Survival Skills for Highly Sensitive People
Are you among the 20 percent of Americans who are highly sensitive? Here are some self-care strategies for you.
Traits of a Highly Sensitive Person: All highly sensitive people (HSPs) are unique individuals, but they have certain traits in common. Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a researcher who specializes in the topic, has developed an acronym that summarizes them: DOES.
D: Depth of processing “HSPs simply process everything more, relating and comparing what they notice to their past experiences,” Aron explains. “When we decide without knowing how we came to that decision, we call this intuition, and HSPs have a good — but not infallible! — intuition.”
O: Overstimulation “What’s overstimulating to each person is different,” says Bevin Niemann, who coaches HSPs and self-identifies as highly sensitive. “It could be noise, bright lights, crowds, emotional situations — the scratchy tags in the back of a shirt might be intolerable.”
E: Emotional reactivity and empathy “We connect deeply with art, music, theater, nature, animals, stories, and books,” Niemann says. Studies have found HSPs to be especially empathetic to others, sometimes to the point of being overgiving.
S: Sensing the subtle Highly sensitive people are attuned to signals that others might miss, Aron, asserts. “Our awareness of subtleties is useful in a number of ways, from simple pleasure in life to strategizing our responses based on others’ nonverbal cues.”
By all appearances, Lynelle Trigalet was thriving. In her early 40s, she managed the hectic costume shop for a theater company, where she led teams of up to 30 employees. As soon as she left the shop in the evenings, however, things changed: She had little energy for the rest of her life. She’d make dinner and then almost immediately fall asleep in front of the television. Her husband half-joked that she had an on/off switch.
Trigalet wondered why she didn’t seem to have as much energy as other people. Assuming the problem was her long work hours, she quit her job to become a wellness coach. But something was still not right. Her life — including her marriage — was falling apart, and she felt like “a failure in every aspect.”
Planning to switch careers again, Trigalet enlisted the help of a professional mentor, who happened to ask her if she was a “highly sensitive person,” or HSP. She hadn’t heard the term before, so she took a self-test designed by sensitivity expert Elaine Aron, PhD, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
Trigalet scored high — “really high,” she says — and her initial reaction to the label was shame. Like many people, she associated the word “sensitive” with being weak or overly emotional.
But HSPs aren’t simply overwrought or neurotic. Highly sensitive people — a designation that includes about 20 percent of the population — have uniquely receptive nervous systems. The trait runs in families and even appears in animal behavior.
These types have a harder time filtering out potentially extraneous information, so their brains absorb everything. They may be hypersensitive to sounds, bright lights, tastes, and scents, which means they get overstimulated easily. But these people are also often highly creative, detail-oriented, and capable of synthesizing diverse information in novel ways.
Once Trigalet recognized that she was an HSP, events in her life that had been puzzling before — like the fact that she cried every day after school during junior high — made sense. She hadn’t been depressed; she was tired and overstimulated from interacting with people all day.
The reason for the exhaustion she felt after work became clear, too. Because the brains of HSPs absorb so much information, they require extra downtime to process it. When she was busy managing her teams, usually working straight through lunch, Trigalet had no downtime whatsoever.
Her entire life improved when she finally began to understand the trait she’d carried since birth. Her marriage stabilized as she and her spouse recognized the reasons behind her need for space and quiet. And instead of beating herself up for being “different” and struggling to fit into jobs that didn’t suit her, Trigalet used her perceptive and conscientious nature (another HSP trait) to become a transformational leadership coach who works primarily with HSPs.
Reframing past events and recognizing one’s strengths are among the key steps toward thriving as a sensitive person, says Aron. These strategies can help you support HSPs — whether it’s yourself or a loved one.
HSPs are often mistaken for introverts. There’s an overlap, but they’re not the same. Aron estimates that 70 percent of HSPs are introverts and 30 percent are extroverts. And, while it may seem more feminine in nature, the trait appears equally in women and men.
Similarly, many HSPs are labeled as shy or socially awkward as children, but they may not be at all. “Sensitive people just need a little bit more time to process,” says Bevin Niemann, a coach and mentor for HSPs. “We’re going through a database of experience. We address patterns, look at ideas, and then pull all that together.”
If a sensitive person grows up in a culture that judges reserve and sensitivity as weaknesses, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy. But reframing earlier experiences can help HSPs understand past awkwardness and move forward with confidence.
Trigalet reappraised her teenage tears and adult exhaustion, learning to view them as products of her sensitivity rather than as personality flaws; Aron suggests other newly realized HSPs might do the same — and feel a greater sense of self-acceptance.
