It’s estimated that around 20% of us are considered a highly sensitive person (HSP) – someone who, due to an innate trait, experiences more intense emotional, mental, and physical reactions to stimuli. However, there is still little understanding around what it means to be highly sensitive.
If you are an HSP, you have probably been told by others that you’re too sensitive, too emotional, or that you overthink things. People may also say that you’re creative, conscientious, and a good listener. Like most personality traits, being highly sensitive is a gift, but can also come with challenges. Due to the lack of understanding around being highly sensitive, many HSPs can feel that there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do. However, there are also many HSPs who thrive in the bustling world that we live in today, and there are ways that you, too, can learn to manage stress, and navigate a happy, healthy life as an HSP. Here are five tips to get you started.
It is important that, as an HSP, you understand what being highly sensitive means – and even more importantly, what it means to you. Research psychologist, Dr Elaine N Aron, who coined the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ in her 1996 book title, says that many HSPs are mislabelled as shy, or introverts. Despite this, 30% of HSPs are actually extroverts, and feel at their most relaxed when surrounded by other people. Although introverts and HSPs both experience a rich inner life with their thoughts and feelings, it is important to recognise that they are separate traits.
Many HSPs are also told that they are thin-skinned and need to ‘toughen up’, which is why many of us are led to believe that our sensitivity makes us weak. Although what you read about HSPs may not fully align with your experience, getting rid of these preconceptions and learning more, can bring you closer to feeling empowered.
In scientific terms, being highly sensitive is known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). This should not be confused with the neurological condition sensory processing disorder (SPD), where the brain has difficulty receiving messages from the senses.
SPS, according to researcher Bianca Acevedo, is “a biologically-based trait characterised by increased awareness and sensitivity to the environment”. With increasing awareness of SPS, it is becoming an area of scientific, as well as societal, interest. A 2014 functional MRI (fMRI) study published in the Brain and Behaviour Journal found that HSPs have stronger activation in the regions of the brain involved in awareness, empathy, and processing information.
Self-awareness is important in many aspects of life, from our careers to our relationships, but being self-aware is even more important if you’re highly sensitive. Understanding your emotions, strengths, and challenges can also help you to identify your triggers as an HSP. Loud noises, busy crowds, bright lights, strong smells, and long to-do lists can all lead to overstimulation in HSPs.
Getting to know your triggers can help you to find a comfortable balance between boredom and overstimulation. It can also help you to find strategies to manage stress and overwhelm. These could be listening to soft music to block out external sounds, avoiding shops at busy times, or single-tasking at work. Becoming self-aware can help you to understand what is best for you, as opposed to tending to the needs of others, and feeling pressured to ‘keep up’ with non-HSPs.
Setting boundaries, and learning to say no can be particularly difficult if you’re highly sensitive. This is because of the fact that not only are you hyper-aware of changes to other people’s emotions and body language, but you may also feel their emotions on a deeper level. Remember that you can be polite, kind, and caring, and still say no. Try to take note of places or people that deplete your energy, or leave you feeling overstimulated. If there are particular situations that you cannot avoid, you may find it helpful to visualise physical boundaries around yourself to protect your energy. A great benefit of setting boundaries is that when you have more energy, you can really use your sensitivity as the strength that it can be.
“A great benefit of setting boundaries is that when you have more energy, you can really use your sensitivity as the strength that it can be”
Burnout is a common challenge that HSPs face as a result of the stimuli in their work environment. As an HSP, you may be drawn to more emotionally demanding careers, such as teaching, social work, or nursing, due to your compassionate nature. Research has also shown that HSPs are often relied upon in the workplace for their conscientiousness, and attention to detail. Working from home, a new concept for many of us this year, is one measure that can help to manage work-related overstimulation. Least surprising for HSPs, a study from TalkTalk found that more than half of UK workers were more productive when working from home. But whether you work in a bustling environment, or a quiet home office, ensuring that you set boundaries and listen to your body can help contribute to a healthy work-life balance.
Because of the heightened central nervous system in HSPs, self-care is arguably the most essential way to look after your wellbeing. Self-care can take many different forms, but practising restorative yoga can be an extremely beneficial form of self-care for HSPs. Restorative yoga is the practice of deliberate stillness, and it uses a series of floor-based yoga poses and props to allow the body to feel safe and supported.
“As sensitive beings, we have intrinsic mental and emotional programming intimately tied up with our survival. In the restorative class, the outer stillness reflects inner stillness, and we tap-in to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our rest, restore, and recuperation response,” says Jodie Jeacock, yoga teacher and founder of Ashtanga Yoga Chesterfield. “For a world that asks us to be busy and keep ‘doing’, restorative yoga has the antidote to create stillness.”
But if yoga isn’t for you, spending time alone, in nature or with animals, walking, painting, and mindfulness, are all forms of self-care that can help to manage stress, and enable you to live your best life as an HSP.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss ways to navigate life as a HSP, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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