I attended a family function recently, and as I entered the gathering, I was inundated with sensory information. Here's what I processed in the first minute: There were dozens of people, who I barely knew, eating their lunch and talking; dogs were running around, including my own who is a bit fond of other people's food; family members approaching me to give me a hug; children making their typical loud noises; asking a fellow partygoer where the beverages were and having her bolt across the room to get not only my drink, but also drinks for four other people; feeling embarrassed because I didn't intend for her to go out of her way like that; and sitting down to eat as my uncle and mom both simultaneously tried to strike up conversations with me. I tried to listen and smile politely, but I wanted to just disappear.
Does this sound familiar? If so, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP). Much of our understanding of this trait comes from clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, and you can take the HSP self-test on her website. According to Dr. Aron, approximately 15 to 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive; in fact, it is likely a trait you inherited.
HSPs take in sensory information in a very easy and evolved way. Noises, smells, and visual details that non-HSPs would likely ignore are easily noticed and processed by HSPs.
While I would classify myself as a moderate HSP, there are certain triggers I now recognize that amplify my sensitivity, and lack of sleep is one of them. Having stayed up late to play cards the night before factored into my reaction at the party the next day.
Here are eight survival strategies for HSPs:
- Get adequate sleep. Your body needs adequate recovery time from the stimulation. Seven to eight hours is critical.
- Have an out. If you are going to be spending time with a group of people who have many activities planned, particularly in a short amount of time, have an exit strategy in place in case you get overstimulated.
- Schedule daily downtime. HSPs need time to unwind and think over the day.
- Limit or avoid caffeine. For non-HSPs, caffeine may provide a little boost, but for HSPs, caffeine is rocket fuel that can actually cause overarousal and impede performance.
- Reframe the situation. Find an alternative way to view the event.
- Go outside. Many HSPs find nature very soothing. I love spending time by lakes and bodies of water.
- Take frequent breaks. Your body needs time to process, and then recover from, the stimulation.
- Set boundaries. As an HSP, it's easy to get stuck handling other people's messes and get involved in situations that aren't really your problem. Setting boundaries will help curb your natural tendency to do this.
Learning about Dr. Aron's research gave me a tremendous sense of relief because I couldn't quite figure out what was "wrong" with me. It explained why I could pick up on social cues that my parents, husband, and friends totally missed, and why I have such an extreme reaction to violent movies (Saving Private Ryan almost made me bolt from the theater).
Being an HSP takes some getting used to and I still have some bad days, but I'm thankful for the understanding that I now have and appreciate the good parts of this trait.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP is an internationally published author and stress and resilience expert. She has trained over a thousand professionals is skills that build stress management and resilience. Her online magazine, Build Your Strong, helps busy professionals manage stress and build strong, happy, healthy lives. Paula's website is www.pauladavislaack.com, and you can reach her at email@example.com. She is available for speaking engagements, workshops, and media opportunities.
 Aron, E. (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York: Broadway Books and Three Rivers Press.
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