The topic of being “highly sensitive” surfaces quite a bit on Beyond Blue, because there is a strong correlation between those of us who suffer from mood disorders and acute sensitivity issues. If you’re confused right about now, you might want to watch my video “On Being Highly Sensitive.” Since I am a visual learner, I demonstrate the difference between a “normal” person and a “highly sensitive” person.
Psychology Today just featured an excellent article by Andrea Bartz in their July issue, called “Sense and Sensitivity” in which they interviewed Mike Jawer, whom I interviewed awhile back, and, of course, Elaine Aron, author of “The Highly Sensitive Person,” and the foremost expert on this topic. The full article is not available online anymore. You can buy it on newsstands or subscribe to the full online edition of Psychology Today. Here are first paragraphs:
The Highly Sensitive Person has always been part of the human landscape. There’s evidence that many creative types are highly sensitive, perceiving cultural currents long before they are manifest to the mainstream, able to take in the richness of small things others often miss. Others may be especially sensitive to animals and how they are handled. They’re also the ones whose feelings are so easily bruised that they’re constantly being told to “toughen up.”
Today, science is validating a group of people whose sensitivity surfaces in many domains of life. Attuned to subtleties of all kinds, they have a complex inner life and need time to process the constant flow of sensory data that is their inheritance. Some may be particularly prone to the handful of hard-to-pin-down disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Technology is now providing an especially revealing window into that which likely defines them all—a nervous system set to register stimuli at very low frequency and amplify them internally.
We all experience shades of sensitivity. Who isn’t rocked by rejection and crushed by criticism? But for HSPs, emotional experience is at such a constant intensity that it shapes their personality and their lives—job performance, social life, intimate relationships—as much as gender and race do. Those who learn to dial down the relentless swooping and cresting of emotions that is the almost invariable accompaniment to extreme sensitivity are able to transform raw perception into keen perceptiveness.
Okay, so now that you know that there are, indeed, highly sensitive types out there, and that you might be one, what do you do about it? Also on Psychology Today’s website, I found this insightful blog by wellness expert Dr. Susan Biali, author of “Live a Life You Love.” I recognize many of her tips, as I have already incorporated them into my life (when I can). In fact, I think my recovery from my appendix operation has been much more difficult than anticipated because I am highly sensitive, and can’t do some things on the list that are usually a part of my day. Here’s hoping you can!
1) Get enough sleep
Lack of sleep (less than 7 hours, for most people) is well known to produce irritability, moodiness, and decreased concentration and productivity in the average person. Given our already ramped-up senses, I’m convinced that lack of sleep can make a highly sensitive life almost unbearable. Getting enough sleep soothes your senses and will help you cope with an already overwhelming world.
2) Eat healthy foods regularly throughout the day
Aron points out that extreme hunger can be disruptive to an HSP’s mood or concentration. Keep your edgy nerves happy by maintaining a steady blood sugar level through regular healthy well-balanced meals and snacks. I also take fish oil (omega-3) supplements daily as the brain loves these, lots of studies support their beneficial cognitive and emotional effects.
3) Wear noise-reducing headphones
A boyfriend introduced Peltor ear protecting headphones (usually used by construction workers, not pre-med students) to me when I was 19 and studying for exams. No matter where I am in the world I have had a pair with me ever since. HSPs are highly sensitive to noise, especially the kind we can’t control, and my beloved headphones give me control over my personal peace in what’s all too often a noisy intrusive world.
4) Plan in decompression time
HSPs don’t do well with an overly packed schedule or too much time in noisy, crowded or high pressure environments. If you know you’re going to spend a few hours in a challenging environment – such as a concert, a parade, or a crowded mall at Christmas time – know that you’re likely to be frazzled after and will need to decompress somewhere quiet and relaxing, on your own if possible.
5) Have at least one quiet room or space to retreat to in your home
If you live with others, create a quiet safe place you can retreat to when you need to get away from people and noise. This could be a bedroom, a study, or even just a candlelit bath (or shower if that’s all you have!). I’ve found it often helps to listen to quiet relaxing music as well, this can even drown out more jarring external noise when you need it to.
6) Give yourself time and space to get things done
I mentioned above that HSPs don’t do well with a packed schedule. I’ve managed to structure my work life so that I work afternoon/evening shifts the days I’m at the medical clinic. This way I’m able to get out of bed without an alarm, eat a calm unrushed breakfast and putter around before getting down to business. The calm this gives me carries through my whole day. Another strategy for those who work in the morning might be getting up extra early (after 8 hours sleep, of course) to enjoy the quiet before the rest of the household wakes up.
7) Limit caffeine
HSPs are sensitive to caffeine – I usually can’t even handle the traces of caffeine found in decaf coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker (or dark chocolate junkie) and identify with the HSP trait description, giving up the joe might be a big step towards feeling more collected and calm.
8) Keep the lights down low
I’ve never liked bright lights and learning about HSP helped me understand why. Minimizing light stimulation goes a long way: I only put on low lights in the evening, and prefer to shop in certain local grocery stores which have gentle mood lighting, avoiding the garishly lit, crowded “big box” stores whenever I can.
9) Get things done in off hours
To avoid crowds and the associated noise and stimulation, I’ve learned to live my life outside of the average person’s schedule. I grocery shop late in the evenings, run errands during the week whenever I can, go to movies on weeknights, and go out for my walks before the rest of the world hits the jogging path. An added bonus: by avoiding the crowds I usually get things done faster , and almost always get a parking spot!
10) Surround yourself with beauty and nature
Since we HSPs are so sensitive and deeply affected by our surroundings, envelop yourself with beauty and calm whenever possible. I’ve decorated my home simply in a way that’s very pleasing to my eye, with minimal clutter and chaos. I also spend as much time as I can walking in nature, enjoying the quiet and its naturally healing and calming beauty.
Image courtesy of Psychology Today.