When I completed Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person Self-Test, I checked 24 statements. Out of 27.I checked everything from being bothered by bright lights and loud noises to getting startled easily to trying to avoid mistakes to not watching violent movies or TV shows.Maybe you can relate.
While there are many differences among highly sensitive people (HSPs), we have one thing in common: HSPs have a sensitive nervous system that makes it harder to filter out stimuli and easier to get overwhelmed by our environment.
For instance, the sound of sirens and other loud noises might reverberate like nails on a chalkboard through your head. (They do in mine.) Crowds might make you especially uncomfortable, while strong smells make you feel sick.
Being highly sensitive isn’t a disorder, aliment or flaw; it’s simply an innate trait, according to Ted Zeff, PhD, author of three books on HSPs, including The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide andThe Strong, Sensitive Boy.
Unfortunately, because we’re not like most people, HSPs tend to worry that something is wrong with them. (According to HSP pioneer Elaine Aron’s research, about 20 percent of the population is an HSP.) As an HSP himself, as a boy, Zeff recalled feeling shame for his sensitivity in a society that associates masculinity with being aggressive, tough and stoic.
Today, the idea of masculinity has largely remained the same in our culture with a few added pressures on both genders. Our world is a fast-paced one, filled with even bigger crowds, louder noises and shorter deadlines. Even the pressure to constantly stay plugged in with social media, email and texting can be tough on someone who requires regular peace and quiet.
But there are ways you can effectively cope. Below, Zeff shares his tips on how highly sensitive people can traverse today’s overstimulated world.
For at least an hour or two before bedtime, shut down all electronic equipment and engage in calming activities, such as reading an uplifting book, Zeff said. Keep the morning calm, too. Spend 30 minutes centering yourself by practicing yoga or meditation, he said. You also might journal or read, he said.
Again, all HSPs are different, so it’s important to determine what stimuli trigger your discomfort. For instance, Zeff’s friend, an architect and fellow HSP, didn’t mind the deafening noise during his home remodel. (He could tell the workers to stop any time.) Similarly, one person might pass on violent movies, while another lives for them.
If you’re sensitive to loud noises and crowds, avoid seeing new movies on a Saturday night or eating out at peak times, Zeff said. Instead, see an early showing or go on a weekday, and have an early dinner when restaurants tend to be less busy, he said.
Planning ahead doesn’t mean avoiding the activities you love. For instance, Zeff loves to travel. But traveling is one of the noisiest, people-packed things you can do. To tune out triggering noises, Zeff brings his iPod with calming music, earplugs and construction-style earmuffs. He also books hotel rooms on the top floor, at the rear, which tend to be quieter. When he’s staying with family, he brings a white noise machine. If noise also bothers you, consider noise-canceling headphones or CDs with soothing sounds.
If you’re in a super stressful job, consider why you’re staying, and be open to all options, Zeff said. One of his clients, a chef, worked in an upscale restaurant in San Francisco. The stress got so bad that he developed ulcers and digestive problems and had trouble sleeping. Because he was living in such a pricey place, he believed that he had to make this much money. He and Zeff discussed moving to a calmer, more affordable area. Months after, he got a job two hours away from San Francisco, and his rent was half the price. And even better, his health problems went away.
Even though being highly sensitive isn’t a flaw, you still might feel bad that you’re easily bothered by things that others aren’t. There have been many times that I wished I enjoyed roller-coasters like everyone else (as if riding roller-coasters somehow makes you brave), didn’t freak out when I heard a loud bang or wasn’t so sensitive to others’ critical comments. Many times I’ve felt embarrassed or weak or strange.
But HSPs also tend to have many positive qualities, including being creative, conscientious, loyal and deeply appreciative of the arts, Zeff said. (Douglas Eby, a Psych Central blogger, shares five gifts of being highly sensitive.)
Zeff stressed the importance of downtime. He suggested getting away at least once a month and relaxing several days a week. Enjoy nature (if you live in an urban area, visit a park) or get a massage, he said. Add calm into your week with activities like aromatherapy, he added.
Zeff recommended hatha yoga, tai chi and walking. If you like exercising at the gym, pick a facility that’s not so noisy or wear a headset, he said. It’s also better to exercise before 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., because it takes a few hours for your nervous system to calm down, he said.
Non-HSPs simply don’t notice loud noises or strong smells or other stimuli that might be bothering you, so speak up. For instance, say your co-worker talks loudly on the phone. If you think they’ll be open to adjusting their behavior, first build a rapport with them, Zeff said. Then explain that while they’re not doing anything wrong, you have a trait that makes it tougher to tune out stimuli (which about 20 percent of people have), he said. You don’t want to interfere with their lifestyle, but maybe they could speak more softly or when you’re on break, he said.
HSPs also tend to get more upset over hurtful comments, Zeff said. “If someone [has] an abrasive personality, speak up.” But remember to be polite. “Don’t become an insensitive sensitive person demanding everyone…shut up.”
Interview three therapists and ask if they’ve read books about HSPs (such as Elaine Aron’s Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person: Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients or Zeff’s books) or are at least familiar with the concept and willing to learn, he said.