Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

Let me start in the middle. Discovering that I’m an HSP has been changing the way I live this year, for the better. It has explained so much of what I struggle with and given me strategies for coping and staying sane. I’m a little bit in love with the whole concept right now. I’m also a little bit overwhelmed by it all, but as you read on, you’ll see why.

First, what the heck is a Highly Sensitive Person? Let’s start with what it isn’t: someone who’s easily offended and cries all the time and takes everything personally. Now that we’ve got the negative stereotypes out of the way (wasn’t that quick), I’ll carry on.

Dr. Elaine Aron, who is the discoverer and one of the main researchers about this genetic trait, has written a couple books about it, and the one I’ve read it called simply The Highly Sensitive Person. According to her research, this inherited trait is found in about 15-20% of the population in at least 100 animal species as well as us humans.  It has distinct qualities inherent to the trait, and I love her description of it as sensory processing sensitivity.

There are four main components, and she gives a handy acronym for remembering them: DOES.

  1. Depth of processing
  2. Overwhelm
  3. Emotions heightened
  4. Stimulation

HSP’s have been shown to process stimuli more deeply and thoroughly. They make many connections, notice subtleties, and think very deeply about things. Sounds like a valuable trait, right?

Well, it goes hand in hand with a couple things that make life a little more difficult. Because of the intense noticing going on, the extra level of sensitivity to the things processed by the senses, HSPs are easily overwhelmed. In plain terms, we just don’t block things out very well. The little things in the background, even if we’re not consciously taking them in, get noticed and processed by our brains anyway, and we seem to have a lower threshold for filtering them out. So our senses get easily overwhelmed, which can lead to us feeling overwhelmed for no apparent reason. Our tolerance for stress is lower.

And those emotions? They’re just a little… more. The emotional reactions are bigger, magnified, if you will. Have you ever been so moved by the beauty of dust swirling, aglow, in a sunbeam that you thought your heart might burst? Then you might be an HSP. (Remember, we notice subtleties…)

And then there’s the stimulation. Our bodies have systems in place to manage our “arousal,” and no, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about the fight-or-flight systems. The surges of adrenaline when we get startled, and the calm-down system that kicks in when all is well. If you’ve ever read The Introvert Advantage, you’ll recognize these throttle-down and throttle-up systems. (Extroverts feel better when their throttle-up systems are engaged, and therefore seek more stimulation. Introverts feel more comfortable in throttle-down mode, and therefore seek out quiet situations and avoid too much excitement.) Everyone, no matter who they are, is always striving to stay within their unique zone where they feel just right — not too drained and not too agitated. HSPs reach the threshold of Too Much more quickly. It seems we  have a narrower range of just enough.

And, of course, when we get overstimulated, we get overwhelmed. And when we’re in a state of overwhelm, all our handy and amazing depth of processing abilities go out the window until we’ve been able to recharge. I think of it as needing to hit my reset button.

I’ve found a couple things that work for me to keep my stimulation levels at optimum ranges. (I hate feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. I’ve spent my whole life trying to fix it but am only just now finding ways to stay level.)

Earplugs are my friends. I’ve found that if I wear them in situations that normally exhaust me and make me cranky, I can maintain a nice, calm feeling for much longer. It’s been amazing, really. I bought some special ones meant for wearing to concerts that don’t muffle sounds but merely turn down the volume. I can still understand voices clearly (which comes in handy at the grocery store!), but I feel much calmer. It’s amazing. I wear them when I’m shopping — I find stores, especially certain ones like Walmart and the grocery store, very overstimulating and uncomfortable — when I’m tidying up with the kids, and when I’m in a large group of people surrounded by that buzzing talking noise. The difference they’ve made has been like night and day. And I work from home, so I pop them in when I need to focus, if I’m not wearing my earbuds and listening to Spotify. (Sometimes, even my favourite music is too much for me.)

I need quiet. I feel just as recharged after lying down in my quiet bedroom with my eyes closed for 30 minutes, whether I’m asleep or not, as I do after eating a good meal. I mean, I find quiet as essential as eating. In our family of seven, I have to seek it out intentionally. It makes me a nicer person.

I need to eat regularly because just the feeling of hunger is overstimulating. When I’m hungry, I can’t really think of anything else, even if I don’t realize I’m hungry. I can’t concentrate, I get snippy with people, and definitely don’t ask me questions because I won’t even know where to start to find an answer. Now that I know this, I’ve learned to answer any question with, “Let me eat first and then we’ll talk.”

I have limits. Some days, this makes me furious, but other days, they make me feel safe and protected inside them. I’ve learned that I can handle about two excursions a week on average. I can handle an occasional week that’s busier with an errand or two, but if I’m out of the house for 3 days in a row, I start to shut down. (This is normal. Home is familiar and low on the stimulation scale; being out is full of new stimuli and highly stimulating.) But as a creative (which I think is probably highly linked to the HSP trait), I’ve learned to value the down time and quiet. My best ideas and connections come during the “wasted” time — lying on the couch letting my mind wander, colouring with pretty markers, doodling, knitting. In other words, resting, doing the things that relax me. Achieving that state of Just Right. (I think, perhaps, that learning I can make a living doing these things has helped me to accept them as unwasted time. Weird, though, that I still feel like I’m cheating when I’m doing them.)

And now, I’m hungry and finding it hard to remember where I wanted to go with this little bit of writing, so I’ll stop for today. 🙂



One Response to “Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?”

  1. Anastacia Maness October 18, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    I can relate in many ways. I haven’t tried ear plugs yet. I need to look into those. I tend to just “zone out” when I get overwhelmed.