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How to Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person
Do other people’s moods affect you? Do you find yourself needing to withdraw during busy days? Does your nervous system sometimes feel so frazzled you have to go off by yourself? Do your parents or teachers seem to see you as sensitive or shy? You may be a highly sensitive person.
It is estimated that 20% of human beings and over 100 other species have a highly sensitive temperament. Highly sensitive people – referred to as HSPs – have been found to process information in their environment more deeply, become overstimulated more easily, have higher empathy and more intense emotions, and are more sensitive to subtleties in their environment than the 80% who are less sensitive. In other words, highly sensitive individuals think and feel more deeply than others.
In research with rhesus macaque monkeys (Suomi, 1997), highly sensitive youngsters were found to be shyer and more withdrawn and to have bigger emotional and behavioural reactions to stressors than their less sensitive peers. Interestingly, the type of parenting and care these highly sensitive monkeys received as youngsters determined the course of their development into adulthood – whether they struggled or thrived. Specifically, when the highly sensitive monkeys received very nurturing parenting (having a mother who was sensitive, attentive, and responsive) they became exceptionally confident in exploring their world, were less reactive to stressors and disruptions in their environment, and were highly socially skilled which helped them to rise to the top of the social hierarchy within the troop.
When the highly sensitive monkeys were raised by less nurturing (“normal”) mothers, they were more shy, less confident, explored their environment less, were highly stressed in the face of minor stressors, and tended to drop to the bottom of the social hierarchy (or be kicked out of the troop altogether in the case of males!) Monkeys who were not highly sensitive were less affected by the type of parenting they received; they stayed within the middle of the social hierarchy regardless of whether they had very nurturing or “normal” parenting. Similar findings have been found in research with human children with more sensitive children being more affected by the quality of parenting they receive. In other words, HSPs are more affected by their environment for better and for worse. In good conditions, HSPs can thrive. What this means is that if you are in the 20% of highly sensitive people, the quality of your environment, including and especially your relationships, really matters and can impact your mental health and wellbeing.
How do you know if you are highly sensitive? Many, if not most, of you who are highly sensitive already know it, perhaps because people have been telling you your whole life. Maybe you have been told you are “too sensitive” or that you are “overreacting”. Perhaps well-meaning friends and family have advised you to “worry less” or “not let things bother you so much”. If you are highly sensitive you will know that despite your efforts to feel less, your sensitivity is not something you can turn down or switch off. It is how you are wired.
Psychologist, researcher, and HSP, Elaine Aron, Ph.D., has written a number of books on high sensitivity, including the bestselling Highly Sensitive Person, and has a website where you can take a test to see if you are a highly sensitive person. If you are not a highly sensitive person yourself but know someone who is, you will benefit from the information available in these books and online too.
Here are some simple tips that can help you – the highly sensitive person – thrive in a busy, sometimes overstimulating, world:
Change the way you think about your sensitivity.
If you see your sensitivity as a flaw or defect it is time to change the way you think about your temperament. In my work as a psychologist, I talk to many highly sensitive children, teens, and adults who believe there is something wrong with them because they are more sensitive than others. Clearly, if you think there is something wrong with you, that is going to negatively impact your self-esteem, mood, and mental health.
Remember that sensitivity is not a flaw or a disorder. It is a type of temperament or personality that makes you more sensitive to both negative and positive situations and environments. Highly sensitive people tend to be hit harder during difficult times but also tend to appreciate and enjoy the good times more too. On an emotional level, highly sensitive people may feel sadness more deeply and cry more often but they can also feel joy and happiness more strongly too. HSPs are simply more affected by things and that is not a bad thing. Imagine a world without people who felt things deeply?
Connect and find your tribe.
HSPs are a minority. If you are an HSP and are surrounded by non-HSPs then you may feel different, misunderstood, lonely, and isolated. It is important to connect with other HSPs who will understand you and your experiences more easily. Social media can be a good way to learn more about high sensitivity and others experience being highly sensitive. It can also be a good way to connect with other HSPs through their social media accounts.
If you haven’t found other HSPs to connect with, consider starting your own HSP group at school or work. There are many successful and famous HSPs, including the hugely successful singer, Alannis Morisette who is a wonderful HSP role model. A therapist who is highly sensitive or who has experience supporting people with high sensitivity can provide you with connection and understanding and may be able to help you to find your tribe.
We can think of HSPs as having a more sensitive and reactive nervous system, as well as thinking and feeling more deeply. That means that HSPs usually need more time alone to rest and recharge. Think of your energy like the battery on your mobile phone, at times it gets low and you must recharge it. Learning to listen to your body and rest when you need it is essential for HSPs to cope and thrive in a world built for non-HSPs. Sometimes you will need to pause and slow down so that you can bounce back again.
Change the environment.
Because HSPs are more sensitive to their environment, it may be necessary for you to modify aspects of your environment in order to feel comfortable. There will be times when this is possible and times when it’s not. If you struggle to work or concentrate in noisy, busy, or bright spaces, try to move somewhere quieter or take more regular breaks. Some people find using headphones while working can help with concentration.
If you are strongly affected by other people’s moods, monitor how you are feeling when you are with people and, if necessary, limit the time you spend with people who drain you or who make you feel uncomfortable. Take notice of the places and spaces where you feel most peaceful, relaxed, or productive and go there often.
As you learn more about high sensitivity you will be able to share information with friends, family, and school to help them understand more about this trait and what it is like for you to be an HSP in the world. Understanding is an essential ingredient for a healthy relationship. As people learn more about your sensitivity they will be better positioned to support and care for you.
Many families I have worked with did not know that their child, sibling, or partner was highly sensitive and so they did not know how to support them adequately. When we purchase a plant or flower from a plant store, they usually come with instructions for what that plant needs to thrive. People don’t come with care instructions. This means that it is our job as HSPs to let the people around us know what we need to feel comfortable and, ultimately, to thrive.
Remember, you are absolutely worth it and the world needs sensitive people just like you.
About the Author
Rachel Samson is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Adelaide, South Australia. She is co-director of the Centre for Schema Therapy Australia where she provides therapy to children, adolescents, adults, and families. Rachel has a special interest in working with highly sensitive children and adults. She is currently completing a Ph.D. investigating the relationships between high sensitivity (temperament), parenting, and the quality of the parent-child relationship at the University of Adelaide. Rachel presents nationally and internationally on high sensitivity, attachment, and Schema Therapy. She has practiced mindfulness and Zen Buddhism for over a decade and spent time at Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Centre in France where she completed mindfulness training under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. You can connect with her on her website and on Instagram @sensitivityproject