Being an HSP (Highly sensitive person) I often end up in situations where I feel overwhelmed or stressed out. I think this goes for most HSPs, but not all of us know how to recognize the “symptoms” telling us to slow down and have a time-out. I have been, and still often am, one of those who feel the aftermath of such situations like an emotional hangover hitting my body full on like a case of PTS (Post-traumatic stress).
I am brought up in a culture where emotions are something you should learn from an early age to control. Showing especially negative emotions is considered to be selfish as it becomes awkward for the person who has to deal with it, and emotional people are considered to be either overly dramatic or weak. I will go as far as to say that showing distress is considered to be rude. Being tough is a highly regarded virtue, which basically just means not showing any emotions, especially not weak ones like fear and insecurity. This, to say it mildly, is not an ideal environment for an HSP to grow up in. But I think many HSPs are forced to do just that.
It is hard to shake this way of thinking, even when you know that it does not work for you. Being polite, putting other people first, not being a burden, are all qualities we admire and like in each other, but being highly sensitive, especially if you are also an empath (someone with heightened empathy), we can take this to the extreme, thinking that just a simple “no, thank you” or “I am a little busy, can we reschedule?” is equal to being rude. Many of us are so tentative and caring towards others that we erase ourselves completely. And why do we do that? Because all of us, when going on autopilot, assumes that everyone else is like us. Well, they are not. How many of us haven’t been completely surprised when a friend we have spent half our life helping refuses to help us when we truly need them and finally dare to ask? That is not to say that everyone who is not an HSP are selfish. Perhaps it was just a bad time, or perhaps they just didn’t feel competent enough to help with that particular problem. Most people think it is okay to say no, and would not have any problem if you said no to them.
But we don’t really do that do we? Say no. And then we get in over our heads. Being overwhelmed is a typical HSP problem. For an HSP a job interview or a party with lots of strangers can invoke the same feeling of sensory overstimulation as a culture shock for a non-HSP. It is sometimes just too much. But if you, like me, have been brought up to smile and be polite, those emotions might be so strongly suppressed that they will not rise to the surface until after the overwhelming situation is over. It works the same way as PTS. When you are in the “dangerous” situation you remain completely cool and calm, but then when it is over and your body relaxes again the fear comes out. I call this an emotional hangover. An emotional hangover works a little bit the same way as any other hangover, my body is aching, my head is aching and I feel exhausted, spent and tired. I especially feel it in my eyes, I get tired eyes, as though they want to shut out the world, but I can’t sleep because I feel restless and I have a hard time focusing on anything. It feels the same way as when you are on an airport trying to read, there is so much going on and your body is on so high alert that you can’t process a word your reading, it just becomes meaningless letters. For years I thought there was something wrong with me because I used to get these emotional hangovers all the time, not knowing why. I was so disconnected in the stressful situations that I did not really register them as a stressful because “normal” people did not get stressed in such situations. I could even get these hangovers after being around people who talked a lot. The worst part started for me when I got my first fulltime job. I was forced to be on full alert for 8 hours in a go, and after a month of this my body just stopped cooperating. I was so weak I couldn’t even stand up, but I still wanted to be “a good girl” so I was forced-sent to the doctor by my colleagues. The diagnosis was acute exhaustion or simply “burnt out”. This came as a shock to me. I had only worked for a month and in a “normal” low stress job! I felt like a loser. I felt weak, and I didn’t dare tell anyone in my family about my failure to cope with normal adult life. I tried working a full time job three times. But the same thing kept happening, so I came to the difficult conclusion that a fulltime job was just too much for me. I thought maybe I had some kind of weird disorder.
It took my years before I figured out that I was highly sensitive. Funny in a way because I had always known that I had strong emotions and very alert senses. One thing I had always been told was that I had extremely good hearing. This I later found out was auditory sensitivity. No wonder I had been so afraid of balloons as a little girl! Learning that I was highly sensitive was not really a light-bulb moment that fixed everything and led to an immediate new self-awareness. It took time, and I am still adjusting. But now I don’t blame myself so much for feeling the way I do and I try my best to avoid certain situations I know will lead to overstimulation and emotional hangovers. But it isn’t easy. I still cringe when I have to do things that makes me feel like a burden. I mean, it took my years before I dared to press the service button on the airplane to ask for another glass of wine! I remember my heart racing and sweat appearing on my forehead the first time I did it.
I have learned some remedies though. But most of them are not quick fixes. It requires me to actually speak up and dare to say out loud what I need. I am still struggling with that. And I still get emotional hangovers. But there are some things that help, like holding the hand of a loved one who truly understands me (I call this borrowing energy) when I am in overwhelming situations, going for walks in nature like in a forest or by the sea, listening to soothing sounds like ocean waves, soft wind playing in the leaves, or bird twitter. Being around animals can also give relief, as long as it is stable and calm animals not an anxious dog barking frantically or a cat in hunting mode using you as target practice. A lot of therapists claims that talking about the stressful situations helps to ease the stress, but that doesn’t always work for me. Recognizing what caused the stress and why, is important as a self-awareness lesson, but once I have done that I don’t want to re-leave the situation over and over again. I mean that is pretty much what is the problem. So I have found that the best relief for me is in art. When using an artistic expression like drawing, painting, writing etc. I can access the emotions on a subconscious level and bring them out of myself so to speak. There is no need to compose or plan here, just letting the writing, or the painting, do its own creating freed from the rational mind is the best thing.
Being highly sensitive certainly has its challenges! I know that my life choices will always be unconventional and maybe not even accepted by many, but they are my choices and what is best for me, so I need to stand by them. I know that many people will think of me as weak, and childish and somewhat of a pushover. I know that I definitely will never live up to the new ideals for women such as “badass” and “boss”. But that is just not who I am. I know that many people will think avoiding certain situations is being a coward and that I should face my fears and just get over myself, but these people are not highly sensitive and have no idea what they are talking about. Thankfully, being and HSP has more gifts than drawbacks. I know that my creativity, imagination, spirituality, artistic talents, kindness and generosity all come from being an HSP. My capacity to observe, understand and find deeper meaning would not be the same if I did not have highly alerted senses. I know that I can see beauty that other people cannot see and grasp meanings that others will overlook. I would not be me if I was not an HSP. And the kindest sweetest people I know are all highly sensitive.
The lesson for those of us who are highly sensitive are the same as everyone else: Learn to know yourself and shape your life accordingly. We just don’t quite fit into the traditional mold. But that is okay. In my experience, when we are open about who we are and speak from the heart, a lot of people will actually respond by revealing sides of themselves that they would normally not show or talk about, and such openness leads to more tolerance and less prejudice.
So let us all practice being more of ourselves, to talk about, and show, our uniqueness, and be respectful and mindful of those who are different from ourselves. And if you are an HSP like me, be kind to yourself, dare to speak up about your needs, ask for help, ask for understanding, make the right choices for YOU even if it upsets others, you deserve to be happy and fulfilled just as much as everyone else. There are many of us out there just like you and we are rooting for you!