I think this topic might need its own blog all together, but it also belongs here because being a highly sensitive person (HSP) impacts your mental health in positive and negative ways depending on how you nurture the trait. And this is, after all, a mental health blog about how I was forged in the heat of chaos and came out a ball of jittery nerves.
A few sessions ago, my therapist recommended a book titled, The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. Before I even bought it, I could tell from my therapist’s description that it was for me. My loved ones and I always knew me to be highly sensitive. It is a self-help book about how to work with your high sensitivity as apposed to working against it.
What does it mean to be highly sensitive?
According to Aron, the term is used to describe people who have extra sensitive nervous systems. After being out and about among sights and sounds for a day, HSPs feel overwhelmed. Aron calls this “over arousal.” But being highly sensitive also means you are more aware of subtleties in your surroundings.
Aron says HSPs take in all the subtleties others miss. What seems ordinary to others, such as loud music or crowds, can be highly stimulating and stressful for HSPs. For example, most people ignore loud music, blaring sirens, glaring lights, clutter and chaos. HSPs are disturbed by them.
When most people walk into a room, they notice the people and the furniture, and that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware of the mood, the freshness or staleness of the air, odors and even the personality of the person who arranged the flowers.
On the note of odors, I always feel ill or put off by the invasion of an offensive odors in my environment. When we’re driving behind a stinky diesel truck, I gag and my hurts until it goes away. I like burning candles, incense and oils, especially if they have a therapeutic qualities. I like seasonal scents like apple pie and pumpkin latte candles in the fall and winter. I burn Japanese lavender incense and drink lavender tulsi tea to destress.
If I enter a room, I become immediately aware of people looking at me. I reassure myself that it’s a natural reaction to look at someone who enters a room. But I might actually feel negativity in someone’s look. and tell myself not to think anything of it. But if I do something that “earns” a nasty look from someone, then I feel like leaving.For example, when I went to a party among a group of fellow journalism students, the girl who lived in the house wanted to turn off the lights and turn on a white, flashing strobe light. When the strobe light came on, I started getting a headache and had to close my eyes. My friend asked the girl if she could turn the light off because I was getting a headache, and that won me a dirty look.
Despite my sensitivities that make me seem like a party pooper to society, I don’t forget that I belong to a group that often demonstrates great creativity, insight, passion and caring–all traits valued by society.
What have I learned so far?
I want to point out two major facts Aron established in the first chapter.
“Fact 1: Everyone, HSP, or not, feels best when neither too bored nor too aroused.”
What does she mean by this? An individual will perform best on any task when his/her nervous system is moderately alert and aroused. Too much boredom makes one dull. You remedy boredom and fatigue by drinking coffee, starting a conversation or listening to music. Personally, I try to snap myself out of afternoon sleepiness by napping or riding my bike. Coffee in the afternoon makes me nervous.
Too much arousal, and we become stressed, chaotic and frantic. One way I have experienced this mental chaos is by not knowing which priority is the most important even though it would be clear if I were calmer. I could sit around for an hour trying to figure out what task to complete first amounf a lot of different tasks. On better days, I have my priorities and mind more centered. There are also several ways to remedy this. Some may choose meditation, deep breathing, alcohol or drugs.
Either way, humans need to maintain an optimal level of arousal– somewhere in the middle.
“Fact 2: People differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation, under the same stimulation.”
This fact made me think of the times when I was with family or friends, and how I am the first to want to go home. When I have company over, my boyfriend (Will) and our friends will stay up chatting late into the night. After three hours of hanging out, I want to go to bed. If Will and I are at our friends’ home for the Sunday dinners, I am the first the want to go home after two to three hours while everyone else is super talkative.
Another example is if I am out running errands all day, by the time I get home at 4 or 5 p.m., I don’t want to leave the house for the rest of the night. Not even for fun.
Being an HSP makes me and you special. For example, I have learned that, given the right environment, I am capable of vigilance, accuracy, speed and I can detect minor differences. I am highly conscientious, so I am better at spotting errors and avoiding making errors than non-HSPs.
Each of these traits contributes to my career as a writer. When I was a copy editor for my college paper, I noticed spelling errors that no one noticed even after three or five editors proofread the draft before me. I am frugal about getting the facts and sources right in my articles.
I usually get tasks done on deadline when I have a deadline. I make fewer mistakes in my writing when I turn a draft into an editor because I proofread a few times. I’m not perfect. I do miss things, but editors in the past have commented on how clean my drafts usually are in terms of grammar.
I’ve honed my skills as a reporter to know what information is needed to make an article less cryptic. I ask better questions and think of more sources.
I am also sensitive to other people’s moods. I become frantic when others around me are angry or annoyed. This dates back to when I lived with my mom who has a terrible temper. I always felt like a hunch-backed lab assistant scurrying for the missing item the mad scientist misplaced. As a result, when Will or anyone around me gets angry, I feel nervous and awkward. Even if the anger isn’t directed at me, I somehow feel the need to retreat into the shadows of the mad scientist’s dungeon and wait for the storm to die.
While I am trying to overcome all the negative events in my life that made my highly sensitive nervous system so anxious, I am learning how to strengthen my positive traits to put myself out in the world as a writer. Whether you know it or not, the world needs you.