In a world that seems to be constantly buzzing, it’s normal to feel busy and stressed. But if you feel tired, overwhelmed, and overstimulated most of the time, you might have sensory-processing sensitivity. Hi, I’m Rachèl, and I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. I’m not embarrassed to admit that because it’s actually my superpower. In this blogpost i’ll talk about ‘How to Interact with a Highly Sensitive Person’ (Especially if you are one).
Being an HSP means I notice everything around me — sounds, lights, colors, movements, shapes, smells — even other peoples’ feelings — it all comes flooding in, and my brain has to process it. A neurotypical person processes around 2.4 million stimuli per second; for an HSP like me, it’s twice as much.
I recently opened up about my experience as a Highly Sensitive Person during my @Xebia TED talk. Since then, a lot of people have been sharing their own feelings of overstimulation with me — "There’s just too much going on around me," they say, "I feel so overstimulated!" Has the world gotten crazier? Or are more and more people self-identifying as HSPs?
Whether you’ve just stumbled onto the concept, or you’re an HSP seeking advice, we can all be a bit more well, sensitive when it comes to sensory-processing sensitivity.
In this blog post, I share some insights and tips for interacting with a Highly Sensitive Person, especially if that person is you.
Recognizing High Sensitivity & Triggering Situations
I have to be honest with you, it took me years to realize I was an HSP and even longer to figure out how to deal with it. HSPs are a small subset of the population who are high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, the psychologist who studied the condition and coined the term, approximately 20% of the world population is a Highly Sensitive Person. That means that, on average, two out of every 10 people are likely to be HSPs. This prevalence highlights why it’s so important to understand and acknowledge the HSPs’ experience.
And that brings me to my first piece of advice: be aware of potential sensory overload by recognizing highly stimulating situations. If you’re a friend, family member, or colleague of an HSP, take the noise level and surroundings into consideration when planning an outing or get-together. What feels like a fun and lively gathering for you may feel like a chaotic, energy-draining deluge of color and noise for them.
If you’re an HSP in a stimulating situation, take a "sensory break" to conduct an honest self-check-in at regular intervals. Attuning to the fluctuations in your emotions and the feelings in your body can help you can recognize when you are reaching your sensory limit.
For example, if you’re dining in a noisy restaurant with friends, excuse yourself from the table every half hour or so and go outside or to the toilet. Use this "quiet time" to ask yourself:
- How do I really feel?
- Am I still enjoying myself?
- Can I still be involved in conversations, or am I moving myself more and more to the background?
- Is my brain spinning around and around?
- Am I drinking alcohol to ‘stay in the moment’ and to lessen or block the stimuli?
Watch for early warning signs of overstimulation and take action when it’s too much. Don’t be embarrassed to let your friends know what’s happening, and call it an early night if you need to.
Learning how to take care better care of ourselves and others is good advice for everyone. It takes time to figure out the needs of an HSP, and that’s okay because good things always take time. Once you know your own limits and theirs, "you’ll have gold in your hands," as we say in Dutch.
Keeping the Batteries Charged
My sister and I both are highly sensitive, but there is a big difference between us. My sister is mostly sensitive to emotions and thoughts — both her own and those of others. For me, external stimuli are more overwhelming, like sounds, movements, shapes, colors, and smells. I notice the details of everything. By knowing which stimuli are most triggering for my brain, I can take steps to limit my exposure to them to keep my energy balanced.
Do you notice the different ways your brain processes things? If you’re more mindful of what might drain you, you can manage your energy levels better and recharge before your battery completely runs out. And yes, as a Highly Sensitive Person, your battery runs out quickly.
Energy Givers and Drainers
To ensure you still have some energy left at the end of the day, identify your energy "givers and drainers" — this includes activities, situations, and people.
Although I love having lots of conversations at the office, it costs me a lot in terms of my energy. I know this, so I consciously try to create a balance. Instead of running from one meeting to the next, I schedule time in between to process everything I’ve just taken in. This time is something I actually need, it’s not just a "nice to have." It’s necessary to occasionally remove yourself from all stimuli and recenter in order to be your best self. Keep that in mind when planning an agenda or itinerary — for yourself or the HSPs in your circle.
For example, if I’m invited to a birthday party, I let my host know beforehand that I might leave early (if it’s appropriate) because the party could exhaust me. I also proactively plan some self-care time for afterward — I may take the dog for a walk, do some sports, or just spend some time alone so I can recharge.
Likewise, after a busy day at the office, I often drive home without music. The absence of stimuli gives my brain more time and space to process whatever it needs to process.
When interacting with an HSP, yourself, or others, it’s imperative to know where, what, and when the triggers are to avoid overstimulating meltdowns. Control what you can control. When you can’t, request what you need. My colleagues kindly no longer schedule meetings with me back-to-back, but that only happened after I asked. Like with so many things, self-care, communication, compassion, and action are key.
Turn off the television when you’re doing something else, and use noise-canceling headphones at the office. At home, put your phone away a few hours before you go to bed, and go for walks in areas that are not so busy. Find some time for yourself, for solitude or meditation.
If you’re not an HSP, try to be mindful of the fact that others around you might be. Keep conversations low when you’re talking on your phone or with another colleague, and move away from shared spaces where other people are trying to work. If you like to listen to music while you work, please use your headphones! A little thoughtfulness goes a long way, especially at the office.
Being a Highly Sensitive Person is Your Super Power
Of course, interacting with high sensitivity can be super challenging for everyone. But once you do, it empowers you to activate the valuable skills and qualities that also come with it, like:
- A rich, creative inner world
- An ability to think outside the box
- Seeing details, lots of details.
- Great listening skills
- Feeling the unspoken.
- Picking up on other people’s emotions often before they do.
- Deep processing of information — that often results in strong solutions and solid arguments.
Highly Sensitive People also tend to make great leaders and artists — just look at Elton John, Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo, Mozart, Princess Diana, and Vincent van Gogh — all HSPs. And it’s no wonder — when you consider the positive qualities and special capabilities that come with high sensitivity. So, if you’re an HSP, you can count yourself among these highly accomplished ones. And if you’re not, count yourself lucky because you probably know one! By raising our awareness of this neurodiversity and doing our part to deal with its challenges, we can all reap the benefits of this superpower!