What's it like to be highly sensitive?

In an earlier post, I explained that while I do have issues with focus and attention, I’m not ADHD. I’m an HSP, or “highly sensitive person,” which means that my brain processes sensory stimulus more heavily than most people. Another name for the trait is chronic cortical arousal.  In this post, I’m going to describe what it’s like to be an HSP.

Being highly sensitive means that the sensory volume on your life is always cranked up to 11.

The light is always too bright. The noise is always too loud. The room is always too cold (or hot). The cologne is always too strong. Your clothes are always irritating. Your shoes are often unbearable.

As a little girl, I wore dresses constantly. It wasn’t because I was girly, it was because the seams on pants and shorts rubbing against my legs drove me insane. (I’m actually kind of a tomboy, loved and still love climbing trees, camping and digging around in the dirt.) Even as an adult, there are days when I have to buy new clothes at lunch because I’ve worn something to work where the fabric or construction makes me want to crawl out of my skin.

When you’re overstimulated, which can obviously be a lot of the time for an HSP, it’s incredibly hard to focus and not get distracted. It’s like trying to thread a needle in a mosh pit. That’s why HSPs often get misdiagnosed as ADHD, and why ADHD medication usually doesn’t help much. However, when you’re not overstimulated, you can focus just fine for hours.  In an optimal environment, an HSP can work on something with such intense focus he or she forgets to eat.

HSPs also often have a high incidence of depression and anxiety. You’d get depressed and anxious, too, if you found a world that other people have no trouble navigating this overwhelming. It also makes alcohol and other addictions with a “numbing” element especially tempting.

For all my friends who’ve accused me of “overthinking everything” over the years? Um, yeah. You were probably right.

One of my little nieces also has all the hallmarks of high sensitivity. My sister has caught her doing a lot of the same things I used to do: putting a blanket over her head in overstimulating situations; complaining about her clothes irritating her constantly; and noticing everything, all the time. I still do the “blanket over the head” trick when really stressed or overstimulated. I just usually don’t have a blanket handy, and have to resort to manila folders, notebooks or throw pillows.

In other words, HSPs often behave oddly. At least, the behavior seems odd if you aren’t highly sensitive. It makes perfect sense once you realize they’re trying to manage an onslaught of sensory information.  In writing this out, I’m hoping that one of two things will happen.

Either you’ll have the “Sweet creamery butter! THIS EXPLAINS MY WHOLE LIFE!” moment I had when I first found out about high sensitivity. And you’ll feel a little less defective.

Or, you’ll see someone you live or work with in this description, and realize they’re not just randomly bonkers. With that understanding in hand, you can possibly help them manage their overstimulation. Or at worst, you can be a little less judgmental about how they manage it on their own.

Speaking of which, I’ve been dealing with the highs and lows of being highly sensitive my whole life. I’ve picked up a few helpful habits and resources along the way. So my next post on this topic will be How to Manage Life as an HSP.  If you’ve got some tips or questions, hollah in the comments.

7 Comments


  1. ·

    I think I have a bit of this, especially about sounds. Loud environments generally make me very anxious. A noisy restaurant is a level of hell for me. If I hear you gulping, slurping or smacking your lips it immediately flips my crazy switch. It’s like an out of body experience as I watch myself turn into the Hulk and I can’t control it.

    Coping is difficult because my reaction is not what most people consider normal. It’s not even what I consider normal. I first attempt to remove myself from the situation. If that is not an option I ask, as neutrally and politely as I can, for the person doing whatever is jabbing me like a hot poker to please stop. When you’re in agony it’s hard not to scream in anguish, and that’s the part I have the biggest problem with.

    Reply
    1. Kat French
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      Yeah. I overreact to noise too, sometimes. Like when the coffee shop is running the roaster or grinder. Vandalism seems like a perfectly reasonable response at the time. Because it’s physically painful hearing that sound.

