Back in the early 1990s, psychologist Elaine Aron began her research on Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, informally known as high sensitivity. Her work has tremendously influenced contemporary psychology, helping define a new area of research dealing with a distinct personality trait: the Highly Sensitive Person.
Dr. Aron describes the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as someone who “has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.”
Whether you’re entirely new to this concept or you’ve heard of it before, whether you think you might fall within this category or know someone who does, Regardless, you’re probably reading this because you know a thing or two about emotional overload – and how sensitivity can make coping all the more difficult.
Read on to find out more about the HSP, why it’s not a bad trait at all, and what Highly Sensitive people need to do to live in harmony with their innate nature.
What are the most common characteristics of HSP?
Most commonly, Highly Sensitive people more easily experience overwhelm and stress by things such as:
- sensory information (loud sounds, lights, strong smells, busy environments, etc.)
- situations when you feel rushed
- violence in movies and TV shows
- the physical effects of sugar, caffeine, and hunger
In layman’s terms, you could say that Highly Sensitive People have a more intense relationship with the outside world, and they perceive their surroundings more intensely than the average person. That’s why an HSP will usually plan ahead to avoid an overwhelming situation; they pick up on other people’s emotions more easily and notice details in their environment that others might easily overlook.
As a consequence of this rich perception, things are a bit more exhausting for them. Their alone time is sacred, and they’ll be in dire need of it after a busy day or after being surrounded by people for a couple of hours.
You’ve probably anticipated the next part: these people will often be mislabelled as “overly sensitive” or simply shy by others who don’t understand their sensibilities.
If somebody falls within the category of Highly Sensitive People, but isn’t aware of it, and is told that they need to toughen up or that they’re just “too sensitive,” that’s a real problem.
They’ll be struggling throughout their life to change their wiring (which can’t, and shouldn’t, be changed) and completely overlook the things they need to do in order to achieve happiness and success.
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1. The first step: acknowledgment
Adding on to our previous point, the first step to navigating life successfully as an HSP is actually recognizing that you are. Leave out the guesswork – you can do Dr. Aron’s test here.
If the answer is positive, before we head on to the vital strategies you need to thrive as an HSP, there’s just one more thing you need to acknowledge: that being highly sensitive is not, by any means, a bad thing.
Sure, it can make things a bit more challenging. But when you accept yourself, strive to understand yourself better, and apply specific strategies, it will be a lot easier.
2. Recognize your strengths
It’s also crucial to embrace the good parts. Highly sensitive people often have a rich, deep inner world – complex imaginations and impressive creative potential.
Just as the outside world profoundly affects them, they have a tight connection with their inner lives. Their strong intuition and ability to empathize with others make them not only great thinkers but beacons of light to those who have them as friends.
There’s a bunch of other great things, too, that come with these colorful, all-in personalities. Their conscientiousness and attention to detail make them great scholars, employees, and leaders.
3. Take care of your body and mind
Because Highly Sensitive People have very intense reactions to the stimuli around them, both the body and mind need to recuperate daily.
You really need to take self-care and mindfulness seriously if you want to cope with the challenges. It all starts with proper nutrition, physical activity, and rest.
Aside from getting enough hours of sleep each night, structure your days so that you also allocate time for relaxation and just completely switching off. Make a ritual of taking a long bath or meditating before bedtime to calm your nerves and recharge your system.
4. Identify and track your triggers
Take a couple of days to really get to know yourself. Pinpoint the things that drive you to a state of irritation and stress. These will be some of the things that we’ve talked about near the beginning of this post.
Ground yourself in the moment and practice mindfulness so that you can catch your reactions as they’re sparked.
For example, if you arrive at a cluttered house and experience a feeling of unease, take note of that. Clutter and mess are likely to be one of your triggers.
Take note of the things that make you mildly uncomfortable as well as the ones that trigger more intense feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm.
If need be, keep a log or diary for a couple of days to help you keep track and get to know your triggers better. Once you know them, you’ll be able to plan ahead in order to avoid them wherever possible. Or better prepare to face them when they’re unavoidable.
5. Learn to say no
Sometimes, choosing not to do something will be the most important thing you do for yourself – the kindest decision for your body and mind.
Learning to say no is something everybody needs to do, and Highly Sensitive People especially. If somebody invites you to participate in something that explicitly involves one of your triggers, don’t feel pressured to take them up on their offer – and don’t feel bad for refusing.
For example, you might have to refuse socializing with coworkers after a busy day when all you need is some quiet alone time. Don’t feel the need to lie – your feelings are legitimate. Let them know what’s going on. Make arrangements to hang out another time when you have more energy for people.
The concept of a “Highly Sensitive Person” is still widely misinterpreted. Many people aren’t aware that when they hear someone use this phrase, they’re not merely referring to a gentle, emotional soul (as is the common interpretation). Rather, it’s a very important term from contemporary psychology. That makes it all the more difficult for the Highly Sensitive People, who are already battling being misunderstood and pushed by the conventional lifestyle.
That’s why it’s crucial that we spread awareness. Likewise, that anyone who knows or is an HSP, seeks to understand their unique connection to the outside world. By better understanding our innate energy, emotional structure, and unique wiring, we gain the means to better navigate life.