I am the one going around turning off the lights and turning down the music. I hate using overhead lights. During the day, our apartment fortunately gets enough natural light that we rarely need them. By the time the sun starts to go down, I switch to lamps as soon as possible. The light doesn’t just hurt my eyes; it hurts my sensibilities.
This year I discovered I am highly sensitive.
I had heard people talk about being highly sensitive, but since I didn’t really understand what that meant, I didn’t think it applied to me. I’m not that sensitive. I don’t cry all the time. Which is true. But that’s not really what it means to be a highly sensitive person.
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is one who processes everything more and is extra sensitive to the subtleties around them. Because they are observing and processing everything, they are easily overstimulated. They also tend to have strong empathy for others, perhaps because they are in tune to others’ moods and needs. Being highly sensitive is not a disorder – there are good and bad things about it. About 30% of the population (around the world and across species) is thought to be highly sensitive.
It is easy for an HSPs to get overstimulated, and when we do we tend to shut down and become less sensitive than others. Lights and noise become unbearable, and we just want to lie down in a dark, quiet room to recover. I think of it as a migraine of the nervous system.
For me, noise is a big stressor. I live with three small, very big noise makers in a country that loves firecrackers, megaphones, and blaring music from competing stores. When Nadia is crying and Adalyn is screaming and Juliana is whining, I feel like my head is going to explode. Last year I often thought the official emoticon for mom-of-three should be an exploding head.
Background noise is very distracting. Trying to talk to someone in a restaurant when the background music is slightly too high and other people are talking nearby is stressful. I have a hard time concentrating and I know I will feel frazzled after a while. A truly loud restaurant, supermarket, or shopping area is hard to handle, and even the humming of the refrigerator is annoying.
When I started reading about being highly sensitive, it was like dozens of lightbulbs going off in my head (which you know, is quite overstimulating). It all made so much sense! It explains why I often get so stressed by normal life things that don’t seem to bother others quite so much. I always feel tired and dazed after going to the supermarket, in China or America. There are so many lights and so many people (here), music, noise, choices, and so much visual stimulation. I find myself staring blankly at a row of vitamins trying to figure out what I came to find (even though I have a list in hand) and how quickly I can get out of there.
I try to keep my home neat and decluttered because I am very easily visually stressed. Of course, since I live with a bunch of very effective mess-makers, my cleaning attempts seem rather futile. Every time I walk into a room I notice the 15 random toys and items on the floor and the papers piled up on the counter. On those rare occasions when the toys are picked up and the surface are clear and the couch cushions straightened, I feel so much more at peace and in control of life.
It also perhaps explains why I love familiarity. There are plenty of places in the world I’d like to see, but I don’t actually want to go to new places. I can’t appreciate them as much as the places I have already been to multiple times. I am fine with eating the same food over and over again. I re-read books more often than I read new ones, and I’ve read my favorite books at least half a dozen times. I listen to the same album of music for months, and I almost always dislike new music – even new albums by my favorite artists – until I am familiar with it.
Life as an HSP can be tiring because your brain is constantly working hard to decode all the little nuances of life. I think of it like functioning in another language/culture. In a Chinese environment, I have to be extra alert, working to understand not only what is being said but what is being implied. What is the cultural context behind this? Are they subtly angry with me? Is there something I am missing? Am I communicating clearly – not only the right words but the right message? This is a little what normal life as an HSP is like, even in your own culture/language.
In reading about highly sensitive people, I understood a huge source of stress that I had been ignoring. I had recognized the burnout, the constant exhaustion and over-stimulation, but I didn’t understand where it was coming from. If everyone else could handle the normal life stimulation just fine and I couldn’t, it must mean that something was wrong with me.
I know my depression and anxiety have a genetic and hormonal component. But I realize they are also exasperated by trying to be something I am not. I am trying to understand myself better – my strengths and limitations and uniqueness, so I can be true to who I am, without constantly comparing myself to others and how I “should be.”
I am learning that I need naps. Partly because I’m tired and have been sleep deprived more years than not. But also because I really need some quiet time, devoid of any sensory input, to make it through the whole day. Fortunately I live in a country that believes in after lunch rest time (as do many countries because they are really smart), so I am also being culturally appropriate.
I am becoming more aware of over-stimulating situations and realizing I will need some quiet time afterwards to avoid immediate irritation and long-term burnout. I am learning that yoga helps in refocusing and coping with the physical stress of over-stimulation. I need to get out of the loud, messy house and walk (with earbuds in so I can pretend there aren’t hundreds of people around). I need to sit in my chair on the laundry porch and decompress. I need a relatively clean house so I don’t feel constantly stressed out by my surroundings. I need moments of peace and quiet for my physical and mental health.
I realize this post is mostly related to the negative parts of being highly sensitive. It is true that being an HSP is not a bad thing, but I usually have an easier time recognizing my limitations, so I am still learning how to appreciate being highly sensitive. To be honest, I think I have spent enough time lately in the "overstimulated" state that I haven't been able to tap into the benefits.hig I'll let you know if I have any great breakthroughs in understanding.
It’s crazy to think that 1 of every 3 people may be highly sensitive. If you suspect you may be highly sensitive, you can take this helpful test here, created by the author of The Highly Sensitive Person. She says if you score more than 14 of 27 you may be HSP. I scored 21, so I guess that’s pretty definitive.
I read a couple of related useful books and articles this year.
1. The Highly Sensitive Person – this was a real eye-opener in explaining what it meant to be highly sensitive - and that it wasn’t a bad thing. I loved the book initially but as it wore on I got a little bit annoyed because the author is just so sensitive. Not being very emotionally sensitive, this got on my nerves. She talks about how being highly sensitive effects childhood, jobs, and relationships, but the section on parenting was laughable. Seriously half a page which said, “Many HSPs choose not to have children. But if you do, you’ll probably be a good parent.” Um, thanks. That’s so helpful. Fortunately I found a few other blogs that were much more helpful (see below).
2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking – (You could probably find this at the library) This book was more about introverts than HSPs, although she does talk about HSP’s as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who is an introvert or knows one (so yes, everyone.) I particularly appreciated the cultural aspect of this – her exploration of western culture (especially Americans’) idealization of the popular, gregarious type. This sounds simple, but it was actually huge for me to recognize that extroversion is a cultural ideal, not a mandate.
3. Abundant Mama has some good articles about recognizing if you are highly sensitive http://www.abundantmama.com/highly-sensitive-mom/ , tips http://www.abundantmama.com/tips-for-highly-sensitive-moms/ , and how it affects parenting http://www.abundantmama.com/highly-sensitive-mom-2/