I’ve been called “extra”, “emotional”, “sensitive” all my life. People tell me I need to let things go or to loosen up. I need to just “not worry so much” or “not let things get to me”. Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that, thanks. I’m 31; I’m pretty sure it’s just my personality.
While not classified as a disorder, this trait is recognized in the scientific community, usually referre to as “sensory processing sensitivity”. It’s certainly not rare though, affecting up to 15-20% of people.
My Experience as a Highly Sensitive Person
I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2009, and I consider it to be the explanation for all the things wrong with me. Of course, that’s pretty reductive to say. The disorder itself is just a pathology for my underlying issues. I’ve blamed everything abnormal or non-conforming about me on BPD. Maybe that’s not fair, but I chalk everything up to that. Not as an excuse, but as an explanation to myself. I do x, y, or z? Must a BPD thing. I am not saying that’s right, but it’s what I do when evaluating myself.
I’ve stabilized and improved a lot over the years with my BPD. Thanks to self-compassion work, self-reflection journaling, and of course, good, ole-fashioned DBT work (and some CBT). Another thing that’s not a self-help exercise, per se, is finding passions and creating personal goals.
However, even into my 30s, I realized I was extra sensitive to everything around me. I labeled them as “quirks”, like my Dad would call them. Things I couldn’t explain with Borderline Personality Disorder, despite trying. Here’s some examples:
- I can’t handle loud, repetitive, or obnoxious noises. Easily my biggest trigger. Someone playing music from their phone speakers, hearing a television from another room that I’m not watching, someone talking while I have headphones on, etc. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. It fills me with rage and anxiety simultaneously.
- This goes doubly for noises happening at the same time, like multiple conversations happening. I don’t think anyone likes having a lot of competing noises, but I shut down (or lash out) when this happens. I can’t think, much less talk or do any work. This has happened on numerous occasions in work environments because it’s hard to escape, and I struggle to nicely ask people to do something reasonable, like turn down music, or stop talking loudly. This results in me flipping out or sighing passive aggressively and rolling my eyes.
- I cry easily, for better or for worse. Whether something’s cute and sweet, or sad and tragic, whether it’s a commercial on TV or a cheesy scene in a movie, I’ll probably cry. It’s embarrassing, the type of crap that actually brings tears to my eyes.
- On a similar note, I “burst with emotion” often. I don’t know how to describe this succinctly. You know what it means to have your heart “swell” in an emotional sense? I get this warm, swelling feeling in my heart when something overwhelmingly beautiful, or sweet, or touching happens. Two best examples of this are a billboard in Nolensville, TN of a Goodwill employee and a magazine aimed at elderly adults. Makes my little heart burst when I see stuff like this. I don’t cry, but I want to. I’m not sure why. They have such sincere, sweet faces. I don’t know; they could be horrible people, but their eyes and disposition in the photo really reaches out to me for some reason.
- I’m overwhelmed easily, and it goes beyond my ability or inability to handle stress. As a result, I’ve had tons of different jobs and usually didn’t handle my departure in an appropriate manner. This could also be attributed to my BPD, but the fact that things get to me so easily is a broad enough problem that I could explain with either one.
- I’m easily put off by touch. I’m an affectionate person, but sometimes I don’t even feel comfortable in my own skin. My clothes might suddenly feel itchy or constricting. My boyfriend’s hand on my leg suddenly feels hot and irritating. This is not always the case, but when it does happen, I am never sure what triggers it. Being tired definitely seems to affect this, but outside of that, I don’t know what causes this sudden shift in how I respond to touch or tactile sensations.
- I’m very particular about my personal space, and I feel cramped and irritated if someone stands too close to me at the grocery store. However, I feel like my personal bubble is a lot larger than average, and it might make me seem like I’m easily agitated or neurotic for needing more space. But it’s just the way I am.
- Oh, the grocery store. I avoid going out in crowds as much as possible, utilizing delivery and pickup services to minimize my encounters with the “real world”. Honestly, the pandemic has just given me an excuse to do this and be cautious with actual motive, instead of my own personal reasons. In reality, I have massive levels of irritability in crowds, with a thousand things going through my head at once.
“Am I in their way? Are they in mine?” “Why didn’t they say excuse me?” “Ugh, why is everyone so rude and getting in my way?” “How come I’m the only one being polite?” “Everything is so looooud!” “Everyone’s going in different directions.” “I feel disoriented.” “I’m confused. What am I getting again?” “Oh shit, I nearly ran into someone.” “Someone’s standing too close to me in checkout. ICK.”
- I’m affected easily by someone else’s mood, energy, tone of voice, regardless of their actual intent. While this can be a positive thing, it often affects me negatively and can lead to a lot of stress and tension, both mentally and physically, as I find myself tensing my muscles, as a result. This is similar to being an empath, which I think crosses paths a lot with being an HSP.
