What it means to be a highly sensitive person (HSP)

I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). I don’t do well in chaotic or stressful situations. I get overwhelmed quickly. I can’t stand violent scenes in movies. I’m deeply moved by the arts and nature. And I am extremely sensitive to the needs of others.

(‘Don’t take things too close to heart’ is probably the most common advice I have been getting from my mom since childhood. 😃)

On the physical level, such things as loud sounds, strong smells, too much caffeine or sugar, hunger, sleep deprivation or light physical pain get a much bigger effect on me than it would have on a normal person. Low tolerance for external stimuli can often make me look bizarre or anti-social (and this is the reason of why I run away from the parties 😅, try to avoid the crowds and public transport).

In college I learnt that these reactions are typical for HSP’s and are caused by a different chemistry in the brains areas that process emotion, awareness, and empathy. Research shows that HSPs have a high measure of sensory processing sensitivity, which is described as hypersensitivity to external stimuli, high emotional reactivity, and greater depth of cognitive processing.

With age, I’ve learned more about what it really means to be a highly sensitive person. It is much more than just getting into tears easily 😅. I’ve learnt to accept my reactions and not feel guilty about my sometimes odd or anti-social behavior (as it may seem to others). Sensitive people have to live differently in order to be comfortable.

But what is still very hard is learning how to deal with difficult emotions.

A HSP’s brain is wired differently and their nervous system is highly sensitive which contributes to increased emotional reactivity. HSP is also at a higher risk of depression, burnout and mental illnesses, because they get overwhelmed easily.

At times of intense stress, conflicts, breakups, I get overwhelmed and caught up in difficult emotions — fear, loneliness, sadness, anxiety or anger — which are extremely hard to cope with.

The best way would be to recognize an emotion and express it on a piece of paper and calm down that way, right? This is nearly impossible for HSPs 😕 since their emotional experiences are processed at such a high intensity. A study found that regular emotional regulation strategies (such as emotional awareness) are not effective for HSPs since we simply are more aware of negative feelings. So typical strategies do not work for us.

This brings a strong feeling of guilt for overreacting, for crying too much, for not being able to cope with emotions. Good news though, emotional regulation can be learned. .

As I mentioned above, sensitive people have to live a slightly different life in order to be comfortable. The most important thing is to understand that hypersensitivity is not a mental illness but a special way of reacting to the world. To live a happy and fulfilling life, it is crucial to be aware of your needs and differences, understand yourself and the best strategies to cope with various situations, listen to your body and take care of yourself.

What I find helpful to feel better as a highly sensitive person

Some things that I’ve learnt are very helpful for me personally, but many are also universal for many HSPs.

1. Recognize that I’m someone who experiences more intense feelings compared to an average person — the good, the bad, the beautiful — and accept that that is OK.

2. Do not apologize for being emotional. Comments like “You’re overthinking things. You’re too sensitive” I take with a smile 😀 (it took me many years though).

3. Don’t try to ‘fix’ yourself. Emotionally sensitive people often feel shame for being this way. When in fact, I’m not wrong, I’m just different.

4. Cherish the positive sides of being a sensitive person — and turns out there are A LOT of them. This is super important to know and value your advantages.

5. What you focus on, you get more of. Thoughts are stimuli for the nervous system. I try to immerse myself more in positive thoughts and situations that make me feel good, or at least give a relief from negative. I dream a lot! I practice loving-kindness meditation, recently started a gratitude journal.

6. Surround myself with people who care for me and support me. The more negative the environment is, the more I suffer. But the opposite is also true — the more positive and supportive people surround me, the more I thrive. People who love and care for me literally give me the wings to fly. Nurturing those relationships is my #1 priority.

7. Being in nature is healing. The beauty of nature is healing and calming for HSPs. Oceans, rivers, forests give me a sense of comfort, that is why every weekend I go hiking or at least spend a few hours in the park.

8. Art is the best therapy. HSPs are known to be highly creative and have a deep appreciation of art and music. Art heals and calms us, it soothes and energizes us. I regularly go to art museums, galleries, exhibitions, classical music concerts, I paint, I try different crafts.

9. Avoid burnouts by consciously limiting workload and working hours. Yes I need to work less than 8 hours a day to have time to recharge and be actually productive.

10. Be honest about being an HSP with close friends and in close relationships. Honesty helps people better understand me and my reactions. And it is essentially important that I try to highlight the positive aspects too, like being very empathetic, caring, devoted, etc.

11. I do not compromise environments that would have a negative effect on me. Since emotional and physical environments tend to affect me deeply, I act accordingly and make life choices that are better for my health and emotional wellbeing. I would skip a loud party or concert, say no to well-paid but stressful job, avoid high intensity interval training, etc.

“Slowly, a gentle, quiet, personal victory of the spirit grows out of her fear and doubt.”― Elaine N. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person

Most of the problems and challenges are very similar for many HSPs. There are no universal remedies or advice, but some simple steps to better understanding the differences, both advantages and disadvantages of being highly sensitive can help to dramatically improve our lives.

I hope my story and experience can help someone better understand an HSP they might have in their lives (a friend, or a colleague or a loved one).

If you want learn more about the topic I highly recommend reading “The Highly Sensitive Person” (Amazon).

Posted for a #MentalHealthAwerenessMonth.

We are the stories we tell to ourselves.