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How to Go From Surviving to Thriving as a HSP (Highly Sensitive Person)

by Katie Love

 

“Stop being so sensitive.” 

“You’re overreacting. It’s just not that big of a deal.” 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have the radio up that loud.”  

If you have ever been on the receiving end of any of those remarks, you may feel like there’s something wrong with you. Maybe you find yourself reacting more intensely to sounds, lights, smells, and other stimuli and you wonder why no one else seems to experience the world the way you do. 

If this rings true, know that you are not broken. You might be an HSP. 

What is an HSP anyway?

The term “highly sensitive person”, commonly abbreviated “HSP”, was initially coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the mid-1990s. A highly sensitive person is a neurodivergent individual who has a deeper perception of sensory stimuli. It is also very common for HSPs to have an increased sensitivity to emotional and or social interactions. It’s important right off the bat to remember that sensitivity, even at the level of being an HSP, does not mean your body is malfunctioning or that you have a mental illness. Individuals with autism and ADHD may fall into the category of HSPs, but not all HSPs will have a co-occurring condition. 

Although scientists and psychologists are not entirely sure what causes the increased sensitivity, some specific gene variants have been identified that correlate with the constellation of HSP traits. Evidence has also suggested that early childhood environments and experiences have an epigenetic effect on the genes that may predispose someone to be highly sensitive.

What are some signs that I might be an HSP?

Everyone is unique and may have their particular sensitivities to certain stimuli, but there are some common traits and experiences that many HSPs will likely relate to. If you or a loved one resonate with any of the following, you might be an HSP:

  • Sensitivity to violent or frightening media. Violent movies and TV shows feel too intense and leave you feeling unsettled and disturbed, often for a prolonged period even after the video has ended. Horror movies and novels can also have the same impact.
  • Becoming overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like large crowds, fluorescent and flashing lighting, sounds (both quiet and loud), uncomfortable clothing and itchy fabrics/tags, and strong smells. Some HSPs may also experience a distaste for certain flavors and food textures.
  • Being deeply moved by beauty and emotional experiences. HSPs are often drawn to art, nature, or studying the human mind and spirit. Many HSPs enjoy deep conversations, writing, reading about psychology, and pursuing creative careers and hobbies.
  • Needing more downtime. This is not the same as laziness or a lack of desire to participate in life. HSPs find themselves needing more time to recuperate and rest than other people. The “hustle and grind” culture does not work for them. They often find themselves needing to retreat, especially after a long day.
  • Having a rich and complex inner life. HSPs go deep, in their conversations, in their thoughts, and in their emotional world. HSPs tend to daydream and have very vivid imaginations.

What do HSPs tend to struggle with?

Being an HSP can come with some unique challenges. Living in a world that was not made for you in a society that praises overwork can sometimes feel exhausting. Although you don’t want to dwell on your disadvantages,  knowing where you struggle can empower you to take action on building a life that works for you, not against you. Here are some of the most common pain points that HSPs tend to experience:

  • People-pleasing. Because HSPs have such a high level of emotional awareness and empathy, they can become fearful of hurting others or feeling like they have let them down in any way. This can lead to overextending oneself to the point of neglecting one’s own physical and emotional needs. Due to this tendency, HSPs can also be more likely to be taken advantage of.


  • Comparison. HSPs frequently struggle with comparing themselves to others. Due to what others have said, they may feel a great degree of shame regarding their sensitivity or emotional nature. This can lead to feeling less-than and incapable of accomplishing things. Some HSPs may develop social anxiety or depression. 


  • Reduced distress tolerance. HSPs are hyper-aware of sensory input and may also experience physiological symptoms to a greater degree than most people. They are more intolerant of unpleasant bodily sensations, loud noises, hot and cold weather and often feel extreme pain when others may only experience mild sensations. Highly charged emotional situations are also much more difficult for HSPs to handle and recover from.


