What Does Being an HSP Feel Like? | The “Highly Sensitive Person” Explains
I write this blog for so many reasons, but the main one being that I will always be human and in my human-ness, I hope to help others. I wish I could say that “being a therapist” makes us immune to the major annoyances and profound struggles of human life, but… it doesn’t. We too, struggle, but it is our responsibility to consistently work through these struggles with mindfulness and utilize the tools we share with our clients in our daily lives.
With that said, just a few short months ago I found myself on Amazon browsing interesting self help books. I was looking for something that would help me explain why I felt physically off balance for no medical reason or why I was “anxious” from the moment I woke up at times. Among other things, this was something I was curious about for years and I was eager to see if there was a book about somatic anxiety or something similar that would finally give me the answers. Years ago a therapist diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder and health anxiety (once known has hypochondria). As I got older (and especially since becoming a mother), I felt my symptoms were more pronounced when they would show up, but they didn’t always seem to fit the criteria of these disorders.
So after reading and learning about what it feels like to be an HSP, I finally found some answers to some very complicated questions that I have been tussling with my entire life. The knowledge I have newly discovered about myself has also lead me to see my work with couples and individuals in the therapeutic setting so much more clearly, too. It has helped bridge gaps in my own marriage and even more importantly, has revolutionized my relationship to myself. I hope this information helps others on their journey to understanding themselves in ways that are healing and meaningful.
Where it Started: The Book, The Highly Sensitive Person, written by Elaine Aron, PhD
During my Amazon search for self help books, I stumbled upon a title called “The Highly Sensitive Person,” written by Elaine Aron. I didn’t love the title and I actually skipped over it several times because of it. Being as though I was told my entire life that my sensitivity was a problem, I didn’t feel drawn to a book confirming that I may actually be “too sensitive.” Luckily, the book kept popping up and because it had great reviews, I finally gave it a chance. After reviewing the summary, as well as the reviews, I pushed passed my initial judgement of the title and thought, what the hell and clicked “buy now.” Two days later the book showed up on my porch and I cracked it open. Twenty minutes into the book I found myself in a whirlwind of emotions. For the first time, I actually felt seen, understood, validated and even a bit more neurotic (which is common for us to feel as HSPs because that is “normally” how our culture views our behavior). I remember tearing up thinking, wow, this may explains why I feel lightheaded/off balance sometimes… my nervous system is just overstimulated.” I had heard of “triggers” and understood fight, flight, or freeze through my studies, but never have I understood nervous system sensitivity quite like Aron’s definition.
For example, you are likely an HSP if the majority speak to you strongly:
- You scare easily
- You get hangry… like really hangry.
- You need quiet time… as loud noises, lots of external things going on at once really irritate or overwhelm you.
- You value your own solitude more than anyone you know and may even struggle with a social life. It’s either nonexistent or you feel exhausted by it.
- You get easily moody, aggressive and/or reactive when a lot is happening at once, yet you try your best to multitask despite it.
- You’re super spiritual
- You struggle with making decisions. Sometimes big ones and other times just want kind of bread you you should buy.
- You feel empathy in ways that can make you physically uncomfortable, or able to feel people’s pain in your body.
- You notice/are sometimes bothered by everything when most around you don’t have the slightest clue. Such as the energy of a room, the smells of the neighbor’s cooking, other’s conversations at dinner, etc.
- You need sleep… a lot of it.
- You are always in your head over processing or analyzing.
- You’re incredibly deep and hate small talk. You don’t fit in with most people socially/emotionally because of this.
- Loud noises, bright lights or strong odors make you feel very uncomfortable
- Your body often feels off or you notice every bodily sensation.
- You are very particular about things and may complain often.
- You get exhausted and/or moody easily.
- You are deeply moved and can lose yourself in music or art.
- You push yourself to do things despite the above experiences because you can’t explain why you are so different and just want to fit the mold of “normalcy.”
So if you feel you relate to most of these above, know that I personally understand you!
So what does being an “HSP” even mean?
According to simplepsychology.org, the highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who is thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system (CNS) which makes them more sensitive to multiple stimuli. This can be physical, emotional, environmental, and/or social stimuli. The term was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the mid-1990s, with interest in the concept growing ever since. According to Aron’s theory, HSPs are a prevalent subgroup of the population who display increased emotional sensitivity and stronger reactivity (consciously or subconsciously) to external and internal stimuli compared to the rest of the population. They tend to notice more subtle stimuli in their environment and are more easily aroused (overwhelmed) by this, in addition, they also respond to a lower threshold of stimuli. HSPs are generally more sensitive to pain, hunger, lights, smells, and noises, too. In the literature, being an HSP is often referred to as a person having a sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), which is not to be confused with a sensory processing disorder, a condition which affects how the brain processes sensory information. HSP is not a diagnosable condition, instead it is believed to be a gene which increases the responsiveness to both positive and negative stimuli.
