Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997 when he learned he was an HSP.
HSPs and Overstimulation
One of the core challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, revolves around how to manage getting overwhelmed (or overstimulated) by life and what's going on around us. In fact, the subtitle of Dr. Elaine Aron's original 1996 book about sensitivity was How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
Overstimulation in HSPs is the result of living with an exceptionally finely tuned central nervous system. This means that a highly sensitive person can perceive minute stimuli in his or her environment. Sometimes it can be a wonderful thing to experience things more intensely... but sometimes it can also be rather taxing, especially if we're not prepared. Dr. Elaine Aron, who originally coined the term "Highly Sensitive Person" in 1996, extensively talks about the importance of maintaining an optimal level of stimulation when you're an HSP.
Obvious Sources of Overstimulation
Of course, some of the things that cause overstimulation are very obvious or easy to identify—such as being stuck in the middle of a large crowd of loud people, on a hot day. Or having someone outside your window at work doing street repairs with a jackhammer, all day long. Or having an ornery boss who makes nitpicky demands of you constantly, and then "hovers" to make sure you are doing things "right." These are probably things that would drive any sane person to distraction.
HSPs also tend to become overwhelmed by environmental stimuli—strong or acrid smells, loud startling noises, bright or harsh lights. These are somewhat obvious overstimulants.
A Must-Read for the Highly Sensitive Person
A Brief Recap about being Highly Sensitive
Before going any further, I want to take a moment to talk about the term "HSP," or "Highly Sensitive Person."
Do you know what it actually is? Do you know what it really means?
The reason I ask is that there tends to be a significant difference between the pop culture interpretation and the underlying scientific facts.
Society tend to think someone is highly sensitive because they get their feelings hurt easily, seem to be a "tender flower" and are fussy and seem to require special treatment all the time.
That definition has little to do with Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, the scientific reality that underlies being an HSP.
As part of learning about your sensitivity, it is extremely important to learn all you can, and to truly understand what is at work, on a deep level. I highly recommend reading Elaine Aron's book about High Sensitivity, or if you want a shorter explanation, please consider reading my introductory article on the subject. Being informed is one of the best ways for an HSP to become empowered.
Unexpected Sources of Overstimulation
However, sometimes HSPs can get overstimulated by relatively simple or minor things that do not seem significant to non-HSPs, or even go unnoticed.
These may include subtleties in the environment—a couple of degrees change in the temperature, or a very faint chemical scent—or overwhelm resulting from ambiguities and contradictions in interpersonal communication. Sometimes we can become overstimulated by our very thoughts, or by expectations we place on ourselves.
This morning, I faced one such situation when I was trying to respond to an email that left me with a very large number of choices. And, as I started contemplating the choices, I realized that there were multiple facets and considerations for each of them.
What at first seemed very simple—answer an email—suddenly became an overwhelming mess, causing me to just sit and stare blankly at my computer screen, for about ten minutes, as I realized that something that could be a very simple task might now require a couple of hours of concentration and attention.
At first, I felt a bit bothered by the idea that my concentration could get derailed so easily, by such a seemingly small thing. But then I realized that the things that affect us most are sometimes the ones we least expect.
Subtle ways HSPs become overstimulated
Here are some more, and often quite subtle, ways we can become overstimulated:
- Too many things on our to-do list
- Running late
- Unexpected traffic when we're running errands
- Unexpected "obstacle" appearing on a carefully planned day
- Cancellation of an event/appointment we'd planned for
- Something we depend on malfunctioning-- car, smartphone, computer
- The paint smell in our friend's new apartment
- Power outages, or the Internet offline
- Unexpected or unscheduled visitors
- Grocery no longer carries a favorite food/drink
- A task taking much longer than we expected
- Delayed flight, bus, ferry or other transportation
- Hotel room is noisy, or has a "weird" smell
These are just a few-- there are literally hundreds of such "small events" in our lives; I'm sure you can think of more. Most people might think "so WHAT?" but to an HSP, all of these can be triggers to overstimulation.
Perfectionism and Overthinking Situations
Getting back to my own moment of overstimulation, I realized that I was "going overboard" in terms of how I was responding to this email.
All that was required from the situation were a couple of simple answers, not a three-page essay on every possible nuance, leading to every conceivable choice and contingency. I was-- in effect-- causing my own overwhelm by overcomplicating something that actually was very simple.
In short, my perfectionistic tendencies were trying to take control of the situation.
The HSP and Perfectionism Connection
It is not uncommon for HSPs to have perfectionistic tendencies. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either.
