Today's post is by Candace Nisbett McCallister, one of the first people I heard talk about being "highly sensitive." At the time I didn't understand what that meant. I approached her about writing about this topic because I knew she had a lot of wisdom to share. I was not disappointed, and I don't think you will be either.
How does being HSP influence you positively and negatively?
On the positive side, I think that being highly sensitive helps me to live a more balanced, simple life. Some people can simply keep going despite all the pressure and overwhelming stimuli, but I will shut down or break down. This is actually a gift, because it makes taking care of myself and creating sustainable rhythms a requirement in my life.
The darker side of it is that I often feel like I'm not capable of accomplishing as much as those who are less sensitive. I know that I wouldn't be able to sustain that kind of schedule or pressure for very long, so I choose to do less. And doing less can feel like I'm behind or less successful than my peers.
In what situations do you most often find yourself getting overstimulated?
I get overstimulated when I am in large groups of people with lots of noise and activity. I can handle these best if I find a small group of people to connect with. The absolute worst place for me is probably the mall. The smells from the food stations (soft pretzels, imitation international foods), from the products at various stores (bath products, shoe stores), and from cleaning products used - all combined with crowds, noise levels, and hundreds of signs to read - about puts me over the edge. Decision-making is hard for me in general, but in this environment, I start to get really anxious. I have also heard that there is a high level of EMF transmission in malls (from the high concentration of electronic devices), and this can affect highly sensitive people. I personally avoid malls at all costs. And, when I've gone, it usually takes me a couple of hours to decompress or "detox" from that environment.
How do you manage oversimulation in daily life?
Over the years, I have found lots of ways to make my life more calm and manageable. For me, avoiding certain environments most of the time is important. This does not mean I'm afraid of these places; I just know how I feel when I go there. So, I make a plan and give myself a lot of grace and level-headed support. For instance, I can make a shopping trip more doable by not bringing all the children with me or by making a list and a plan ahead of time. I can choose to shop at places where I feel more peaceful.
I make sure that I have time alone to be quiet and free for a couple of hours each week. This makes all the difference in the world. It is worth hiring a babysitter, being less productive, or inconveniencing other people. Time alone, not in front of a screen, is very rejuvenating for me. I am a different person when I have this in my life.
I keep my house as decluttered as possible. A clean and orderly living space makes a huge difference in my ability to handle other stimuli coming my way - kids crying, extra tasks, etc. Having one room that stays fairly clean and decluttered is a must for me to be able to focus and relax. My husband and I have found that if we have a conversation in a space where things are neat and orderly, I am able to focus much better without thinking of a hundred other things I should be doing.
I do not keep things in my home that are sensitivity triggers - chemicals, loud toys, scented candles. It's crazy how a certain item - like a piece of furniture or toy can drive me NUTS. I am learning to use common sense and just pass those items along to the thrift store.
I actively practice self care - nourishing my body, stretching, exercising, taking epsom salt baths, getting enough sleep, reading books I enjoy, taking classes and pursuing my own interests and dreams. I also get outside every day - barefoot on the earth, if possible. There is a lot of research around this type of "grounding" and how it helps bring health and stability to the body.
Meditation or prayer every single day is a must. Even five or ten minutes each day makes a difference. In the swirling mass of stimuli that result in overthinking and "noise" of all sorts, a little quiet and listening for God's voice can calm the storms around me and change the way I see it all.
I use mantras a lot. I really like Louise Hay's affirmations. I use this one often: "My life is simple and easy. All that I need in any given moment is revealed to me." The first time I read it, I laughed out loud. I have never been one to think life was easy. But the more I say it, the more I believe it. By living more in the moment, I find that what I need to do in that moment is actually quite simple.
I also do regular detoxification, as I think both emotions and toxins seem to build up in my system more easily than with other people. Many of the methods above actually help the body detox. I also do intentional detoxes twice a year. A good cry can make a world of difference in helping balance hormones and detox the body. I love to sweat, use saunas, and get regular massages (which is easier for me because I can do massages for others and then trade for my own). I also use supplements, herbs, certain foods, and foot baths to aid detoxification.
How did you recognize your child was highly sensitive?
My son was a little sensitive as a baby, but mostly I would say he was happy and fairly flexible. We moved when he was two, and things began to shift. He experienced a lot of change in a short amount of time - two changes of homes, lots of visitors, the birth of a baby sister, and (I believe) some additional toxin exposure in the city. He began to be inconsolable often and to have outbursts of rage or crying. It was different than what people describe as "the terrible twos or threes." People confronted us about it. We felt worried. He started to have the classic signs of sensory processing disorder - bothered by loud sounds, certain clothing aspects, and pickiness around food and certain products.
What have you found helpful for a highly sensitive child?
When my son was three, we decided to cut out food dyes and preservatives and followed the Feingold Diet for awhile. This was a huge support to my son's system.
We also had to be extra-gentle with him. He was very good at expressing himself through words, but it took him a lot of emoting to get there sometimes. We had to decide what was worth the struggle and what wasn't. We had to learn to believe that what he was going through was real and not just defiance or disobedience. He had a lot of trouble falling asleep for years, and I would spend the time it took to help him decompress and go to sleep at night. Getting enough sleep really helped him to function better, so putting in the extra work in the evenings was worth it.
He had a resurgence of these issues just a few years ago, and we did some functional lab testing and found that he was high in some heavy metals. Addressing this through a holistic health approach has been a significant help to him. Still, he is a sensitive kid. He needs time alone outside every day. He gets overwhelmed when our schedules are busy or he has to be around people a lot without a break. He is still affected by eating certain foods. It can be hard to control all these factors on vacation or when staying with family, yet I have found it is worth it to support his body as much as possible and also plan in time for him to be alone and decompress.
With all of this, it can sound like we're just being too soft - like we need to suck it up and deal with it. But for HSP's, that really exacerbates the problem and puts you in the path of an even larger break down. Being aware and planning for what is needed is worth the time and the sacrifices.
What would you want others to understand about highly sensitive people?
I think it is worth noting that we all live in an overstimulating world right now. No one is immune to this, although many people seem to be more resilient or have a greater tolerance for overstimulation. I often think that those of us who are sensitive are like the canaries that were sent into the mines to test the air quality. They were more sensitive and responded more quickly. The miners would have ended up dying as well, just not as quickly. Those of us who are sensitive react more quickly to the bombardment of chemicals, busy-ness, EMF, advertising, and fast-paced lifestyles. Everyone is affected by it, but we are like a gauge showing the rest of the world that this isn't working.
I want other people to understand that this is a gift to everyone. If those around us will listen, will believe us, and will support us in slowing down and living intentionally, everyone wins in the end. Be kind and gentle with the HSP in your life. Believe them the first time they say something, and support them in getting what they need. Those of us who are highly sensitive to overstimulation are also very sensitive to the subtle. We are often great listeners, healers, gardeners, cooks, artists, or writers. It's to our benefit and yours if we learn self awareness and healthy boundaries, for we have a lot of beauty and hope to offer the world.
You can check out Candace's work as a natural health practitioner at sweetwateroffering.com.