So if you are an “HSP,” really all it means is you have a gene that only 18-20% of the human species has that makes you more aware of everything around you and inside of you, which makes you more easily overwhelmed. Throw in modern day living of overachievement, and you have yourself a boat load of anxiety that can lead to depression and moodiness that denies you of connection with others.
Being an HSP is scientifically based and they have found this gene in over 100 other species of animals, too. The reason I never learned about this is in graduate school was because we studied trauma, attachment, pathologies and diagnosis of mental illness. The Highly Sensitive Person would have been helpful to learn about, as having this gene predetermines a person’s overall temperament (i.e. a person’s natural state of being) which affects their mental, social and emotional wellbeing! Temperament and experiences (such as trauma and attachment styles) do inform personality traits, but overall your innate nature is out of your control. So if an HSP’s central nervous system is designed to be more sensitive to all stimuli, their temperament is more likely going to be anxious, particular, emotionally reactive, sensitive, overwhelmed, etc. Because this isn’t popular information, it’s easy for doctors, therapists and others to mislabel, pathologize and completely misunderstand the HSP’s behaviors or sensitivities. I know I did!!
Not knowing what an HSP is, but being an HSP, feels like you are an anemone with tentacles that constantly fire off with the slightest sensation, making most fish around you confused or scared of you, and leaving you feeling uneasy, alone and insecure, as you struggle with turning down your hyper-vigilance to the outside world.
It make sense that being an HSP can affect your relationships, too. As an example, studies suggest that up to 50% of married couples who divorce can be due to innate temperament discrepancies and expectations for impossible changes. For example, some couples are unknowingly asking their partner to change biological factors that simply can’t be changed, (sort of like asking your partner to change their eye color). Without them knowing this and working with finding a middle ground, these requests never change, which lead to resentment, betrayal and ultimately the termination of the relationship.
So after taking the self quiz in the book, I can most certainly say that I am an HSP. Ya sure, I still experience anxiety, but this book made sense of all the other symptoms I was experiencing since I was a kid that “generalized anxiety” did not fully account for. As an example, being an HSP would explain why I have always struggled with florescent lights, why strong synthetic smells are beyond repulsive, or big crowds become more and more draining for me as I get older. It would explain why I need at least 9 hours of sleep to feel functional (but would be in heaven with 11), or why I can ponder the meaning of life at a stop light. Being an HSP would also explain why my family has always known for me being “grumpy, temperamental, needy, sensitive, deep, HANGRY, and very particular about odd things” (like hating the sound of silverware clacking together). Being an HSP would also explain why I feel my strong intuition has guided me in so many ways, yet explains why I often struggled with making big decisions, (like having another child). It would explain why I feel like I just know things; why I can read everything in a room the second I walk in it; why I could feel people’s “energies” or literally feel people’s physical pain. Being an HSP would explain why I would lock myself in my room for hours as an adolescent and music would be my only refuge; why I desperately need alone time (more than anyone I know) or why small talk feels like the bane of my existence. It would explain why I never really fit in with most groups completely and have always danced to my own drum, or why some (including my own self judgment) would perceive me at times as inflexible or selfish.
Being an HSP fully explained why I would have fear about my bodily sensations since I was a child, too (what I had been previously diagnosed as having “health anxiety disorder” later in life). Being an HSP made me super attune to every normal bodily noise, pain and pinch my body would experience (that again, most people didn’t even notice, let alone worry about). Not having the knowledge or understanding of those noises being “normal,” I would deeply process what these sensations could mean and because I had experienced a lot of death around me as a child, I just assumed “discomfort in the body lead to illness, which lead to dying,” which caused anxiety. A vicious cycle.
Being an HSP and not knowing it, made me feel robbed of a childhood because I couldn’t shut off a responsibility to fix the constant perceived chaos/threats that were SO REAL to me. I couldn’t feel reassured when adults told me ‘don’t worry so much.’ I couldn’t pretend to not feel things in such profound ways and it only made me feel more self conscious because I would constantly be told to ‘get over it.’ Because I didn’t know how to cope with my world, my trauma, or my insecure attachment style, I unfortunately learned to numb these feelings out with toxic relationships, opioids, marijuana and alcohol in my teens and early twenties.
Growing up, I just assumed I was “different” because I was an only child who grew up in a broken family. I was always told by my parents that I was “too sensitive,” so I just internalized my natural state of being as “bad” or “wrong.” Later, when I became a therapist, I just assumed my “sensitivities” were a product of my trauma, so I jumped on the diagnosis of generalized anxiety with an insecure attachment style, and went on my way to work through that in my own therapy. Although these factors are very valid and impactful, not knowing I was also an HSP made me feel even more hopeless as I got older and felt even more emotionally reactive and exhausted. (It is believed that HSP’s central nervous systems actually get more sensitive as you age and even more so when you become a parent!)
