In a previous post we talked about what it means to be a highly sensitive person or HSP. According to Elaine Aron, the author of multiple books on this topic, some traits of a highly sensitive person may include: A propensity to become easily overwhelmed or overly stimulated, being labeled by others as inhibited or shy especially in childhood, and feeling acutely sensitive to both physical and emotional pain. The description of a highly sensitive person really struck a nerve for many of you. If you look at the number of comments to my initial post, it is clear that many of us who suffer from depression also feel that we suffer due to our extreme sensitivity. If you feel that you meet the description of a highly sensitive person, please know that you are not alone. It is estimated that 15-20% of the population may have this trait.
In this post we are going to talk about some ways to cope if you are extremely sensitive. The following suggestions come from my personal experience and are in no way a substitute for advice from your therapist or mental health professional. In addition, we would love if you would share your best suggestions of how you manage your sensitivity. We all can learn a lot from one another.
The following are ten strategies for navigating the world when you are an extremely sensitive person.
1. Don’t beat yourself up for being sensitive.
If you have always been a little on the sensitive side chances are that this is simply a part of your personality. Although you may have been told by others in so many words that your sensitivity is an undesirable trait, it isn’t something you should necessarily attempt to eradicate. I look at it as I am simply wired up differently than others. Rather than punishing yourself for this trait, it is far healthier to figure out ways to explore the gifts which come along with being a sensitive person.
2. Channel your sensitivity towards a creative outlet.
Many HSPs are also very creative people. It has been very important in my life to have a means to express myself to make sense of overwhelming emotional and sensory experiences. My passion is writing because it allows me a way to get out my feelings in a safe way. Other HSPs may turn to dance, drama, art, or even comedy as a form of self expression.
3. Write down your emotional and sensory triggers
If you are a highly sensitive person you may feel that everything overwhelms you. I often feel like an exposed raw nerve when I go out into the world. It can be difficult to decipher which elements of life are causing the most discomfort because emotional and sensory stimuli get lumped together. Yet if you sit down in a calm environment to think about this, you can isolate the variables which cause you the most distress. Some common emotional triggers for me include: Being around people I perceive as angry, conflicts with others, and making mistakes. Some of my sensory triggers ( those stimuli we process through our five senses) include: Loud and unexpected noises, fluorescent lights, large groups of people, hot and humid weather, and busy chaotic environments such as a crowded mall. It is good to write down your triggers so that you can then create goals to either minimize these elements in your life or find ways to cope with these situations.
4. Treat any associated mental health disorders.
There are many HSPs who also suffer from depression, anxiety and/or a sensory processing disorder. A mental health professional can teach you cognitive-behavioral techniques to use in social and interpersonal situations which cause you distress. A therapist or an occupational therapist who is knowledgeable about Sensory Processing Disorder can help you to overcome your sensitivity to any sensory stimuli.
5. Create a calm and restful retreat in your home.
If you are a highly sensitive person you may experience times when you need to withdraw periodically to get a break from an overload of external stimulation. I find these break times essential so that I don’t become overwhelmed and so that I can recharge my batteries. Having a space designated in your home as your calm space can really help during those times when you feel frazzled and need a retreat. For me this space is my bedroom. I try to have fresh flowers, soft lighting, and soothing music available.
There are many articles written about how to create a peaceful haven in your home. Here are a couple of resources to get you started.
"¢ Make Your Bedroom a Peaceful Retreat (HGTV)
"¢ Creating a Peaceful Retreat Room (The Examiner)
6. Develop a list of calming techniques.
I find that anxiety and stress are the byproducts of being super sensitive to my environment and emotions. Having a menu or list of ways to calm down can make the difference for me in preventing stress induced illness. Some of my methods include using an aromatherapy/sound machine, exercise, and taking a walk in nature.
We have many articles on our anxiety site to help you generate your own list.
7. Simplify your life.
One of the constant struggles for me as a highly sensitive person is that I feel constantly bombarded with too much of everything. By this I mean that I don’t do well when there is too much information, too many demands, too much sound, too many social interactions and so forth. Some people thrive under such conditions and love the excitement of constant stimulation. Not me. When life becomes too complex it is time for me to start the weeding process. And by this I mean that I physically remove clutter from my home and work environment. I narrow down my daily goals to a select few. I turn off the TV, the cell phone, and other gadgets. This process is going to be different for everyone but it includes placing limits on external stimuli so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.
We discussed ways to simplify your life in one of our weekly exercises here on MyDepressionConnection.
8. Stop looking to get self esteem from other people.
It is my opinion that many HSPs determine their self worth through others and how we perceive what others think about us. This is a big problem because: (a.) we are then at the mercy of others to define us and our worth and (b.) our perceptions of how others think of us may be entirely inaccurate. In this unhealthy model we may feel like a volley ball constantly being tossed about as we try to either avoid criticism or scrutiny or else placate others to get their approval. We are going to be talking about sensitivity and self esteem in more depth in a subsequent post.
In the meantime here are some articles to read about healthy ways to develop self esteem which are not dependent upon other people’s approval.
9. Realize that it is not just about you.
It is easy to get caught in a mind trap that the whole world is an arena where you may be put under the spotlight and judged. It really isn’t so. Most people are thinking about their own worries and insecurities to take time to judge you. If you are super sensitive you may have a tendency to perceive every little slight as an assassination of your character. You may ruminate over conversations and analyze what people really mean. You may turn inward and have the sudden desire to become a hermit and have nothing to with people at all. I have had these thoughts too. But then I realize that other people have problems, issues, challenges, and defenses too. Sometimes what we perceive to be as an attack on us may be a sign that the other person is in pain. This does not excuse hurtful behavior but it helps to understand that sometimes what others say about us speaks more about them than it does about our true character. In other cases what we perceive to be a negative or harmful comment may simply be a true misunderstanding.
The tendency to "take things personally" is one of the greatest difficulties of being highly sensitive. We are going to delve into this specific topic more in depth in a future post. In the meantime here are some articles to help.
"¢ How to Take Things Less Personally (The Huffington Post)
10. Find support in talking to fellow HSPs.
It can be extremely helpful to find other people who "get" your personality including your extreme sensitivity. In a group of people I can intuitively identify who is going to be most like me in this respect. Judging by the comments on my last post on this topic, it does seem that many of you identify with the HSP description. I hope that these posts may give you the chance to connect with others who share this similar trait.