10/24/22 Update: This post inspired my latest book Love Your Sensitivity:7 Essential Life Changes to Make After Learning You’re a Highly Sensitive Person. You can find it now at your favorite ebook retailer. ***
Years ago, when I discovered that I was a Highly Sensitive Person, I thought I had myself all figured out. I added more things to my life to accommodate my sensitivity, incorporating more outdoor time into my day and installing blue light filters on all my devices since I know how visually sensitive I am. I also switched to using more natural skin care products since I am sensitive to chemicals and unnatural scents.
I made all of these practical adjustments with the idea that this was the best way to cater to my needs as a highly sensitive person since the books I’ve read about sensitivity focus a lot on the importance of creating a comfortable physical environment.
Physical comfort is important for HSPs. But over the past year, I’ve realized that these changes were surface level and didn’t address the real nature of being a Highly Sensitive Person. Making these kinds of changes without paying attention to the deep underlying facets of sensitivity left me open to hurting myself. I fell into overwork and ignored my needs without even realizing it because I was still doing what I thought I needed to take care of myself as a sensitive person.
Making these shallow gestures towards my sensitivity distracted me from the deep-reaching impacts of being highly sensitive. I didn’t fully understand how much my sensitivity affects every part of my being.
Know the Signs
If you’re highly sensitive, here are some traits and signs to look out for that show you may not fully understand your sensitivity. All of these don’t have to be present at the same time. Just a few may be a signal that you need to step back and re-evaluate how you’re handling being an HSP:
- You feel like you are pushing and forcing yourself all the time. Pushing yourself to wake up, to do tasks, or to be there for other people.
- You are constantly forcing yourself to stay awake. You may even use digital devices when tired to keep your eyes open.
- You are consuming a lot of sugar or caffeine either to keep going or “just because I like it.” You may crave these things when feeling tired.
- Your brain feels like an overflowing bathtub.
- You have a lot of neck, shoulder, back, and jaw tension.
- You feel irritable, and you don’t know why. You can also feel angry and not know why.
- You are overly concerned with perfectionism and getting things just right.
- Things not going according to plan feels unbearable.
- You feel creatively dull or uninspired.
- At the edge of your mind is a sense of panic. Panic that everything may go wrong, and you don’t have the resources to handle it.
- The emotional energy of others hits you hard. You easily take on the pain and anxiety of others. The emotional walls between you and other people feel very thin.
Looking at this list, I better understand why HSPs often decide to work for themselves. As an HSP, it’s essential to structure your life so that you can work at your own speed instead of having others dictate that pace for you. My book, Thoughtful Planning: How to Use Questions for Self-reflection to Design Your Day, is all about tuning into your natural pace. I learned the hard way that if you don’t honor your natural pacing, your body will force you to. You may also be disconnected from your intuition and have a hard time making decisions and separating your needs from those of others.
My Top HSP Life Changes
Reacquainting myself with my sensitive nature has been both difficult and exhilarating. Accepting my natural pace has been a struggle, but at the same time, I feel so much better when I go with it. Here are the things I wish I would have done to better honor my sensitivity at the start(besides adding blue light filters to all of my devices).
See if you’re high sensation seeking.
If you are an HSS HSP, like I am, you have to approach being sensitive differently from someone who is not. For one thing, under-stimulation can end up being as much of a problem as overstimulation. As a high sensation seeker, I have to watch out for instigating my overstimulation, especially when facing boredom. I like action, movement, noise, and stimulation. However, I have to be aware of my thresholds. Sometimes when I listen to music, I start playing it loud, but as time goes on, I have to lower the volume and lower it some more, and then I reach a point where listening to it is irritating. I often jump into things with full intensity, but then have to slow down my pace or “lower the volume.”
If you’re an HSS HSP, pay attention to how you deal with quiet and boredom. Find ways to deal with under-stimulation without pushing yourself into overstimulation. You can take this test to see if you are High Sensation Seeking at Elaine Aaron’s website.
Take an honest look at your diet.
What do you eat when you’re feeling tired or anxious? Do you reach for something sweet or caffeinated? Over the past couple of years, I realized that this is what I was doing. When feeling overstimulated, I would go for the sugar. Chocolate was my especially favorite weapon of choice.
However, using food to deal with overstimulation can backfire. My eating habits only served to numb myself. I was avoiding the real issues, which were my need for rest and quiet.
Not resting and not having enough space came back to bite me, manifesting as severe muscle aches and anxiety. As an HSP, it’s essential to stay in touch with your sensitivity. Sensitivity is key to staying healthy and is an intricate part of who you are. Although it’s painful sometimes, it’s better to face it instead of numbing yourself.
If you’re an HSS HSP, also try to notice if you’re turning to sugar and caffeine not only from tiredness but also to soothe boredom from under-stimulation.
Cut back on (or eliminate) the caffeine.
When I was still a caffeine consumer, I used to scoff at the idea of reducing my caffeine intake, although it’s commonly recommended for HSPs not to consume it.
