“Highly Sensitive Person”
These three words immediately triggered frustration while sitting in an assessment. Why? Well, my teenage and adult years were spent in intense skepticism; particularly during my undergraduate years studying experimental psychology. Upon hearing those three words, I wanted to roll my eyes, deny, provide anecdotes such as “I don’t cry easily!”, and I wanted to argue that it had no basis in scientific reality.
Yet, in spite of my rational protests, it felt true. My thoughts tried to muster another defense. “It’s just a feeling! Feelings are not reliable!” This concept of highly sensitive people went running through my mind for a while. Eventually, I came to realize the following:
Rationality is not the absence or disregard of feelings, but the healthy integration of them with your thoughts.
Highly Sensitive Persons or HSPs are said to have increased sensitivity to various types of stimuli. Most people likely imagine someone who cries easily or is easy to offend. It is totally understandable that anyone would come to that conclusion first, but that just is not the case for all of us! An HSP can actually come off as harsh, insensitive, tough, etc. It all depends on how you learned to cope with high sensitivity. The coping mechanisms I developed were inward and I often projected the opposite of a highly sensitive person. Instead of embracing my sensitivity, I had learned to push everything down, internalize it, deny it, and without realizing what was happening… I was living a bit of a lie!
The Body Vs. The Mind
Thoughts and feelings can be in conflict to an intense degree if you are highly sensitive! Here’s a personal example:
I walk into a room full of academics. There are high expectations from this group. I feel excited but nervous. My body is buzzing, my eyes feel uncomfortably tight for some reason, the lights are too bright? Something smells strange, people are talking passionately about a subject. My hands are extremely cold, the pattern on the floor is distracting. I feel myself becoming hyper-vigilant (e.g., Did I remember to put on deodorant today?) The sensory information is already overloading my body and my thoughts follow suit. My thoughts orient towards the goal: “Focus! Do your best. You have no reason to feel so anxious!” The mind means well, but those thoughts do not reduce the feelings in my body. The brain continues providing rationale and instruction for the situation at hand. The body continues reacting to the stimuli. Everything goes okay, and I leave.
I feel the anxiety lift and my excitement to go home is intense. The bus is quiet and I thoroughly enjoy the feeling of travelling, even if it is just a 30 minute ride home. The sun is setting gently, and the vibrations coming from the bus window are oddly soothing. I like the feeling of my bag on my lap.
One of the biggest problems is that the brain and the body can both be correct, even if you cannot resolve tension between them. The resulting anxiety drives you to create a thought-based meta-narrative in the hopes you can manage both at once, instead of being able to continue in the present moment. Luckily, we have plenty of opportunities for that tension to release and to enjoy the little things in life.
Is It Different from Anxiety?
HSPs can feel unease in rooms that are messy, become queasy watching violent movies, or have trouble focusing in crowded areas because of the intense sensory experiences. Even in a calm grocery store, fluorescent lights make my vision blur and I almost have to squint indoors! As a child, I often chewed on a certain sweater because I felt so comforted by the texture. My teachers were unhappy with this behaviour but I found other ways to enjoy the myriad sensory experiences I was having. Sensitivity occurs in all situations. It can be mediated by things like dissociation or avoidance but it is difficult to cope with life if you lean too heavily on escapism.
The best way I can describe the difference is this: It is easier to evoke a sensory experience with stimuli if you are an HSP! You can feel the good moments with greater intensity, even if those moments are just every day, normal things like bus rides. The desire to write may strike like lightning, you could enjoy an activity for much longer than others on average, words may feel a bit like candy with certain words creating certain responses, numbers may conjure a mental image of a specific color, new places feel like a fantasy world, and when other people describe experiences you can imagine the same feelings they had as though they were your own. All of this leads to my next point: boundaries are extremely important if you want to cope in a healthy way!
Coping with Heightened Sensitivity
As an HSP, you must set appropriate boundaries to protect yourself. For example, do not watch movies that make you ill, keep rooms tidy if messes make you feel tired, avoid foods that irritate your body, adjust lighting, shop at less busy times, etc. HSPs have to avoid oversharing about themselves and simultaneously avoid others who overshare. For example, let us say someone tells me a disturbing story about their life. I want to help them. I feel compelled to step into their shoes and feel what they feel so they are not alone. While there is nothing wrong with holding space for others who need us, we have to admit to ourselves that it can become overwhelming. Make space when necessary and try to avoid “becoming” the other person.
Another important point is to keep in mind what is socially acceptable; figure out with whom it is safe to share your intense experiences! As a child, I learned the hard way that some experiences were not typical. As an adult, there are different struggles but they have the same root. While I may feel the desire to describe my intense latte experience, it is often the case the people around me have no such interest. They like their lattes, but they are not “feeling” them. You can find yourself drained and upset if you share your inner world with people who reject you or your perceptions so it is good to be aware of who is safe to let in!
Overall, high sensitivity is a blessing and a curse. What are your feelings or thoughts about it? Are you highly sensitive? What would you say is the best advice you could give highly sensitive people (if you are not one)?
*Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional nor affiliated with any mental health resources. This article is based on my personal experiences. If you are struggling with any issue, please seek out your local mental health resources for more information.