Many people aren’t aware they are Highly Sensitive, but it makes a big impact on your life.
The walls were reverberating with noise. My heart raced. I felt my vision narrow and darken around the edges.
“Everyone! Quiet!” I yelled. My class of 36 kids froze. They knew something wasn’t right. Their teacher never yelled. I looked around at their concerned faces with my head throbbing.
Then I went blind.
I’d never experienced a migraine before. That’s what the nurse decided it was. A visual migraine to add to the increasing list of health concerns I seemed to be collecting.
The week before, I'd dislocated a rib. In the year and a half I’d been teaching, I had taken more sick days than I was allowed. But worse was coming.
A few months later, I was hospitalized. My immune system shut down. I was sick and, still, I felt relieved. I had a reason to quit my job.
I am one of the 15–20% of people with a highly sensitive trait. It’s a normal personality trait many people aren’t aware of, but it makes a big impact on your life.
The impact of stress on Highly Sensitive People
Stressful environments for a highly sensitive person (HSP) have a much bigger impact than others. While other teachers could manage loud busy classrooms, the emotional load, and hours of paperwork, my HSP nervous system couldn’t cope.
According to research by Thomas Boyce, M.D., Highly Sensitive People are more likely to become sick in stressful environments. They’re vulnerable to developing anxiety and panic attacks, depression, immune disorders, and physical illnesses.
This may sound like bad news but there’s another side — we also do much better, and get a lot less sick than others, in calm environments.
Elain Aron, one of the lead researchers into HSP calls this differential susceptibility.
Even as a Child, You Were More Vulnerable to Your Environment
You’ve probably noticed this situation: a stressful event occurs in a family such as poverty, death, divorce, or abuse, but the siblings react in completely differently ways. One child seems to adjust and carry on as usual, while the other child becomes unwell, depressed, and vulnerable. Perhaps that’s how it was for you growing up?
Differential susceptibility means HSP do far worse than others in high-stress environments. Boyce, in his research, observed that children experiencing stress at home were much more unwell than non-HSP children.
HSP also find things stressful that others might not. Our sensitive nervous systems mean we process information differently and more deeply. Where one child might adjust to a loud, chaotic home environment, their HSP sibling might feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed — and get sick because of it.
Boyce also discovered the good news. HSP children do far better in non-stressful environments than their peers. This is the other side to differential susceptibility. In positive environments Highly Sensitive People:
- Are healthier.
- Often do better academically and are more likely to develop areas of giftedness.
- Thrive more than non-HSP in a number of areas, including creativity.
He saw that when you take a non-HSP out of a stressful environment it will have a small impact. But take a Highly Sensitive child out of it? The impact was dramatic. Highly sensitive people are highly reactive to their environment — both good and bad.
What This Means for You
Reducing the negative impact:
High stress is far more dangerous for Highly Sensitive People than for a non-HSP. Teaching was too high stress for me. I needed a much quieter environment with less people contact. As soon as I quit teaching, my health improved dramatically. If you're a Highly Sensitive Person, it’s important you:
1. Listen to your body
Your body will tell you what you need if you pay attention. We live in a culture of pushing ourselves at work — hours are getting longer; bosses have higher expectations; we pressure ourselves to do better, produce more, and get bigger results; we pursue side-hustles, work two jobs, and set up businesses alongside our day jobs.
As a HSP it’s important that you regularly check in with yourself and ask, “Is my body (and mind) coping with the pressure I’m putting it under?”
Early signs that you need to rest are:
- Rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, headaches, or upset stomach
- Feeling excessively tired or tired all the time
- Losing enthusiasm
- Trouble concentrating and forgetfulness
- Trouble sleeping or waking
- Getting sick more often
- Changes in your eating — appetite less or more than normal
2. Actively reduce stress with healthy lifestyle choices
- Exercising produces endorphins which lift your mood, help you sleep better (making you more able to handle stressors), and reduces stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
- Eating well, getting enough sleep, and balancing work and rest all play a part in helping you manage stress well.
3. Learn to say no
- To avoid conflict, many HSP end up agreeing to do things they don’t want to do. Conflict can be difficult for a HSP but learning to place firm boundaries is necessary and healthy.
- When you say no, think of it as opening yourself up to say yes to the opportunities you really want in your life. If you say no to a low paying job, you can be free to say yes to the higher-paying one. If you say no to helping a friend clean her house, you can say yes to spending time with your family.
- Don’t compare yourself to non-HSP or think, “everyone else seems to cope with this, I should too.” Learn your own personal limits and don’t worry if they are different to other people’s. If you know the loud concert will be too much for your sensitive hearing, saying no is totally acceptable.
4. Assess your environment
- Work to reduce overstimulation and chaos in your home and workplace. As HSP, we need to pay attention to creating calm environments for ourselves.
- Do a declutter, create better storage spaces, or place your desk in a different position (facing a corner, for example).
Making the Most of the Upside
Our differential susceptibility means we thrive and prosper more than non-HSP in good environments. HSP are deep thinkers and reflective so when our environments are set up to learn, be creative, and are supportive and calm we flourish in our work and personal lives. HSP respond powerfully to:
- Self-development and personal growth programs
- Self-care efforts
- Mentoring or learning opportunities
High Sensitivity makes us more affected by our environment, both negatively and positively. We may not have had control over the environment we grew up in as children, but as adults, we can make use of our susceptibility and see it as a strength rather than a weakness.
As HSP, we can set ourselves up in environments where we flourish — using our sensitivity to grow, achieve our goals, and stand out among our non-HSP peers in a powerful way.