Google “introversion” and you’ll come up with an alphabet soup of acronyms: INTJ, INFP, ISTJ, and many more. But another acronym went mainstream way before the interweb was littered with “16 Personality Type” quizzes: HSP. Fifteen to twenty percent of people identify as a Highly Sensitive Person.
Let’s start with some backstory: imagine it’s 1996. You hum along to the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” on your Discman as you shop for platform chunky loafers—in a store, not online. In 1996, Amazon had just started selling books out of Jeff Bezos’s Seattle garage, email was barely a thing, and social media wasn’t even on the horizon.
But then Dr. Elaine Aron, a then-unknown psychologist (and HSP herself), published a book titled The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Through good old word of mouth the book climbed the bestseller charts and went through over 35 printings. The world over, HSPs instantly recognized themselves in the pages. They wrote to Dr. Aron, saying they read the entire book while standing in the bookstore and thanked her for nothing less than a chance at a new life.
Now, some 20 years later, listener Chau Le wrote in and asked if being a highly sensitive person has been accepted by the psychological community. The answer is a solid “sort of.”
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
HSP floats somewhere between “scientific theory” and “cultural concept.” It’s not an official diagnosis, but it rings clear and true with millions of people. Plus, the research is stacking up, including a 2014 brain scanning study that found HSPs have greater activation in brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and integration of sensory information.
A parallel concept that’s also gone mainstream is neurodiversity—the idea that neurological variation among people is normal and should be respected, like any other human variation such as height, body shape, skin color, or hair type. With 15-20% of the population estimated to be highly sensitive, HSPs are part of this diversity.
The term “Highly Sensitive Person” means exactly what it sounds like: if you’re an HSP, you have a highly sensitive nervous system and are more reactive to stimuli. Your antennae are finely tuned, your receptors are permanently turned to “high,” and your empathy is strong. Therefore, you pick up on things in the environment easily and feel them deeply.
This can be a plus—you likely have a rich inner life, are deeply moved by art and music, and pick up on subtle shifts in your environment or in other people. But it also means getting easily overwhelmed and feeling frazzled and exhausted when your less sensitive friends are just hitting their stride.
It can be rough being an HSP in today’s loud, fast-paced world. One study even found that higher sensitivity goes along with higher levels of stress and greater health problems.
That’s not great news. So what to do? If you’re an HSP, should you challenge yourself or give yourself a break? Should you fight your sensitive nature? Or acquiesce? The short answer is: all of the above. Here are six ways to navigate the world if you’re highly sensitive.
How to Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person
- Balance working around, pushing through, and staying in.
- Own your fun.
- Rest like you mean it.
- Stop before the last straw.
- Deliberately soothe your body systems.
- Don’t blame yourself.
Let’s explore each a little further.
Tip #1: Balance working around, pushing through, and staying in.
Being an HSP can be tough. Sometimes, there’s an urge to retreat from the world, to stay secluded in order to feel calm and clearheaded. But in her book, Aron relates the story a meditation teacher once told her: A man wanted a life free of stress, so he went to live in a cave to meditate for the rest of his days and nights. But his stress-free existence was foiled by the sound of dripping water in the cave. The moral? Stress comes with you. Rather than escaping, we need a new way to live with stress.
You can deal with stress and overstimulation in three ways: The first is the workaround—changing how you interact with the environment to suit your sensitivity. Just make sure your methods don’t cost you more than they buy you. Earplugs on the subway are fine if you’re alone, but if they force you and your friend to sit in silence until you reach your stop, they’re not worth it. If you need to take a walk outside during the lunch break at a busy conference, great, but if lunch is your only unstructured time to network, you may be missing out. Shop online to protect yourself from the overload of the mall, but not if you need to buy stuff you really need to experience in person, like a car, a sofa, or a Weimaraner puppy.
So when you can’t do a workaround, try habituation, which is just a technical term for getting used to something. Habituation really works—the more often you practice something, the easier it becomes. In other words, to tolerate the world, get involved in the world. You might always hate IKEA, getting yelled at, or running the gauntlet of perfume salespeople at a department store, but practice and repetition can help you get used to necessary evils like constructive criticism at work, the musak at your otherwise favorite restaurant, or your beloved grandbaby’s inevitable drooly stickiness.
