e.g. who wants to not eat while on a picnic because you just pet your dog and can’t now clean your hands? Not me!)
A little bit later in my 20s, I recognized my dis-ease with doors or drawers of any kind being left open. I used to follow a particular roommate around every time she went into the kitchen, just so I could shut all the cupboards after her. Later on, when I was living by myself for a time, I decided to break myself of my obsession with things being properly closed. Right before bed, I’d open up my closet doors and dresser drawers, plus leave my bedroom door open with a view of the kitchen (everyone purposefully gaping open) and then tell myself “now, sleep in peace!” And, you know what, I did. 🙂