Highly sensitive people are often accused by others of being ‘too sensitive’. They may be among the 1.4 billion people globally born with the trait of high sensitivity, says therapist Mel Collins who has written a new book on it
Do sometimes wonder if you feel things more deeply than others? Do you know someone in your personal or professional life who may be highly sensitive? High sensitivity is defined as acute physical, mental, and emotional responses to social, environmental or internal stimuli. This innate temperament trait is also known as sensory processing sensitivity, because of the depth of sensory, environmental and information processing that happens within the biological nervous systems and brains of Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).
So, what are some of the main characteristics of HSPs?
1. Deep emotional sensitivity
HSPs experience their emotions more deeply and intensely than non-HSPs and they process them for longer. They are often touched deeply, even moved to tears, with positive feelings such as joy, kindness, compassion and love.
But they can also particularly struggle with negative emotions such as guilt, shame, fear, hurt, unworthiness, anger and feelings of betrayal – more so than in the case of non-HSPs it appears. As such, they can easily close down when criticized, judged, cheated on or lied to. And it tends to take a longer time for them to recover from such experiences than non-HSPs.
What can help:
Emotional Freedom Technique (or ‘tapping’): *EFT is based on traditional Chinese acupressure practices and modern psychology. It is one of the most effective and powerful body–mind techniques for HSPs to manage their deep levels of emotional processing and intensity. It is also a great self-help tool for managing the day-to-day stresses of life and to stop the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response to stress in the body’s autonomic nervous system.
2. They are highly empathetic and pick up on subtleties
HSPs have high levels of empathy. They also have highly attuned antennae which means they are constantly transmitting and picking up on subtleties whether they are aware of it or not. Because of this, people who need help or support are often drawn to HSPs. The downside unfortunately, is that many HSPs end up being affected by other people’s moods and emotions and absorbing them like sponges. This leaves them feeling drained, exhausted or saturated by the end of the day.
What can help:
Creative visualisation to protect your energy We all tend to protect what’s important to us. We take out insurance policies on things like our homes, cars, income and health. We also protect our physical bodies from the effects of the environment by wearing a raincoat or using sun cream. Yet few people tend to think about protecting their own energies.
What we don’t often think about is that when we interact with other people we are also interacting with their energies, whether positive or negative. Learning how to protect their own energy can prove to be one of the most important daily disciplines for an HSP to stop them becoming empathic sponges.
Doing creative visualisation or a meditation first thing in the morning can help enormously. The golden light method is a good all-rounder. Start by bringing your awareness to your heart centre. Then visualize a miniature sun deep inside your heart, radiating with golden light (just like the sun in the sky). Visualize these golden rays radiating through every cell and every atom in your body, filling every part of you from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Next, see, sense or feel this golden light starting to radiate even brighter and feel the light expanding outwards above your head, below your feet and out the sides of your physical body, making a beautiful, radiant golden bubble of light around you. Stand in this golden light for a minute or two and then open your eyes. You are then ready to go about your day.
Set healthy boundaries HSPs are natural givers and this goes hand in hand with being highly empathic. Whilst these are wonderful positive qualities that can help those in need or support, HSPs can also end up attracting ‘takers’ in their life, such as narcissistic or selfish people. Creating healthy boundaries is an act of self-love and self-care and it means that HSPs know and understand what their limits are on a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level. It also lets others know what their limits are with them too.
3. They get affected by environmental and sensory stimuli
There are a multitude of environmental and sensory triggers that affect HSPs. Crowds, high noise levels, sirens or alarms going off, bright or unnatural lighting, strong smells and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from mobiles, computers and wi-fi are just some examples that can affect the sensory nervous systems of HSPs. They can end up feeling frazzled and needing to withdraw from the world in order to recharge.
What can help:
Taking time out in a peaceful, calm environment or spending time in nature Finding a quiet, relaxing and calming space where HSPs can be alone to get away from an overstimulating and often non-sensitive world is vital for their wellbeing. Nature also offers the best de-stressing, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effect in the world for HSPs. Whether it’s taking a walk in a park, spending time in woodlands, being by the sea or climbing hills, nature helps to reduce the effects of stimuli.
