Touched a nerve, have we? You’re so sensitive! Wait – you’re leaving so soon? If these are phrases you’re all too familiar with – and by this I mean phrases usually directed at you – then your feelings and actions could be more justified than you think. You could be a Highly Sensitive Person.
You may have already heard of this term, or it could be completely new to you, but as one of the 15-20% of Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) around the world, I’m living proof that we exist and there are a number of ways that we can effectively manage our traits.
But first, let’s explore what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and how this population sub-group even became recognised. Coined by psychologist Elaine Aron, the term Highly Sensitive Person is used to describe those who possess a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS. These individuals typically display high levels of emotional sensitivity, are prone to mental and physical overstimulation from things such as noise, light, smell and pain, and are often highly empathetic towards others. For example, an HSP may pick up on an individual’s mood or feel affected by a situation for several days rather than perhaps a few minutes or hours. For some of you reading this, much of this may already sound very familiar.
It took me many years to understand how I was feeling and even realise that I was a Highly Sensitive Person. In fact, for years I thought I was an empath! That’s why I love being able to share what I’ve learnt as it took me a long time to understand everything myself.
I wasn’t really aware of the term Highly Sensitive Person and that it was a personality trait until about a year ago. I definitely knew I was an empath and I put everything I’d been feeling down to being an empath, so it was always important to me to schedule in plenty of self-care such as getting ample sleep. Sleep is crucial for HSPs and regular, scheduled naps will ensure you get enough rest between work and play. I’ve innately known that I need my eight hours’ sleep every night and this was especially true when I was studying and dancing – I had to have my power naps otherwise I literally couldn’t get through the day. But it was a relief to learn that there was such a thing as being a Highly Sensitive Person and there wasn’t something wrong with me, or that I just didn’t fit in!
Triggers for an HSP are far-reaching and can range from a television being on constantly to a noisy restaurant to a heart-thumping concert or nightclub. For me, triggers can be environments that are highly stimulating for the nervous system, and that can be as simple as a gathering with lots of people. They can be really overwhelming for me as can sports events and loud music. I can totally do it, but it just means that afterwards, I’ll need a lot of rest. I prefer to hang out with friends, one to one, and I’ve always been like that – I just didn’t realise that was part of being an HSP. I’m really highly sensitive to smells as well – if people wear strong perfume, I can be sensitive to that too.
If you’ve always considered yourself an empath but are starting to wonder if you’re actually a Highly Sensitive Person, with a little experimentation, you can begin to distinguish your reactions and feelings. For example, I feel physical discomfort when my nervous system is highly stimulated, so these days I just won’t put myself in those situations anymore, because I know how affected I am by them. Another indicator is feeling things very deeply. Do you think about situations or things that have happened for days on end, which others might have got over in minutes? This is definitely something I experience time and time again. I can often feel if there is something wrong even when someone tells me that they’re fine. Sound familiar?
So, how does an HSP manage their traits once they’ve learnt what their indicators and triggers are? A lot of course comes down to personal preference and your own unique situation, but HSPs typically lead balanced social and personal lives often with a spiritual attachment. It could mean negotiating social diaries with your partner or scheduling in plenty of rest time. I’ve had to negotiate with my husband Kevin about not having music or the tv on all the time, for example, so when he’s doing that I might take myself away to meditate. Meditation has actually been great for managing my HSP traits, as well as going on walks and hikes, and just having plenty of quiet time. Sometimes, I’ll take some time out to read a book or have a hot bath. I’m very good at managing my downtime and luckily I have an understanding husband who also appreciates spending time alone!
Many HSPs harness their traits very positively and possess strong intuition or feel more spiritually connected, so this may be something that you might be feeling, too. I have very strong intuition and it has always guided me through life – and more and more so. It’s a wonderful skill that enables me to really tune in with my clients and understand them in a really empathetic way. I work with a lot of HSP clients so I can teach them how to navigate highly stimulating situations, for example, at work. As a competitive dancer, I loved what I did but I was in environments that were often uncomfortable, so after competitions I would need a lot of rest. When I suffered a burnout, I learnt the hard way and realised that self care had to become a part of my life. It wasn’t really a choice.