If we take a closer look at some of the attributes that form the roots of high sensitivity, we find attention to detail, conscientiousness and awareness of subtleties in the environment. When you put these three together, it is almost a given that a Highly Sensitive Person is likely to try to do whatever they are undertaking really well. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing,
Where this can become a trigger for overstimulation is when we encounter situations in which we have to provide answers or solve problems in far less time than a perfect answer demands, and we start feeling overwhelmed because we feel that we can't possibly accomplish what we want, in the available time.
As such, it becomes very important for HSPs to become mindful of what is actually needed, in a given situation and not to get excessively attached to giving what we are capable of giving.
The metaphor someone once used with me—and which has stuck with me for some 20 years—came when someone told me, "I really appreciate that you can give me instructions about how to build a clock, but all I needed to know is what time it is!"
Mindfulness: Becoming familiar with your Overstimulation trigger points
When you're a Highly Sensitive Person, learning to recognize and manage your points of overwhelm is an extremely important task. In the case I shared above, I was able to pause and associate my dilemma with the HSP characteristic of being very (excessively) conscientious. I wanted to cover all possible outcomes and future questions. Whereas this is a positive attribute, it wasn't actually called for, in the situation at hand.
How do you stay mindful, aware and awake?
Well, you have to start with really paying attention to the ways being an HSP affects your daily travels through life. Specifically, learn where your trigger points are... and stay mindful of them.
Know what bugs"you.
Is it a whining fan in your cubicle mate's computer? People chatting incessantly on their cell phones? The lights being too bright? Some particular smells—perfumes, solvents, cleaners? Not having a plan or list to work from? The unexpected person showing up and demanding your attention? Know what sets you off. That way you can make choices that let you head off overstimulating situations before you're at the point of going over the edge. Even if you can't outright avoid the situation, simply knowing what's about to set you off can be half the solution.
Mindfulness does NOT mean being excessively careful!
Does being mindful mean you have to live some kind of extraordinarily careful life? Absolutely not!
Mindfulness and excess caution are two very different things. A good analogy is strong sunlight. Just because you have fair skin and might get a sunburn doesn't mean you have to be afraid of being outside on a sunny day—it just means that you stay mindful that it is sunny and you can only be out there for so long, and/or you must wear really excellent sunscreen at all times.
By being mindful, you can enjoy life just the same as everyone else... the effort on your behalf comes in the form of making sure that your participation and enjoyment happens on your terms... and that you don't get caught up in peer pressure and succumb to statements like, "Oh, stop fussing! Everyone else is doing it!"
Part of living well, as an HSP, comes through accepting and embracing that we are a little different... and then taking the appropriate action to manage our lives in the best possible way. Trying to hide under a rock not only doesn't serve us, it perpetuates the false stereotype of highly sensitive people as weak and tender flowers.
Living an HSP Friendly Life: Learn all you can!
Since first learning about the HSP trait in 1997, I have met hundreds of fellow HSPs and have come to the conclusion that the best thing we can do to live a balanced and not overstimulated life is to learn as much as possible about our trait. This is definitely a place where knowledge is power.
If you enjoyed this article, I also hope you'll share it with others—the more people know about the trait of high sensitivity, the better off we all are.
Thank you for reading!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
How good are you at managing your overstimulation? Do you know your trigger points? Leave a comment and share your experience!
Terri on August 16, 2016:
Lol. About the clock and time! Can I quote you!
vlbrown on July 23, 2016:
This past week I had two days of "little things adding up." I once read a great description - it's like being nibbled to death by moths!
I have a workshop I'm getting ready for on Sunday night, (I'm the facilitator). That's the big thing/ And then there was a bunch of small things in email that each, well, I'll quote you: "What at first seemed very simple-- answer an email-- suddenly became an overwhelming mess, causing me to just sit and stare blankly at my computer screen".
I had to walk away for a while. And then I had to reprioritize. Everything else comes AFTER Sunday night.
Alex Graham on July 23, 2016:
I have identified myself as an HSP and I haven't read Elaine Aron's book yet. There appear to be a lot of things that don't phase me like chemical smells for example. But I also know that I can block those smells too!
Overwhelm and perfectionism I can really relate to, I am after all a Virgo as well. Since discovering my HSP nature I hang out a lot with a pretty groovy inspiring bunch of people from Melbourne town, who are obviously HSP's as well.
Basically, I think my HSP nature serves me well. I actually like my sensitive nature and it is taking me on a fantastic journey of discovery. I don't want it to limit me, I don't want it to be another box to hide away from the world in because I think in our heart of hearts we, as humanity are all HSP's. It's just that some of us (HSP) are more closely connected to our true natures. While others, non-HSP's, are more conditioned out of their true natures, hence the 'human condition' or dualistic nature of humanity. From this perspective, I believe that HSP's have an important leadership role, on the path home for all humanity to our shared HSP natures.
With love and blessings,
Monfleury on July 23, 2016:
Sounds very close to life on the autism spectrum to me. :)