Third is good old recharging. This really works, too. Go out to meet the world, then come home to recharge. Revel in peace and quiet. But beware the paradox of rest—too much inactivity can make you feel sluggish and bored. So stay in as long as feels good, but push out again before you start to feel lethargic and depressed.
The correct balance of working around, pushing through, and staying in to recharge is a moving target: the perfect mix will change from season to season, with different life events like a new job or a move, or simply as the years go by. But keep them all on hand and you’ll have what you need to keep yourself engaged in the world without getting steamrolled by it.
Tip #2: Own your fun.
For an HSP, fun isn’t braving the crowds to watch the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, crowd surfing at a thrash metal concert, or seeing a double feature of Stephen King films.
HSPs have a much quieter idea of fun. Reading, gardening, making a great meal, hanging with a couple of good friends—these may seem overly restrained or even uptight compared to typical Western culture, but when you feel deeply, small ripples feel like big waves.
So own your idea of fun. Don’t feel bad or guilty that you’re not into bar hopping, you hate karaoke, and you’d rather go for a long hike than join a loud Zumba class. Proudly host a game night with a few friends, relax with some music, or curl up with a good book.
Tip #3: Rest like you mean it.
HSPs tend to be conscientious and dutiful, so it’s hard to say hi ho, hi ho, it’s home from work we go when there are still last details to attend to or loose ends to tie up. But overwork is particularly toxic to an HSP.
When you feel deeply, small ripples feel like big waves.
One way to combat this is to relax and have, as we talked about, your idea of fun, but another is simply to sleep. Jangled nerves or intense reflections from the day can cause insomnia or otherwise make it hard for HSPs to sleep. But sleep is exactly what HSPs need to recharge.
So use that same dutifulness to schedule going to bed as if it were an obligation. If you feel like you’re shirking your duties, remember that rest is doing something. Use that finely-honed sense of your own inner workings to sense when you’re getting irritable, having trouble concentrating, or otherwise feeling fatigued. And then? Rest like you mean it.
Tip #4: Stop before the last straw.
Do you routinely drive your car until it runs out of gas, leaving you stranded on the side of the highway? Do you regularly use your phone until the battery dies, leaving you tethered to a random public power outlet? Of course not. You fill up on gas before the indicator reads “empty.” You charge your phone overnight on your bedstand. So why do anything different with your stamina?
Allow yourself to protect your own health, energy, and sanity. Maybe you show up to parties, connect with the people you’re there to see, and then head out. Maybe you arrange with your boss that you’ll show up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of quiet early morning hours and then leave mid-afternoon. Maybe yoga on Sundays and Wednesdays is a permanent feature in your calendar.
Rather than pushing yourself to keep up with non-HSPs and then burning out, keeping a close eye on your energy and using smart tactics to maintain it allows you to keep showing up.
Tip #5: Deliberately soothe your body systems.
A quick way to soothe yourself physically is to use some on-the-go biofeedback. Find your pulse in your neck or wrist, and take a slow breath in. Then, keeping your mouth closed, exhale slowly and audibly, making a sound in the back of your throat as if you were trying to fog your glasses or a window. Draw your exhale out as long as you can and, as you do, feel your pulse slow. Then repeat.
Your respiratory system is one of the few organ systems you can access both unconsciously and consciously. You don’t have to think about breathing—you do it automatically. But you can also deliberately speed up or slow down your breathing, which grants you access to the package deal of all your other organ systems. Breathe slowly, which in turn calms your heart rate, which in turn calms all your other systems, including frazzled nerves and overwhelmed senses.
Tip #6: Don’t blame yourself.
In an excellent analogy, Aron asks the reader to imagine she is cold. She can do a lot of things in this situation: she can put on a down vest, she can turn up the heat, she can make a cup of hot tea, or she can simply tolerate it until she can escape somewhere warmer. All these things make sense. What wouldn’t make sense is blaming herself for being more susceptible to cold because she perceives herself as weak or inherently inadequate. That would only compound the problem.
The point: don’t beat yourself up. Your neurology grants you access to a rich life. You care profoundly about others, can be moved deeply by the arts and literature, and are conscientious and detail-oriented, a trait that brings success in many endeavors. The world may feel overwhelming at times, but take care of yourself so you can contribute your many gifts to it.
Take Aron’s quiz to find out if you’re highly sensitive here.
Pre-order Ellen’s forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.