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6 Ways to Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person

15-20% of people identify as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Here's how to survive an overwhelming world when all your receptors are set to "high."

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
November 10, 2017
Episode #177

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a woman holding out a heart symbolizing sensitivity

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

  1. Balance working around, pushing through, and staying in.
  2. Own your fun.
  3. Rest like you mean it.
  4. Stop before the last straw.
  5. Deliberately soothe your body systems.
  6. 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.

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