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.