Life is filled with ups and downs for everyone. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to feel ups and downs even more intensely than people who are not Highly Sensitive. Tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs can help.
Reactivity isn’t a bad thing. It can make life more stressful, though, and is a core challenge to being an HSP.
For anyone, reactivity is especially common when feeling overstimulated. Too many things are happening at once, and your whole system is overloaded.
It makes sense why you may respond by reacting quickly or in a way you’d not otherwise if you were in a state of calm.
Highly Sensitive People have stronger reactivity to external and internal stimuli.
Examples of external stimuli include noise, light, and coarse fabric. Internal stimuli include things like hunger, fatigue, and pain.
The tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs are definitely not a suggestion that there is something wrong with being a Highly Sensitive Person. They’re also not an implication that something about you is broken and needs fixing.
You’ve probably heard messages like “you’re too sensitive” for years. People may insinuate or outright drop their unsolicited judgment about something they don’t even understand.
That’s not what these tips are about.
Bottom line: As a Highly Sensitive Person, you’re genetically predisposed toward overstimulation and reactivity. As a result, you’re prone to have strong reactions to things. That’s just what it means to be Highly Sensitive.
And there is definitely a silver lining.
First, an Example of Reactivity:
Let’s say you and a friend are wading in the ocean. The water is cold, so it takes you a little longer than your friend to walk in up to your knees.
You’re enjoying the sound of gulls and happy children. The warm sun on your skin feels phenomenal, and you’re in the here-and-now — deep in thought, feeling calm and centered. Ahhhhh, it’s great to be alive!
You peer into the clear ocean water to look for sea creatures. There are hermit crabs, starfish, and minnows swimming by. You start writing a book in your mind about hermit crabs and the way they go about choosing the shell they call home.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, your friend splashes the cold salt water into your face and laughs.
You freeze momentarily. Then anger surges through your body.
You have an impulse to scream, but you squelch it and leave the water, ignoring your apologetic friend.
You may even notice tears in your eyes while you simultaneously stomp to shore.
Your non-HSP friend is perplexed by what she considers to be your overreaction. She was only being playful, after all, and being splashed is ‘no big deal.’
You, on the other hand, need to sit in the shade by yourself and ‘chill’ for a few minutes.
Your entire nervous system feels out of sorts. Doing anything else feels non-negotiable. There is no faking it ‘til you make it.
The hardest part of having the High Sensitivity trait is managing emotional reactivity, especially when your mind becomes so overstimulated with thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
But there are ways to manage and ride the roller coaster.
Here are other examples of reactivity/overstimulation triggers for HSPs:
- chemical smells
- too many items on the to-do list
- being late
- unexpected traffic
- cancellation of a planned event/appointment
- an appliance, mobile device, or vehicle malfunctioning
- a dripping faucet
- being observed
- hearing people chew
- unexpected visitors
- favorite food/drink being discontinued
- a task taking much longer than expected
- transportation delays
- lights that are too bright
- doing a task under time pressure
- a loud or gross-smelling hotel room
- the hum of a fan
- loud gum chewing or popping
These examples seem benign. And they can be.
But they can also be a source of ‘too muchness’ for HSPs, especially if the stimuli accumulate.
For HSPs, the straw usually breaks the camel’s back sooner than it does for non-HSPs.
Whether the stimulus is a last-minute change in plans or cold, salty water in your face, reactivity is your system’s default mode.
While you can’t alter your DNA and change this about your nervous system, there are other ways to navigate.
This is where tips come in handy for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs.
Consider these 4 tips:
1. Tip #1 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Awareness: Be familiar with your Reactivity/Overstimulation triggers.
Pay attention to how being an HSP affects you and your day-to-day experience of life.
The more self-aware you are, the more agency you’ll have over choices available to you.
As you become familiar with how you roll, you’ll have a sense of what sets you off, and why and when.
Self–awareness puts you more in the driver’s seat. You can choose to head off overstimulating situations before you become reactive.
Remember that knowledge is power. Sometimes just knowing what could set you off can be helpful. (This doesn’t mean you should be on edge all the time.)
2. Tip #2 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Acceptance: Recognize that the trait has pluses and minuses.
There are so many aspects of being an HSP.
It can actually be a superpower. Even reactivity can be a superpower.
For example, if you’re watching a sunrise, your reactivity may cause you to become tearful. You’re “verklempt” by the beauty of the sun’s rays and the start of the day.
Accept all facets of being Highly Sensitive.
The most challenging feature to navigate as an HSP is the reactivity to surprise, novelty, or aversive stimuli.
Simply knowing that about yourself is helpful.
Embrace all your HSP qualities and traits as an expression of self-compassion.
3. Tip #3 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive:
Anticipate: Certain scenarios, people, and feelings are more likely than others to cause you to be reactive.
Not all HSPs react strongly to the same stimuli. (That’s often due to the way nature and nurture affect development.)
You may, for example, find loud music enjoyable if you’re listening to it on your earbuds. But, at a concert or in the car, it’s too much.
Someone else may prefer to listen to music at a concert and not just on their earbuds.
Anticipating the possibility (or equivalent) of nails on the chalkboard can provide you with some cushion (a soft, pleasant-to-the-touch-fabric kind of cushion, of course).
It may also provide an opportunity to have a conversation in advance to let others know you may be taking breaks.
Being forthcoming before an anticipated stimulus arises both protects you and lets others know not to worry when you take steps to care for yourself.
4. Tip #4 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive:
Self-care: Self-care is important for everyone but is absolutely essential for HSPs trying to navigate life’s ups and downs with less reactivity.
HSPs feel things intensely. That includes our own or others’ emotions, the beauty of nature, or the stinging pain of a hangnail. Crowds, noises, and small talk can be hard to take.
Because of the extra stress we may be navigating and internalizing every single day, we have to treat our tender sensitivity as if it were a friend or loved one.
Speak in a caring tone to yourself, especially to the part that is prone to reactivity. Allow yourself to take breaks/time-outs. Schedule down time each day.
Have measures and practices in place to replenish your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy.
Mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing, body scans, yoga, and meditation can help.
But always remember: these are practices, not ‘perfects.’
Make note of how any of the tips help. Also note which ones need tweaking. Are any unhelpful?
Reactivity and overstimulation are known to cause stress, and stress contributes to physical ailments, including headaches, back pain, joint pain, insomnia, and GI problems.
They contribute to a host of psychological challenges, too — anxiety, depression, and low self esteem, for example.
Awareness, acceptance, and anticipation of situations that are more likely than not to cause reactivity is important.
Empower yourself by considering your options for how to proceed.
Do you confide in a friend who will also be there, and ask for their support?
How about mentioning you may need to leave a social engagement early?
Or promising yourself to recognize when early signs of reactivity occur, and from there deciding how to proceed?
Understand the indicators that extra rest or self-care is needed.
However you choose to handle the reactivity from life’s ups and downs, simultaneously recognize the many blessings and gifts that go along with being a Highly Sensitive Person.
You have those, too.
Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, consultant, and international coach in the Boston area whose passion is to help people celebrate their High Sensitivity…and shine their light!
To read more about High Sensitivity, check out some blogs here.