In addition, becoming a mother blew all of this up for me. Being an HSP would explain why I felt a profound trauma/guilt during labor that broke me completely. My daughter was a month early and her arrival was completely unexpected. I remember I wasn’t able to sleep for days due to sky high anxiety, while the endless processing of what had just happened to me replayed over and over again in my mind. I wasn’t even able to be present enough to be excited of her arrival. I was in a state of complete shock, anxiety, disbelief, fear, judgement of my performance during labor, etc. Learning more, I now realize how many other HSP mothers are out there that feel incredibly alone, exhausted and unhappy as I did and not understand why. (Many are clients of mine that I now know how to support differently!)
Being an HSP mother explains why I feel a visceral reaction (which can default to irritation if I am not careful) when my daughter has meltdowns or cries, or why I feel an extreme exhaustion (which can easily turn into borderline resentment) when she asks to change her clothes for the 15th time that day. Being an HSP mother explains why I have had moments that were so deeply depressing that I found myself thinking that I ruined my life or I hate being a mom. Why I would fantasize about running away in solitude because I needed space alone in such a crucial way, but then would judge myself due to comparison of other mother’s that would never feel this way. Now realizing that reaction came from a place of having a completely overwhelmed nervous system and a mistreatment of my body, it makes sense. I did feel like I ruined my life; I wasn’t able to show up in a kind and loving way at every moment and I felt completely stressed out by the relentless demands of being a mother and having to multitask in ways I wasn’t able to sustain.
When no other mother that I had spoken to in my personal life felt this strongly as I did, I felt myself feel the insecurities I used to feel as a child. What’s wrong with me? Was I really this selfish? Maybe it’s my anxiety disorder. Maybe its my husband’s fault… Maybe I’m just not meant to be a mother. Maybe it’s hormones? Maybe it was covid era? Ughhhh. I’m sure every mother feels this way to some degree, but if I were to be honest, most days if I do not take care of my body or be mindful of my current intake of stimuli, I don’t enjoy being a mother. I don’t enjoy most things because I get into a state (ie my nervous system is being completely hijacked), that is so uncomfortable that all I want to do is run away. Before understanding this about myself, I would default to judgment. I felt completely incompetent, grumpy and disconnected from myself and my family. I felt completely stuck in shame, guilt, resentment and sadness. I felt alone, unable to perform from the endless responsibilities and not being able to sleep more than 5 hour blocks at once (I ironically have a child that even at the age of 4, does not sleep the whole night through most nights).
I can no longer deny one of the biggest impacts that I just recently understood of my body and my world experiences that was overlooked and misunderstood for years. I am not a bad mother. I am not a bad person. I am not lazy, incompetent. I am particular and reactive. I am bothered by lights, smells and crowds; but I am loving and conscientious. I do have anxiety at times, but the reality? I have a delicate central nervous system that absorbs everything from the conscious level (my daughter needs me to comfort her, my husband is stressed with work, I need to order groceries to have dinner ready by 5pm, the dog needs breakfast, the floors need to be vacuumed, my client’s are needing me to show up authentically, I need to pay this bill tomorrow, don’t forget to send out the invites, don’t forget to go to yoga today, text your friend and see how she is doing, etc) to the subconscious level (I am tired, I need rest, what’s that sound? What’s that smell? Stop thinking so much. Take a breath. You’re not breathing! You’re not eating! Take time. Rest. AHHH this feels scary! I’m exhausted). Without understanding this simple and yet incredibly impactful piece of me, I have pushed myself since I was born to hide this natural state of being to conform to the majority of the population’s preferences of “normal”. So ya, this suppression and unease has caused even more grumpiness, more depression and anxiety. Never having learned how to nurture my delicate and overstimulated nervous system, my body resulted to feeling physically ill or lightheaded and made my emotions so intense that I would just shut down after having a meltdown and then I would judge myself for not keeping composure.
If you relate to any of these experiences, take the self quiz. Elaine Aron has a lot of different books from The HSP, the HSP in Love, to the HSP Parent, the HSP Child, as well as workbook. All highly recommended. What these books have taught me, have really revolutionized my self talk, my self care regime and my ability to finally let myself rest. I take naps now, (something my ego would have NEVER let me do prior), I slow down and intentionally do not multitask (especially when my daughter is around), I build my day to avoid intensity as much as possible. I eat more regularly instead of waiting until I am hangry, I stop when I feel myself getting overwhelmed and remove myself to breathe.
Reading more about temperament, what it feels like to be an HSP, as well as learning how to nourish my body/delicate nervous system, I have been able to revolutionize my “self care regime” from a way more intentional space. By learning and embracing being “different,” (because yes, if you are an HSP, you are different), has allowed me to see the gifts in the sensitivities that I was born with. Being highly perceptive does make me feel more spiritually connected to nature and the unknown; it also allows me to feel “positive” feelings more intensely and continues to help me support my daughter, my husband/friends and clients in such an intuitive human way. As long as I make it a priority to nurture my nervous system by resting more, meditating, being in nature, journaling, avoiding loud places, moving my body and listening to music, I feel incredibly align with myself and others around me. I finally feel like I belong.
If you believe you are an HSP and would like some guidance around how it shows up in your life and affects your relationships, please contact us contact us today!