Imagine a typical Sunday afternoon.
My husband and I are looking at buying a new outdoor table and chair set. While I’m happily perusing my best friend Amazon, he’s heading to the car for a trip to Home Depot.
The conversation goes something like this:
Him: “I want to feel the cushions, and see it in person.”
Me: “Home Depot is my worst nightmare.”
He convinces me of the merits of buying from the brick-and-mortar corporate monolith rather than the virtual one. I prepare myself for the trip. Things are looking up as we snag a close parking space and walk through the automatic doors.
I notice the vastness first, then the far off but distinct sound of wood being cut. Then the nearly overwhelming smell of said wood combined with smells of freshly mixed paint. Conversations swirl around me seeming to echo off the high ceilings. There’s a child running up and down the aisles.
I feel overwhelmed and nauseous.
We quickly pick out the table and chairs and I make a hasty retreat to our fortunately close car, vowing that this is my last trip to any home improvement store.
This overwhelm, which was simply the Home Depot or Lowe’s mystery, now makes perfect sense. I am an HSP—shorthand for Highly Sensitive Person. High sensitivity is a trait for about 20 percent of people, and if you are one of them, understanding what it means and how it shows up can be a lifesaver.
While I find many HSP qualities positive, they can also be challenging. This is especially true when an HSP ventures into situations that trigger their sensitivity, which is what happened when I ventured into Home Depot.
Dr. Elaine Aron, who first identified HSP qualities, says that there are four primary traits of HSPs: depth of processing, overstimulation and over-arousal, emotional responsiveness/empathy, and sensitivity to subtleties (DOES).
These traits have to do with how HSPs take in and process information:
Depth of processing: HSPs take in a lot of information from their environment. They may notice visual qualities, noise, smells, tastes, and tactile stimulation simultaneously. This could lead to the next quality—overstimulation.
Overstimulation: With so much coming in at once, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. While a non-HSP may notice, HSPs notice. There is a magnification of what we see. Imagine the difference between Times Square midday and Times Square at Christmas. The latter is chaotic and overpowering. It’s like Christmas all the time for the HSP.
Emotional responsiveness: The same kind of intensity can also apply to emotions. This is especially true of empathy—understanding others’ feelings. As a therapist, this can definitely be a positive. It can also create difficulty separating our feelings from others’ feelings.
Sensitivity to subtleties: HSPs rarely miss out on changes in their environments and subtle details others don’t see. If you don’t like ketchup on your fries, I’m likely to know that after one meal together. Changes in the status quo, whether it’s redecorating or something else, can be jarring.
Sounds invigorating? It can be. Sounds exhausting? It can be.
Some questions to ask yourself if you think you may be an HSP are:
Do other people’s moods affect me?
Do others often tell me I’m sensitive?
Does the news seem to affect me more deeply than it seems to affect others?
Have I been commended for how conscientious I am?
Am I deeply moved by art or music?
Do loud noises make me uncomfortable?
Do I need to retreat after particularly busy days?
You may not relate to all of them, but if it feels pretty familiar, chances are you are an HSP.
While I’ve found HSP traits that serve me well, they can be tiring. Some ways to help HSPs manage include:
One great way to reduce the sense of overstimulation that is part and parcel of being an HSP is mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to notice thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in a non-judgmental way; to label them; and to not need to act further.
HSPs are often given negative messages about themselves and their emotional responsiveness. By identifying these messages, we can learn to respond in a more compassionate way. The most common message: “You’re too sensitive.” Reframe: “My sensitivity is a gift that allows me to know myself and others more deeply.”
3. Decreasing perfectionism.
Perfectionism is another classic HSP trait. HSPs are notoriously hard on themselves. Maybe that’s because they can often be the target of others. Perfectionism, however, carries its own burdens. Catch that harsh inner critic in action.
4. Embracing emotions and modulating as needed.
Because HSPs feel emotions so keenly, they can sometimes fear emotions. Embracing all emotions, and not labelling them as “good” or “bad,” can be helpful. See the positives in feeling emotions deeply—that artwork or music is all the more beautiful when it brings tears to your eyes. When emotions get too intense, modulate them by taking a break—hopping in a warm shower, aromatherapy, or journaling can be helpful.
Last but not least, HSPs can benefit from grounding. It’s easy to be taken away from your center when the world is such a “busy” place. One way to ground is to sit, noticing the connection of the body in the chair. Feel your feet firmly planted. Take a breath.
Sending love to my fellow HSPs. I hope that these tips help you feel calm, connected, and at your best.