HSP stands for highly sensitive person, a catch-all term for anyone with high sensitivity. Elaine Aron, who's been researching high sensitivity for 24 years, estimates that 15 - 20% of the population are highly sensitive. The friend who inspired me to move to London spotted high sensitivity in me and helped me understand it. She's also the person who helped me understand that I might be autistic. Like many people with autism, I'm highly sensitive. But what is high sensitivity, how can it affect people, and what can we do to management it?
If someone's highly sensitive, then they have more acute senses, fewer filters to block out the sensory information coming in, and process that information in a more intense way. Any one of those alone would be enough to create some intense moments, but having all 3 combined can lead to some genuinely overwhelming experiences.
This sense of being overwhelmed isn't innately bad though. As I mentioned in my first post about Autism, high sensitivity enabled me to have some incredible experiences in Paris. I adored the city, feeling in rhythm with it from the moment I stepped out of Gare du Nord. Over the following days, I fell in love with the architecture, La Seine, museums, restaurants, and my adorable landlady. When I was visiting the museum in Montmartre (Musee de Montmartre) I started to feel overwhelmed as I approached the end. After leaving, I visited a shop that had prints of the art in the museum, but had to leave immediately for an incredible reason: the art was too beautiful. I'd had such a powerful experience of beauty that I simply couldn't handle any more. When I was walking back through London the night I came home I was listening to people and I couldn't believe how ugly the English language sounded. The high sensitivity had enabled me to immerse myself in Paris so deeply that the only language I can speak fluently, my own, sounded horrible. This is an upward spiral of sensitivity. I still overload, but it comes as a result of positive experiences. There's a downward spiral though.
Modern living, especially city living, is noisy. Every day we have a lot of sensory information coming in. There are lights, traffic, sirens, mobile phones, people, and alarms. Just this day-to-day stuff of city living can be overwhelming. When I was sitting having coffee with a friend while explaining high sensitivity to her, a van drove past. I pointed that out and she hadn't heard it. For me though it had made speaking to her almost impossible because it was blotting everything out. A pub or any other place where there are multiple conversations happening at the same time can be an overwhelming environment because it becomes impossible to separate one conversation from another for any length of time.
Eventually, I reach a state of being overloaded in which I can experience back ache, neck ache, migraines, tiredness, and a lack of mental clarity. As these start and then set in, more social contact and sensory input makes me causes anxiety, frustration, and self-doubt, feeding into the symptoms above. I effectively shut down. At that point, what gets me through is management techniques, or simply willpower.
If you're highly sensitive, autistic, or simply feel overwhelmed in busy or noisy places, you might like to try these management techniques:
- Look away: the temptation is to look at the ambulance with the flashing lights making all that noise, but looking at the lights will just aggravate your sensitivity more
- Refocus: rather than consciously listening to a siren, I draw my focus to how my feet feel to divert as much attention as possible away from the noise
- Leave: I went to a Christmas party last year and left after 40 minutes because the music and people pressing close was overwhelming. Leaving meant looking after myself and I should have left earlier
- Push: high sensitivity can be annoying in downward spiral mode, so it can be valuable to push against it at first to be sure that we're not simply being anti-social or princess-like about our sensitivity
- Pathfinding: take a different route, one that keeps you off the busiest roads or away from building sites
- Safe harbour: places to retreat to, whether it be a great memory, meditation, a park, or our home. These places reduce sensory input, calm the noise in our heads, are a known place, and give us time to rest
- Venture: safe harbour is a place to rest, not a place to live. Live there and we can become withdrawn or depressed. As the downward spiral bottoms out, we need sensory experiences to lift us back up
As much as it can feel like an onslaught some days, high sensitivity is a great source of inspiration. No matter how long the frustration, how bad the migraine, or how great the distress, I'll never try to wish high sensitivity, or any other part of autism, away. It brings me too much joy, awareness, and understanding, to do that. If you're still learning to manage high sensitivity, as I still am, I hope you still value your sensitivity too. It's a valuable part of who you are, perhaps a defining part. My friend, who spotted it in me, has framed it in anthropological terms. When we lived in smaller communities, sensitive people kept watch. Sometimes we jumped at nothing, but sometimes we spotted a threat long before anyone else. This is why we still exist, because sensitivity is a valuable trait that humanity needs. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Are any of my suggested management techniques things you'd like to try? What are your techniques? I'd love to hear about them so that I can share them as widely as possible for the benefit of others. You can tell me all about them in the comments, and it'd be great if you liked or shared this post with people struggling to understand high sensitivity.