      Reply
  2. anise
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    Hey, I wanna ask something, before that im gonna describe myself as a 16yo girl livin in indonesia, kind of the worst place to get sick/just having mental disorders, no doctors/neuros/psych here in my country knows a thing about hsp, so i’ll have to describe what hsp is to them by myself.., the problem is i’ve been stuck in the middle of nowhere for years. I always think that my problem was just hsp, even if im not really that problematic with jeans & wool. But other than that, every symptom of hsp matched me, im also such a quiet girl since i was only kindergarten, & I’ve always been overthingking everything (since kindergarten). But the positive side of that is as a hsp/not (not sure) I’ve always been super ignorant about everything (literally), I don’t even have low self-esteem, but everything changed 360degrees since im on 2nd grade of juniorhigh, i became extra-conscious about every-thing, to the point where I was not able to talk (communicate) to people, my brain, head & facial muscle, always felt so weird when I use them (my muscle) to make expression, & if Iaughed over too much, the back of my skull (or brain) will somewhat hurt. & now im sittin on 2grd in high school, & everything got worser & worser, I skipped school & I can’t seem to communicate to people, cause there’s some strong tingling/electricity feel like its exploring around my face (my whole face!) It’s so annoying, people said my face looked like I was drunk, even though i don’t drink (literally), cause if i try to put any expression in my face my muscle will hurt & feel weird., everyone said I looked soulless, & I always feel weird sensation all over my face that made me super nervous, when I talk its almost like its twitching, but it looked fine, (doesn’t look like it’s twitching) & my judgement was crap too, it’s 360degrees reversed than other people’s judgement, my judgement failed in EVERYTHING, if everyone thinks something’s funny, I think it’s not funny at all, & if everyone was panicking, I feel super relaxed, it’s good if it’s just the negative shits that I can’t feel, but it’s not.., the worse is, when everyone is feeling super relaxed, I felt super panicky (& they don’t understand why), & when everyone was super tired, I was super energetic. I consulted to a neuro, cause my panicky level was different than all people, even I think the hsps, & the neuro wanted me to have eeg, to see my brain electromagnetic level, & they found an abnormal (high) red spot in my left part of the brain, & also one smaller. Red (high) spot in the right. So my doctor said my parent should plan on a MRI scan, (since we don’t have any insurances) & I kinda recklessly, forced my parents to do it quick, even if the neuro said that there was no need to rush the mri scan, (he thought it was a chyst), but I thought that all of my stupid judgement & electricity feel in my whole head was because of a tumor/sumethin) & soon the mri scan was done it was a non-contrast brain mri, about a half hour, & it came out clean! I was grateful & confused at the same time, the neuro said, maybe what caused all the negative/weird/electricity feel in my head was my high level of electricity in my brain, & that’s why my sensory sensitiveness was medically checked & was 25 or 30 points higher than all the normal person, & that’s why I was convinced more that I was A hsp, but what I wanna ask is, do hsps feel that way like I feel? & do what makes hsps nervous is all that weird electricity feel in your brain (/head)?? Please help! Really urgent (since til now i still haven’t go to school) sorry! This is too long, i know.., please any help is highly apreciated. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Kat French
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      Anise – I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough time of things. I’m no expert–just another HSP. There are groups on Yahoo that have a lot of HSPs together; it might be a better place to ask questions and get a lot of answers: http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/hspbook/

      Reply

  3. ·
  4. Nicole
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    I realize this is an old post but I am in research mode. You say HCP act strangely. Can you be more specific?? I am looking to determine if this is what is going on with my little one or if I need to dig a little deeper for an actual diagnosis.

    Reply
    1. Kat
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      Hey, sorry for the delay in responding. The “odd behavior” I was referring to was things like hiding under blankets to block out stimulation, “overreacting” with a meltdown when overstimulated. Elaine Aron has a book called “The Highly Sensitive Child” which my sister found really helpful in explaining some of her daughter’s behavior. There’s also an online test. Of course, none of this is a medical diagnosis. But it might help point you in a solid direction. Hope you found it helpful.

      Reply

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