Why are you so sensitive?: How to start improving overstimulation as an HSP
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
"Why are you so sensitive?" Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) have all gotten this question at least once. As a Highly Sensitive Therapist (HST), I experience different iterations of this question on a daily basis in working with HSP clients and their loved ones. Curious what I mean by HSP? Read more here.
HSPs often show up to therapy resenting their sensitivity. They want me to help them overcome their tenderness, their attunement, their inner depth. They see their sensitivity as a burden. My goal in working with HSPs is to help them embrace their sensitivity in a society and culture that wasn't created for the neurodivergent.
You CAN thrive despite your sensitive nature. Being sensitive is basically living in high definition every single day. Our sensory intake is heightened, our emotions are increasingly attuned to others and the world around us, our depth of processing regarding emotions and information intake runs deep, and we genuinely feel our feelings (and the feelings of those around us). This personality trait often translates into anxiety, irritability, overwhelm, overstimulation, depression, panic attacks and more.
High sensitivity is simply a personality trait. It is NOT a mental health disorder or diagnoses. It is also not something that you can get rid of or outgrow. In fact, many HSPs grow to be more sensitive and more attuned as they age. Teenagers tend to be the most resilient HSPs as their development allows for more impulsivity and social resilience, but that isn't true for all teens. It is a trait you are born with. It is present from day one.
If you are currently struggling with accepting yourself as a sensitive soul, I encourage you to read more about the trait and educate yourself on how to properly foster your gift of sensitivity. A great book to start with: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron.
Sensitive people make wonderful coworkers, friends, partners, parents and more. We are a necessary part of the social structure of the world. Without sensitive people, the world would be lacking added empathy, wisdom, perspective, thoughtfulness and love. We have an array of appreciation for the arts, music, nature, animals, connection, deep conversations, insight, knowledge, perspective, and life.
The HSPs I am fortunate to work with every single day are full of education, passion, drive, adventure, love, depth, and thoughtfulness. They are CEOs, teachers, therapists, parents, medical providers, lawyers, marketing and tech professionals, athletes, stylists, and more. Being sensitive will not hold you back from accomplishing your goals. As you learn to adapt to this (crucial) part of your personality and begin to warm to your gift, you may shift your perspective and see things completely differently.
I suggest starting by learning about your 5 senses (+emotional attunement) first and setting up boundaries with yourself and strategies to prevent overwhelm. Here are some examples:
1. Pay attention to the types of settings that overwhelm you the most and begin taking note of your 5 senses during your overwhelm (Sight, Smell, Sound, Taste, Touch) with a 6th sense of emotional attunement to others.
Example of emotional attunement sense: Watching a very sad or tragic tv show can put me in a weird mood for the rest of the week. I avoid these types of media when I know I'm extra sensitive. I also limit how often I watch this type of media as a boundary for myself.
2. Begin to routinely take notes of what you notice after an overwhelming situation with as much detail as possible (time of day, who you were with, circumstances, what happened the 48 hours prior).
Example 1a: At the airport I felt overstimulated during the security line from so many people moving around and felt their stress and anxiety and the rush they were in. I noticed how much I hate the smell of the airport, how loud the family nearby was while arguing, how nervous the man right in front of me was due to his fidgeting hands. I could feel his nerves and noticed my own anxiety kicking in. The people behind me were standing too close to me and the woman's long hair kept brushing against me when she turned. I was grossed out touching the bins on the security conveyer belt after seeing someone had placed their gum in a bin. I hadn't slept well the night before, which makes me more anxious. I wore too heavy of a shirt that I couldn't remove and was sweating, which gets me really irritable. I forgot a hair tie and my hair being down my neck was making me even warmer...
3. In your notes, assign ratings to the different levels of stimulation from 0(fine) to 10(worst). This will help you to figure out which of your senses is most sensitive. Mine are sound (shrill, unexpected noises, smacking lips), smells (body odor, garbage, microwaved food), and touch (temperature of my environment, clothes that are too restricting, unwanted affection, and people too close to me).
Example 1b: Sound = 8, Smell = 6, Touch = 7, Sight = 5, Taste = 0, Emotional Attunement = 5.
4. After you gather information in a few scenarios, pay attention to patterns and experiment with your own strategies in future similar scenarios. Take ratings to see how much things may have improved.
Some HSPs feel overwhelm from all of their senses. Some have a sense or two that dominate. As you learn which of your senses are most sensitive, you can plan ahead and create your own version of a "HSP Survival Kit" to keep on you proactively or to have in your home or office.
Example 1c: To improve my overwhelm the next time I went through airport security, I wore noise cancelling headphones and listened to calm music and didn't look too hard at anyone fidgeting or nervous around me. I kept a backpack on and my carryon bag behind me to keep distance in a polite way between myself and the person behind me. I wore a light jacket with a shirt underneath in case I needed to remove it if I got hot. I also brought my portable fan in case I got hot along with my neck cooling towel. I brought hand sanitizer to use after touching the security bins (and washed my hands in the bathroom after). I brought hand lotion that smelled nice for smell overwhelm. After getting through security, I bought an ice cold water and went and found a quiet corner with less of a crowd to cut down on my peripheral vision of people moving about. I put a hat on to limit any sensory intake of people moving about even further...
Updated ratings: Sound = 3, Smell = 3, Touch = 2, Sight = 3, Taste = 0, Emotional Attunement = 1.
Try it for yourself and see how it goes
Happy sensitive searching,