By Samantha Spoto
In our overstimulating world, it can prove difficult for some to escape the constant sensory strain. You may walk along a bustling main street and hear the blaring sirens of an ambulance, see neon lights in the windows of retail shops brightly advertising sales, or catch a strong whiff of food being prepared in the kitchens of restaurants along the block. For many, the aforementioned occurrences blend into their daily routines and their minds appear unperturbed by such things. However, for a highly sensitive person (HSP), such stimuli can create an overwhelming and anxiety-inducing experience that feels unavoidable.
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, the pioneer of research on HSPs, nearly 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive. Along with the previous examples that often trigger a highly sensitive reaction, HSPs find it difficult to manage stress. They frequently become unnerved when they need to accomplish several tasks in a limited amount of time. In instances when lingering deadlines seem abundant, it is not uncommon for a highly sensitive person to break down and cry. They will also often retreat to a quiet, dimly lit space and seek relief from the tense situation.
On another note, HSPs also have a heightened sense of detail. Dr. Aron claimed that highly sensitive people process information and then reflect on it deeply–usually for an extended period of time–more so than those who do not show signs of high sensitivity. In general, HSPs prove extremely attentive to detail and notice more than the average person. Although at times this characteristic may prove beneficial, HSPs will naturally become overstimulated due to the amount and level of detail they notice.
Today’s current social climate is not entirely conducive for highly sensitive people to thrive. Many of the situations that leave them at risk of being overwhelmed are those that are not easily escapable. With the rapid increase and reliance on technology, our minds are being fed a constant surplus of stimuli, whether it be visual or audible. Despite the fact that HSPs may be more prone than ever in the technological era, some experts suggest it is possible to adapt to the swift culture and in turn have offered tips on how to avoid abrasive and catalytic content.
Dr. Ted Zeff, author of several books on HSPs including The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, suggested several ways to alleviate the tension and anxiety that comes with overstimulation. Firstly, Zeff explained the importance of powering down. Many people are incredibly attached to their electronic devices; upon waking up, they reach for their cell phones or computers before anything else. In the same vein, these items are often the last to be used before people fall asleep. Zeff said that in order to traverse our overstimulated world, we must limit the amount of time we are being exposed to such harsh stimuli (i.e., bright lights from computer screens, loud noises from televisions, etc). Instead of scouring the internet before bed, Zeff suggested to trade electronic devices for calming activities such as reading, journaling, or meditation.
Dr. Zeff also advised to plan ahead. Highly sensitive people do not need to sacrifice plans because of the anticipatory fear of being overwhelmed on outings. Knowing what time of the day is best for you and your plans is beneficial. For instance, planning an early meal may be helpful for HSPs because restaurants tend to be less crowded and riddled with noise in the earlier hours.
We tend to live in a culture that fails to celebrate sensitivity. Often, people tell HSPs, “Don’t be so sensitive,” as if sensitivity is an unwelcome and insubstantial trait. Due to this mentality, HSPs often have low self-esteem and garner personal feelings of embarrassment and weakness. Despite this, Zeff stressed the importance of remaining mindful of the positive attributes that travel in tow being highly sensitive. For instance, HSPs tend to possess high levels of creativity and they prove deeply appreciative of the arts. In addition, HSPs tend to be highly conscientious and empathic.
In a study conducted by Bianca Acevedo sensitive and non-sensitive people viewed photos of both loved ones and strangers expressing emotions such as happiness, sadness, or a neutral feeling. The results showed HSPs display greater brain “activation in areas suggesting they wanted to do something to act.”
Despite our overcharged culture, not all hope is lost for the highly sensitive person. For HSPs, understanding their stressors will enable them to take precautionary measures to help alleviate the intense anxiety and emotions that result from overstimulation.