If you’re a highly sensitive person like me, you know little things can be too much. Busy environments, violent images in movies, or weekends with little downtime can stress you out. Because you’re so in tune with your environment and other people, life can be pretty exhausting. As a result, you withdraw — but the people around you don’t understand why you do this.
But there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not alone. High sensitivity is actually fairly common, found in 15 to 20 percent of the population, according to Dr. Elaine N. Aron, author of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Both introverts and extroverts can be sensitive, as well as people of all personality types, although high sensitivity is probably more common among INFPs and INFJs.
(What’s your personality type? We recommend this free personality test.)
Sadly, because many people don’t understand what high sensitivity is, you may have been told to “toughen up” or “just get over it.” You may have always felt different from other people, but you didn’t have a name for what you were.
High sensitivity can make life challenging but not impossible. When I’m in a routine and doing plenty of self-care, I forget about my sensitivity. But a recent trip reminded me of just how frazzled my senses can get. I was rushing from one activity to the next, hanging out in loud, crowded bars and restaurants, and meeting many new people. To top it all off, I wasn’t getting enough sleep or the kind of exercise that makes me feel good, like cardio and yoga. After five days of “vacation,” I was completely fried.
How can highly sensitive people thrive in a noisy, busy world? Here are 12 things we need:
1. Time to decompress
Noisy, busy environments, like a crowded shopping mall, can wreak havoc on a sensitive person’s highly reactive nervous system. Likewise, packed schedules and high-pressure situations, like a job interview or the first day in a new school, are overstimulating. If you know you’ll be in situation that will frazzle you, plan some time to decompress in a quiet space afterward. It’s best if you can be alone.
2. Meaningful relationships
We get bored or restless in relationships that lack meaningful interaction, according to Aron. This doesn’t mean we’re prone to relationship hopping. Rather, we may actually work harder to inspire intimacy and interesting conversation. It also means we’re selective about the people we let into our lives.
Interestingly, many sensitive people are great to be in a relationship with because they not only tune in to what’s good for them but also to what’s good for others. They pay close attention to what their significant other wants. Aron calls this characteristic “mate sensitivity,” which means the ability to rapidly figure out what pleases their partner and act based on that intel. This behavior goes for friends, family members, and co-workers as well. Basically, it makes us happy to make others happy.
3. People who understand our emotional nature
Sensitive people may cry or frequently become emotional. “Sensitive people can’t help but express what they’re feeling,” Aron told the Huffington Post. “They show their anger, they show their happiness. Appreciating that is really important.”
4. A gentle, healthy way of managing conflict
No matter who you are, fighting with a loved one is miserable. But sensitive people tend to feel extra anxious when conflict arises, and an internal battle takes place. We feel torn between speaking up for what we believe is right and sitting back so we don’t provoke an angry reaction from the other person. Often we subjugate our own needs because we’d rather “go along to get along.” On the other hand, sensitive people can make great conflict resolvers, because we tend to see the other person’s perspective. We have high levels of empathy and can easily put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
5. Time to get things done
Sensitive people like a slower pace of life. We like pondering all our options before making a decision. We’re always reflecting on our experiences. We hate busy schedules and rushing from one event to the next. One of the hardest parts of my day during the work week is getting moving in the morning and leaving my apartment on time. Saturday mornings, when I don’t have to work, are for going at my own pace. It’s calming and restorative to know I don’t have to be dressed and ready to go anywhere anytime soon.
6. Plenty of sleep
Lack of sleep (less than 7 hours a night, for most people) makes the average person irritable and less productive. But lack of sleep for the sensitive person can make life almost unbearable. Getting enough sleep soothes my ramped-up senses and helps me process my thoughts and emotions. How much sleep I get can literally make or break my day. Without proper sleep, every little stressor seems ten times worse.
7. Healthy meals spaced regularly throughout the day
When I don’t eat regularly, I get hangry. This is because, according to Aron, extreme hunger can mess up a sensitive person’s mood or concentration. To fend off feelings of crankiness and discombobulation, maintain a steady blood sugar level throughout the day by eating regular healthy meals and snacks.
8. Caffeine-free options
Sensitive people are sensitive to caffeine (no surprise here). I drink one cup of coffee in the morning to get me going, but I don’t have any caffeine past noon. Even a mug of green tea later in the day would leave me tossing and turning at night. Plus, having too much caffeine leaves me feeling jittery and wound up in an uncomfortable way. If you’re sensitive, consider limiting your coffee, soda, and tea intake. Watch out for sneaky sources of caffeine, like chocolate. Remember, the darker the chocolate, the more caffeine. For example, Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Bar has a walloping 31 milligrams of caffeine, almost as much as a can of Coke!
9. A space of our own
If you live with others, make sure you have a quiet place you can retreat to when you need to get away from noise and people. Turn on your favorite music to drown out any unpleasant external noise.
10. Low lighting
If possible, turn off the overhead lights in your home or office and substitute a lamp.
11. Time to adjust to change
Transitions aren’t easy for anybody. (Hey! Who moved my cheese?) But for sensitive people, transitions can be really rough. Even positive changes, like starting a new relationship or moving into a dream home, can be overstimulating and require an extra long period of adjustment. For example, I recently moved into a wonderful new apartment in a city I enjoy, but I literally felt off-kilter for months until I got used to my new situation.
12. Beauty and nature
Like most sensitive people, I’m deeply affected by my surroundings, especially the way they look. Cluttered, chaotic, or just plain ugly environments bother me. I feel calm spending time in nature, my city’s favorite neighborhoods, or my simply decorated apartment (especially when it’s actually clean and tidy!).
When it comes down to it, the key is to embrace your sensitivity rather than work against it. Sensitive people make incredible leaders, partners, and friends. We have high levels of empathy and we tend to be creative and perceptive. Maybe the world could use a little more of what we have.
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Learn more: The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Elaine N. Aron
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