I believed that having caffeine was okay for me. I wasn’t taking in enough for it to aggravate my anxiety or make me feel overwhelmed. I thought I could handle it. However, I didn’t understand that I consuming caffeine to dull my sensitivity.
As a result, I ended up becoming heavily addicted to caffeine. A hypoglycemic episode forced me off of it, and the withdrawal process was extremely painful.
So if you are an HSP, and think you can handle consuming caffeine, I recommend checking in with yourself. Are you using caffeine to keep your sensitivity at bay and to hide how much rest and quiet time you need? If so, you’ll be much better off reducing or eliminating the caffeine, and honestly working with your needs as a sensitive person instead of trying to suppress them.
I didn’t realize that I would go to such lengths to hide it from myself.
Know how you are the most sensitive.
When I started learning about my sensitivity, I thought I needed to do what it seemed like all the other HSPs were doing. I believed I needed noise-canceling earphones and other methods of sensory deprivation. I’ve learned that although I’m sensitive to noise and visual stimulation, I don’t have to obsess over blocking everything out when I’m overstimulated.
As an HSS HSP, I need awareness of both under-stimulation and overstimulation. Bass-heavy pop music can get tiring for me after a while although I love it, but I can listen to piano sounds, lo-fi hip-hop, and natural noises all day. Scrolling through social media may give me visual overload, but admiring artwork in a manga or creating art of my own does not.
Also, it’s important to note that not all HSPs are sensitive in the same ways. My areas of the most sensitivity are visual and auditory, so when I feel overwhelmed, paying attention to these areas works the best for me. But others may be more sensitive to scents, textures, or taste.
Knowing the physical senses that impact me the most has made me aware of the best ways to soothe myself. Our physical senses aren’t all or nothing. It’s still possible to use my senses to the full without overwhelming myself.
Reevaluate your attitude towards rest.
Modern society has issues with rest. Often rest is confused with laziness, procrastination, and addiction to convenience. However, for HSPs, rest is vital. Highly sensitive people need rest to keep over-stimulation in check and to maintain their focus.
So pay attention to your attitude towards rest. Are the popular views of rest affecting how you take care of yourself? Are you pushing yourself to keep going, even when you know you shouldn’t? When you take a moment to rest, do you feel guilt nagging in the back of your mind? Do you reluctantly go to bed? Do you resist stopping to recharge?
If so, you may need to readjust your feelings towards resting. Instead of thinking about what you’re missing out on or illusions of falling behind, instead think about how taking a moment to recharge is what will make you powerful.
Also, don’t forget to take moments to get in touch with how you feel. This counts as rest as well.
I’ve written quite a few posts on the importance of rest; here they are if you would like to check them out:
- Why Breaks are Essential for Me as an INFP
- How to Deal With INFP Burnout at Work
- What INFPs Can Do When Feeling Burned Out From Thoughts and Emotions
- How I Plan to Slow Down Today
Find a bodyworker ASAP.
I used to think that getting a massage was only for wealthy people who didn’t know what to do with their time. But, after getting my first massage, all I could say was, “Why didn’t I do this earlier???”
HSPs carry a lot of stress in their bodies because they’re always trying to steel themselves in a world that is too loud, fast, and busy. In stressful situations, we tend to clench our muscles. HSPs experience more stress due to the mental load of processing more stimuli than most people.
Getting a massage will remove that stress from your body, pronto. This is important because it’s hard to do this on your own. Acupuncture also works very well.
If you can’t afford a massage therapist or an acupuncturist, see if there is a massage therapy or acupuncturist school in your area. I regularly get acupuncture from students who are under the supervision of licensed acupuncturists, and they do an awesome job. Rates for bodyworkers in training are much less, plus you’re helping someone to continue their education, which is pretty awesome.
In general, be aware of the need to relieve physical tension from your body every day. Taking relaxing baths instead of showering can help, and so can doing stretches. But having a professional on your side will help you take care of yourself at a deeper level.
Practice letting go.
As a highly sensitive person, not only do I clench my muscles as a reaction to stress, but I also engage in emotional “clenching.”
I tend to hold on to negative emotions, although they keep hurting me, just like it’s hard for me to release and relax my tense and achy muscles. I’ve had to incorporate practices for letting go emotionally into my life.
Practicing forgiveness towards others and especially myself, has been a major tool for healing when it comes to my recovery from chronic pain. I spent so much energy being angry at myself, wondering how I could let this happen. But the truth was, I had no idea that things would turn out the way they did. And even if I did know, holding a grudge against myself wouldn’t help me to move forward. Once I managed to forgive myself, I immediately felt a huge weight lift off of me, and I started to improve faster.
My favorite letting go practices are forgiveness, decluttering, saying goodbye, and journaling. This can also involve working with the messages within emotions, childhood wounds, and trauma. When it comes to the more emotional issues, there is nothing wrong with having a therapist help you work through them.
Forgiveness and letting go aren’t about forgetting what happened – They’re about releasing the grip of the things that keep you stuck from moving forward. You move from a place of blame to a place of finding comfort, peace, and actual solutions.
So this is my super list of things I think highly sensitive people need in their lives. I so wish I knew I needed these things a long time ago.
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