- My body is sensitive to medications, caffeine and alcohol. I always thought I was just a lightweight, but this is something that a lot of HSPs experience. Our nervous systems respond differently to a lot of these things, being more sensitive to their effects than we otherwise would. This is one reason I stopped smoking pot; regardless of the strand, I seemed to have an adverse reaction, compared to my friends. My solution for this? CBD oil! All the benefits; none of the nasty side effects.
All of this makes me seem fragile, sensitive, high maintenance, or a diva. And maybe I am those things, but my body is literally just more sensitive to stimuli than a “normal” person! So at least I have an understanding of why.
Traits of a Highly Sensitive Person
Being highly sensitive is not a diagnosis. It’s not a psychiatric condition or a personality disorder. It is real, definable, and observed in the psychology world. According to the Dr. Elain Aron, the spearhead behind the HSP movement, here are just some of the traits, as she’s observed:
- Easily overwhelmed or overstimulated by bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, certain textures.
- Pressured and overwhelmed by time limits and deadlines.
- Strong reaction to violence or gore in TV, film, or video games.
- Need privacy and alone time to recharge after hard days (this could also be true of introverts, but there is often overlap).
- Avoiding upsetting or overwhelming things, going as far as to re-arrange or re-prioritize things in your life.
- Noticing subtleties in things like food, drink, smells, etc.
- Often seen or perceived by others as sensitive or shy.
You can take her self-test to see if you meet the criteria for a Highly Sensitive Person.
“But Isn’t Everyone Like This to a Degree? “Or, “Doesn’t This Apply to ADHD/Autism/Empaths/Introverts?”
Now I’m no expert on this topic. I’m reading the research and writing of others who have done the actual work and understand this stuff way better. I do know sensory processing sensitivity will overlap with other traits and descriptions, particularly of introverts, empaths, and people with ADHD, anxiety, or autism. That doesn’t mean you can’t be both or that you ARE both. It’s up to you to come to that conclusion, if you’re an HSP.
I’m not going to be diving into the differences between all these things because it’s just not my place to do that. The HSP website has an FAQ that addresses this a little bit, if you’re curious. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make this discernment.
How I Cope with the Negatives of Being an HSP
I think being highly sensitive comes with a number of positives, like being incredibly empathetic and being able to read people easily. However, a lot of being highly sensitive is negative, and I spend a lot of my time recovering from, coping with, or responding to irritating, overwhelming stimuli.
Here, I want to discuss ways to cope with being overwhelmed, specifically the way I cope. If you’re curious, you can browse the HSP subreddit, find another forum, or another person’s blog to get more personal experience. I am just one voice here.
First of all, we’re not talking about how to stop being highly sensitive. It’s just a personality trait, like being gregarious, or assertive, or stubborn. I can’t be “fixed” because I’m not broken. Others might see me as too much to handle or too dramatic, but that’s okay. I am just being myself.
So, with that out of the way, how do I cope with being over-stimulated and always annoyed?
That’s a great question! One I’ve been constantly trying to answer myself.
- My number one method is distraction, distraction, distraction. Headphones are my favorite defense. Of course, if you were paying attention in the section about how I’m affected, as an HSP, you will have already noticed that people talking while I’m listening to music is incredibly distracting and annoying. However, for most other noises and things, it’s a very good block.
I also rely heavily on YouTube videos, podcasts, and Twitch!
- In a similar vein, wearing earplugs at night. Loud neighbors, snoring boyfriend, rambunctious cat? Earplugs help. They do a pretty good job of blocking most noises, though they’re not 100% soundproof. Also, you have to wear them right! Which I definitely wasn’t the first time I tried them.
- Knowing when to walk away is huge. Sometimes you might sit and stew, thinking you just need to tough it out and be more tolerant. No. Screw that. Walk away. Who cares if you’re being sensitive? That’s literally what this whole post is about! You are sensitive. Just walk away and save your mental health.
- Recovery afterward is sometimes the only thing you can do. If I’ve had a stressful, draining day, I make it an absolute top priority to recharge. Forget your responsibilities. They can wait another night. Or at least an hour, if you absolutely have something due that night. But pretty much everything can wait if you’re feeling mentally drained. I know what recharges me. Quiet time, laying down, turning off my brain while I watch something. Sometimes it’s me working on something, sometimes it’s reading a book, sometimes it’s a nice hot, bath, sometimes it’s doing some self-compassion work. It just depends on what I feel like I need. Find out what you need to recover.
This is my personal experience being a newly-found HSP. I hope you find it helpful! If you’re an HSP, share your experience with me. If you aren’t, what do you think about it? How does it differ from your mentality and experience?