That falls into the negative side of being an HSP – sometimes you just don’t want to feel this way and feel everything so deeply. For example, you may simply want to hang out with a group of friends and wake up the next day with boundless energy rather than needing to take an entire day off to recover. I know that feeling well! As an HSP I often want to feel like I fit in and do what other people can do. If you’re a fellow HSP reading this, you might be nodding in agreement! I’d love to be able to travel with other people in the same car and not feel overwhelmed by the time we’ve reached our destination. I’d like to feel able to rent a house abroad with friends for a holiday and be ok with that, but I’d always be worried that I wouldn’t get enough self-care time. If there was constant noise or I couldn’t get enough sleep, I’d feel terribly uncomfortable in myself and drained and exhausted from it.
If you think you might be a Highly Sensitive Person but don’t know how to manage your ‘symptoms’, start with noticing how you feel after doing certain things, such as attending a big event or gathering. Keep a note of how much recovery time you need afterwards – if you need a day off after hanging out with friends and family for the day (I’m not talking about drinking alcohol!) then I think that’s a big giveaway. Most people would be able to go to work and do a string of things but I wouldn’t be able to do that. I have to prepare for it to be either a work day or a social day – I can’t do both. Scheduling in self care is important too. My tips for managing your HSP traits can help you get on the right track:
Go to bed!
HSPs really need their sleep and it’s very difficult to start your day with the best intentions when you’re feeling groggy. So, rather than binge-watching Netflix at 10pm, instead switch off your phone or tablet and start winding down. That’s a ritual in itself that will overflow into how you sleep and how you wake up. Ask yourself ‘How do I want to feel in the morning?’ If you want to feel rested and positive, try easing yourself into bedtime every evening. Meditate and imagine a bright light running through your body washing the day’s events and thoughts away. Then in the morning, ask yourself how you are and what you’re grateful for, and repeat some affirmations through meditation about how you want to feel and what you want to achieve that day. For example, I am confident, I am happy, I choose what I focus on etc. As an HSP, if I don’t do that, I actually feel anxious. If I abandon myself and my needs, and not practise this kind of self-care even for a couple of days, then I feel incredible discomfort and it can take me a whole day to recover.
Tune into Mother Nature
I often pick nature settings for hanging out with friends. Instead of going to a noisy restaurant where I know, as an HSP, that’s not very comfortable, a walk or a hike, or having a picnic somewhere, or taking the dogs to the park is a gentle alternative. Anything with a more earthy, grounding setting, which supports the nervous system, is ideal. That way you can feel grounded and safe in that environment.
Communicate what you need
When it comes to parties and social events, personally, I warn people before I go and this let’s me off the hook straight away! When people start drinking and things become loud, if you begin to feel uncomfortable, let your friends know that. Maybe you have an early start the next morning – it’s ok to say you’re leaving early so you can get your sleep! It’s easier for people to understand when you communicate what you need and what you’re doing.
Learn to compromise
The feeling of not fitting in is something that most HSPs deal with every day. You find yourself wanting so much to join in the fun and not have to feel like you have to get home. For me, I’ve talked to my husband Kevin about it and how I feel and I know we are very different! Sometimes, however, I purposely choose to do something he really enjoys, like go to a big sports game with him, even though I know it’ll make me feel uncomfortable. Then we might go away for a weekend or on holiday somewhere and immerse ourselves in nature, which I obviously love but we both very much enjoy together. So we’ve found a way where there is a little bit of both in our lives – we compromise!
Want to learn more about Highly Sensitive People? Listen to my podcast episode, ‘What Does It Mean to be a Highly Sensitive Person?’ with Mel Collins, author of The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People today!