Navigating life as sensitive person

From managing stresses, to feeling empowered by your sensitivities, we share five essential steps to help you thrive as a highly sensitive person

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

It’s estimated that around 20% of us are considered a highly sensitive person (HSP) – someone who, due to an innate trait, experiences more intense emotional, mental and physical reactions to stimuli. However, there is still little understanding around what it means to be ‘highly sensitive’.

If you are an HSP you have probably been told by others that you’re too sensitive, too emotional, or that you overthink things; people may also say that you’re creative, conscientious, and a good listener. Like most personality traits, being highly sensitive is a gift, but can also come with challenges. Due to the lack of understanding around being highly sensitive, many HSPs can feel that there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do. However, there are also many HSPs who thrive in the bustling world in which we live today, and there are ways that you, too, can learn to manage stress, navigating a happy, healthy life as an HSP. Here are some tips to get you started.

Get rid of any preconceptions

It is important that, as an HSP, you understand what being highly sensitive means – and even more importantly, what it means to you. Research psychologist, Dr Elaine N Aron, who coined the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ in her 1996 book title, says that many HSPs are mislabelled as shy, or introverts. Despite this, 30% of HSPs are actually extroverts, and feel at their most relaxed when surrounded by other people. Although introverts and HSPs both experience a rich inner life with their thoughts and feelings, it is important to recognise that these are separate traits.

Follow the science

In scientific terms, being highly sensitive is known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). This should not be confused with the neurological condition sensory processing disorder (SPD) where the brain has difficulty receiving messages from the senses.

SPS, according to researcher Bianca Acevedo, is ‘a biologically-based trait characterised by increased awareness and sensitivity to the environment’. With increasing awareness of SPS, it is becoming an area of scientific, as well as societal, interest. A 2014 functional MRI study published in the Brain and Behaviour Journal found that HSPs have stronger activation in the regions of the brain involved in awareness, empathy and processing information.

Work on your self-awareness

Self-awareness is important in many aspects of life, from our careers to our relationships, but being self-aware is even more important if you’re highly sensitive. Understanding your emotions, strengths and challenges can also help you to identify your triggers as an HSP. Loud noises, busy crowds, bright lights, strong smells and long to-do lists can all lead to overstimulation in HSPs. Getting to know your triggers can help you to find a comfortable balance between boredom and overstimulation; it can also help you to find strategies to manage stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Set healthy boundaries

Setting boundaries, and learning to say ‘No’ can be particularly difficult if you’re highly sensitive; this is because of the fact that not only are you hyper-aware of changes to other people’s emotions and body language, but you may also feel their emotions on a deeper level. Remember that you can be polite, kind and caring, and still say ‘No’.

Try to take note of places or people that deplete your energy, or leave you feeling overstimulated. If there are particular situations that you cannot avoid, you may find it helpful to visualise physical boundaries around yourself to protect your energy. A great benefit of setting boundaries is that when you have more energy, you can really use your sensitivity as the strength it can be.

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