Highly Sensitive Persons, or those of us with a trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity, are often misunderstood as having disordered thoughts and behaviors. "Why do you get startled so easily? Relax." "You're not the one going through a tragedy. Why are you so sad?" "It's not even that loud in here. It's just you." These are statements that sound all too familiar to me. Dr. Elaine Aron wrote the book (literally) on HSPs and has created a hugely supportive community around the topic of living as an HSP. To find out more about Highly Sensitive Persons, read up on the trait here.
To determine if you are Highly Sensitive, it's recommended that you take a self test in which you agree or disagree with a number of statements. Answering "yes" to 14 or more statements likely means that you have the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait and I actually score positive on 22 of the 27 statements. The best thing to remember if you're higher on the scale, like me? "Your trait is normal", as Dr. Aron says. Being highly sensitive does not point to a disorder. It does, however, require some self awareness (which you likely possess since your sensitivity is so strong) and at times, lifestyle adjustments.
"And what about the effects of high sensitivity on health goals?" you may be wondering. This is a great question, since mental and emotional health are both intricately tied to physical health! Being highly sensitive may limit the options that feel most comfortable when, say, choosing an environment for exercise, shopping for specialty health foods, or trying new foods that have an unfamiliar flavor or texture. So first getting a handle on self care as an HSP is of utmost importance if you feel your sensitivity trait burdening your health goals. Then, you'll be better positioned for pressing into the areas of your health goals that are more of a stretch for you. We could break down self care tips into physical and social categories:
-When feeling overly-stimulated, try movement that is lower impact, but still engages your cardiovascular system. Hiking on a beautiful trail or doing pilates at home in a peaceful environment might fit the bill for you.
-Make sure you're getting enough dark, leafy greens in your diet. They contain folate, which increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain, leading to happiness and calm.
-Stay away from refined carbohydrates (like white grains and sugars), as they will tend to peak your blood sugar and then send you crashing. A sugar crash has more than just physical effects, especially for an HSP. Major mood swings can come alongside this crash. When eating carbohydrates, you'll want to focus on vegetables, legumes, whole grains and naturally occurring sugars (like those found in fruit or honey) since they contain better fuel for your emotional stability.
-Be mindful of how much caffeine you can handle. Truly. Caffeine is one of the most dangerous yet available substances for an HSP and having an extra cup of coffee when your body is really asking for extra rest will do you no favors. I'm speaking from experience!
-Know yourself. Are you introverted or extroverted? Finding respite as an HSP can take on many forms. For an introvert, it often looks like carving out quiet, alone time. For an extrovert, it may look like socializing with a smaller group of friends in a quieter environment. Try having a group of friends over for dinner rather than meeting at a loud, dark restaurant if you've reached your stimulation limit for the day.
-Communicate. Like I said upon opening this post, HSPs are often misunderstood. If your intimates don't understand or believe that you're normal and that your trait lends you unique strengths (hello, increased empathy and a heightened awareness to pick up on complex flavor profiles!), they will likely not understand how to support you either. Guide these loved ones to Dr. Aron's website or another one of the amazing recourses out there for HSPs (like this one, this one, or that one).
-Don't isolate. There is a difference between getting the alone time you need and hiding out because you're afraid of becoming overwhelmed. Dig for those strengths of yours and offer to organize the gathering, meeting, or outing so that you (and others like you) can be comfortable.
Know that I am just scratching the surface of the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait today. There's a reason that so many authors have written books on the subject! Today, I simply wanted to start the conversation by inviting awareness, offering actionable tips, and letting you know that if you are highly sensitive, you are normal. You are in good company. And you have so much good to offer your community!
If this post was helpful to you, feel free to share it with a friend or on social media channels. And I'd love to hear from you in the comments if there's a post you'd be interested in reading regarding HSPs and health in the future!