  • Rumination. HSPs are more likely to ruminate on negative experiences and develop looping thoughts. This is especially true if an experience is embarrassing or emotionally unpleasant. HSPs are often their own worst critic and will revisit past mistakes in their mind, further fueling the ruminating thoughts.

 

  • Loneliness. HSPs are more likely to have been in relationships with family members, friends, or partners who have made them feel “othered” and outcast from neurotypical individuals. Many children who are HSPs have been mocked or bullied. This feeling of being an outsider and being misunderstood can lead them to avoid socializing and even to feelings of self-rejection and despair.

How can HSPs thrive in today’s modern world?

In a world of chaotic news cycles, constant change, and the pressure to be “on” 24/7, it’s a challenge for anyone to feel at peace, let alone an HSP. That being said, there are always ways to take control and create a life that supports your mind and body to function optimally. Here are eight simple, stress-free ways to care for yourself and feel more regulated, no matter what the day brings:

1. Start your day with mindfulness. Before you rush off to work or pick up your phone, take some time to center yourself and be present. Your mindfulness practice could include meditation, but it doesn’t have to. It could simply be eating breakfast without distractions and being fully present with your meal. You may also choose to do some deep-belly breathing, contemplative prayer, or yoga.

2. Schedule margin into your day. Going from one activity to another (or worse, multitasking) can be overwhelming and overstimulating. If you find yourself feeling fatigued physically and mentally at the end of the day, it may be a sign you need to build margin into your day. Instead of scheduling back-to-back blocks of work/study or going directly from an appointment to a stressful meeting, set aside 15-20 minutes to decompress,  regulate yourself, and prepare for your next task.

3. Practice the art of saying “no”. Many HSPs also tend to be people-pleasers, but it’s important to remember that your well-being and self-care are just as important as everyone else’s. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when you find yourself over-scheduled and in need of a break. Setting healthy boundaries is not selfish and it is part of making sure you are able to say “yes” to the things that matter most.

4. Create a safe home environment. You may not be able to control every environment you find yourself in, but you can make sure that your room is a comfortable and peaceful place for you to return to. Choose decorations that have meaning to you and bring you a sense of calm. Create a calming sensory experience with soft pillows, natural light, plants, blankets, essential oil diffusers, and gentle music.

5. Choose your friends wisely. HSPs are highly empathetic and tend to be “sponges” that absorb the emotions and feelings of those around them. They are also more likely to be affected by negativity and criticism. It is worth taking some time to evaluate the health of your friend group. If you find yourself in an abusive or unhealthy friendship or relationship, it might be time to find a more supportive community.

6. Avoid excessive screen time. From the constant “ding” of notifications, the temptation to compare your life to a million other people on social media, to the anxiety-inducing news headlines, smart phones are the perfect storm of sensory overload. Although they can be a great way to connect with friends, setting limits with screen time is essential for maintaining optimal wellbeing.

7. Spend time in nature every day. Nature is the ultimate HSP reset button. Nature sounds like birdsong downregulate the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze response) and reduce stress. Studies have also shown that time in nature can help decrease anxiety and rumination. When life feels like too much, maybe it’s time to literally take a step outside and get a breath of fresh air.

8. Embrace your true self, unapologetically. Being a HSP is not a disorder and you are not broken. Instead of focusing on all the aspects of yourself that you struggle with, focus on your strengths and gifts. You were created with purpose and your sensitivity is a beautiful thing that gives you a deeper experience of life. That is something to celebrate.

No matter what, you can live a life of thriving and purpose. 

Everyone encounters struggles, regardless of their level of sensitivity. If you are going through a difficult time, remember that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. No matter what you have been told, you are worthy of love and you don’t have to face your challenges alone. Therapy can be a great way to help you on your journey to thriving and breaking free from limiting beliefs and old patterns. 

Reach out to us today to schedule a free consultation with one of our therapists and take the first step towards finding freedom and well-being. 

You were made for more. We are here to walk alongside you with every step.

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