If someone you care about is highly sensitive: Make room for a sensitive person’s need for downtime — it’s a wonderful way to show support. You might also try practicing patience while your friend or loved one takes a bit longer to process information.
Psychologist Michael Alcée, PhD, identifies as an HSP, and he finds the trait helpful for his practice. “It’s easy to intuitively pick up on different registers of feelings, almost like a good musician learns to track the complex interplay of dissonance and consonance within a song. You’re able to see finer gradations.”
To accommodate his sensitivity, Alcée has made adjustments to his physical environment — installing softer lighting in his office, for example. “I knew those fluorescent lights would be blaring in my face the whole day,” he says. “By changing them, I could be more present and therefore more helpful.”
Highly sensitive people often benefit from making similar small alterations to their workplaces and schedules, such as politely requesting that a colleague wear less perfume or seeking permission to take a quick nap after lunch, something one of Trigalet’s employees did years ago.
“I didn’t really think anything of it at the time,” Trigalet recalls. But if she’d known then what she knows now, Trigalet would have done the same thing herself. Taking time for naps and maintaining good sleep habits (regular bedtimes, a minimum of eight hours’ rest) is vital to helping HSPs stay grounded.
Regular meals are also important, says psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide. Because low blood-sugar levels can spark sensory overload, it’s helpful for these types to avoid getting too hungry.
Finally, any type of gentle movement — yoga, long walks in nature, bike rides — can provide HSPs a chance to physically dispel anxious energy without causing overstimulation.
If someone you care about is highly sensitive: Managers, parents, and others in supervisory positions can benefit from knowing that sensitive types function best when offered some quiet downtime. Sleep is crucial for HSPs — it allows them to recover from all that stimulation — and because many are prone to insomnia or interrupted sleep, naps are especially beneficial.
HSPs have intense feelings — a lot of them.
They exhibit intense empathy, often sensing the emotions and needs of those around them (which can cause them to slip into an off-putting “fix it” mode). Their sometimes-porous personal boundaries can present a real challenge to loved ones, who may feel disrespected or may unconsciously exploit those caretaking tendencies.
This means that developing strong boundaries is especially key to their emotional health.
“HSPs can pick up on things that are going on with other people,” Alcée says. “And it’s an important part to be able to say, ‘This is theirs; this is mine.’ Just because you can be receptive doesn’t mean that you have to be.”
Good boundaries are like a good jazz composition, he says. “I need to come back to my own instrument and make sure that I am in tune and know how to ‘read the changes’ before I try to make music with others.”
Practice setting boundaries by saying no, Orloff suggests — starting with easy interactions. “Say the telemarketer calls,” she explains. “You can practice by saying, ‘Please don’t call me again’ and then hanging up.
“You don’t have to make it into a big, long explanation when you set a boundary,” she adds. “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
For HSPs who tend to feel the emotions of others, Orloff recommends repeating a mantra, such as “Return to the sender.” Differentiating between one’s own emotions and those of another is a valuable skill that gets easier over time, but just having enough awareness to repeat a mantra is an indispensable first step.
If someone you care about is highly sensitive: When you interact with sensitive people, try not to take it personally when they say no or set boundaries in other ways. Remember that it’s difficult for them to set limits, so rather than being disappointed or annoyed by their awkwardness, you might consider celebrating their courage instead.
Social events (especially parties) can be a challenge for highly sensitive types. The stimulation of a loud, crowded place is unlikely to bring out their best, and because they tend toward deep thinking, small talk can be draining. Ideally, HSPs will plan plenty of downtimes, both before and after group experiences.
There are other steps they can take to make these gatherings more enjoyable. “Prepare in advance,” suggests Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC, who counsels HSPs. “Get adequate sleep. Wear comfortable clothes. Eat a small protein meal before you go.”
Periodically stepping outside or retreating to the bathroom can help reduce sensory overload, and breathing exercises will amplify a break’s calming effect. Strickland recommends inhaling for a count of eight, holding it for a count of four, and then exhaling for a count of eight. Or just close your eyes, breathe deeply, and tune out additional stimuli.
If someone you care about is highly sensitive: When attending a party with a highly sensitive friend, be prepared to leave a little earlier than you may prefer; HSPs will reach their saturation point sooner than most. If you know you’d like to stay late at a gathering, consider planning for separate transportation.
These suggestions are all provisional, of course. “The No. 1 thing for highly sensitive people is to have a self-care plan that’s based on who they are,” Strickland notes. HSPs may have many similar traits, but each one has unique needs. With some acceptance and forethought, those needs don’t have to be a burden. Proper self-care can transform that sensitivity into a blessing.
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