Grounding or barefoot walking Our physical body has electrical systems running within it, the two most powerful being the heart and brain. All electrical systems need to be ‘earthed’. Unfortunately, due to us wearing shoes most of the time, we are disconnected from the best earthing tool available to us – the actual earth. Walking barefoot on grass, soil or sand, even for just ten minutes, allows electrons to flow between your body and the earth. Grounding or earthing in this way also discharges electromagnetic fields from things like mobile phones, wi-fi and computers which HSPs are more sensitive to.
4. They struggle with over-arousal
HSPs get affected by environmental and sensory stimuli because they have low tolerance of high levels of stimulation. And if there is too much stimulation, it can lead to high levels of arousal in their sensory nervous system and HSPs can begin to feel overwhelmed. Juggling too many commitments, commuting, parenting, deadlines, being observed or tested can all lead to over-stimulation. Chronic overarousal can lead to trouble sleeping, anxiety and adrenal fatigue.
What can help:
Self-care: Looking after themselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually is a priority for HSPs, especially when overarousal occurs. It’s important for HSPs to learn to listen to their bodies and to recognize the environmental or sensory stimuli that can trigger it. Prevention measures and coping strategies can then be implemented rather than simply fire-fighting when it happens.
The ACE Method – Avoid, Control, Escape: This is a simple, but effective strategy to use when you know you are going somewhere or doing something in your day that will affect you adversely or overstimulate your nervous system. If it’s something that you don’t want to do or somewhere you don’t want to go, then avoid it. But if you can’t, put strategies in place to control the overstimulation, like going outside for a break and/or doing some deep breathing exercises. And, finally if you can’t avoid or control the environment or the situation that you are in, then escape it. Don’t push yourself to stay longer than you need to or put up with something that is going to trigger overaurousal, after all your wellbeing is the priority.
5. They are reflective and deep thinkers
HSPs also have deep concentration and focus, they are highly conscientious and usually take longer to make decisions, as they need to consider any and all possible consequences. They give great attention to detail and are often considered to be perfectionists. All these qualities serve them well in life, especially in their chosen careers. However, one of the downsides is that they also tend to over-analyse and struggle to switch off at the end of the day.
What can help:
Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness allows HSPs to stay present by focussing only on what they are doing in that moment. Being in the now stops the mind from racing or going over things have already happened in the past or from worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future.
Meditation, Yoga, Tai-chi or Qigong: Any of these practices can help to stop the merry-go-round in the minds of HSPs.
6. They may struggle with food sensitivities or use food or substances as a way to ‘numb out’
Many HSPs seem to struggle with allergies, food intolerances, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and digestive issues. They can be particularly sensitive to wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar and caffeine, so foods containing them can have an adverse effect on their already sensitive sensory nervous system. HSPs can also be extremely sensitive to pain and be susceptible to ‘energy’ disorders such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia or M.E.
Some HSPs also use substances as a coping strategy or to numb out from being highly sensitive. These substances can be caffeine (to stop feeling exhausted or drained from being an empathic sponge), food -whether general or more specific such as chocolate (for comfort eating or as an unconscious way of creating a layer of protection) and, finally, alcohol or drugs (for relaxation or escapism).
What can help:
Consult a doctor, holistic therapist (kinesiologist, or someone who does biofeedback testing) or a nutritionist/naturopath for food sensitivities or allergies You can also keep a food diary if you think you have an intolerance and eliminate suspected foods for a month or so. Then reintroduce them slowly to see if the symptoms return. If so, adjust your diet accordingly. You will feel a whole lot better, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally too.
Find healthy coping strategies instead of using substances to numb out Implementing many of the strategies already mentioned like energy protection, being in nature, yoga, meditation etc will help.
(*How to do EFT/ Tapping and further self-help strategies for dealing with overarousal can be found in Mel’s new book ‘The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People’ – see below)
Mel Collins is an author, psychotherapeutic counsellor and holistic therapist. Her book The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People: How to Transform Feeling Overwhelmed and Frazzled to Empowered and Fulfilled is due to be published on January 15th 2019 by Watkins Publishing (available to pre-order now on Amazon). Before this, she worked for the Prison Service, including eight years as a Prison Governor managing Substance Misuse Services. Being innately sensitive in a challenging prison setting has given her a unique learning experience to develop coping strategies for managing certain aspects of the HSP trait. She has also appeared on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and spoken on BBC Radio 5 Live about HSPs. For more information visit www.melcollins.co.uk