The term “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) has been tossed about quite a bit lately, but unless you’ve been officially labeled as such, you might not be fully aware of what that means.
In addition to being highly empathic and emotional, it’s actually their physical sensitivities that are the most affected. Sounds, scents, and textures that you might not even notice can be excruciating to them. Below are just a few things that HSPs are acutely aware of, but most others don’t even clue into.
You and a co-worker might walk into a room together, and they’ll start coughing up a storm and wheezing their guts out while you wonder whether you should call an ambulance, since you’re absolutely fine.
Chances are that the members of the cleaning crew were quite heavy-handed with the spray cleaners, and your pal is having a severe reaction to the chemicals still lingering in the air.
Many HSPs only use natural cleaning products like vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda because anything stronger than that can throw them into an asthma attack, or make them break into hives. Basically, what may smell like a whisper of pleasant lemon scent to you is an onslaught of artificial lemony hell to their entire olfactory system.
Have you ever felt like you were kicked in the face by someone’s perfume because they marinated themselves in it, or because some notes in the scent were just overwhelming? Imagine experiencing that a hundred times a day, only from all directions, and layered, so the scent of cooking cabbage from your flatmate’s supper concoction gets overlaid by the overripe cat litter box, someone’s cologne (or body odor), coffee brewing, etc.
This can cause everything from headaches to nausea, especially in a small space like a crowded subway in summertime. A loft-style office where 30 people are all wearing different perfumes and eating everything from sushi to pizza for lunch can be torturous.
If an ambulance siren sounds annoying to you, understand that it can be indescribable torment to an HSP. Sharp, loud, and repetitive sounds can feel like knitting needles being driven into their eardrums, and it’s not uncommon for them to get a headache and completely lose the ability to focus for a while. Living or working in an area where sirens wail on a regular basis may annoy a regular person, but can drive an HSP insane.
Also horrible to deal with are sounds that most other people won’t even notice, but are downright maddening for an HSP. The high-pitched whine of a fridge can throw off concentration and keep a person from sleeping, or even cause anxiety and heart palpitations.
Layered Audio Input
Many HSPs have difficulty processing audible information if too much is going on around them. For example: if a bunch of people get together in a crowded bar, and many people are talking all at once, while a TV blares in the background, and a band is playing in a back room, the HSP can go into total sensory overwhelm and not be able to discern a single thing.
While you’re having a great conversation, listening to an awesome band play and tuning out the TV talk, they don’t have the ability to tune some things out and hone in on others. It just all comes in at the same volume, so they will be unable to process anything you’re saying.
Few things can be as torturous to an HSP as a strobe light, a flickering fluorescent overhead light, or a bare light bulb. Soft, diffuse lights that brighten up a room are lovely, but sharp pinpoints of light are incredibly painful to behold. They can’t be ignored either: they’re too bright, too sharp, and drive into a sensitive person’s retinas like white-hot pins.
Many HSPs will also turn down the brightness on computer monitors, phones, iPads, etc. so they’re not painful to look at. It’s either that, or be in a constant state of wincing in pain.
Flavors And Textures
If the ingredients in an HSP’s favorite food suddenly change, even by a fraction, you can be damned sure they’ll notice immediately. Whether it’s because they taste that their favorite samosa hut has started to use a bit more cumin in the recipe, or that the fish and chips place is now using a different cooking oil, they’ll be the first to detect the change.
They may also have preferences and aversions to certain flavors and textures, like avoiding slimy foods such as okra and raw oysters, or overly sharp or pungent spices, and preferring foods that are comforting and soothing.
Barometric Pressure Changes
A simple shift in air pressure can make an HSP feel faint or nauseated, and it’s quite common for them to get barometric migraines. Air pressure can also affect pain conditions like arthritis, so the HSP in your life may be incapacitated by an incoming snowstorm or heavy rainfall. Hey, at least you can appreciate them as a living, breathing weathervane, right?
Just like those cleaning chemicals hovering in the air, outdoor pollution will affect an HSP much more than everyone else. Since they’re more likely to have asthma or COPD, they’re kind of like canaries in coal mines: just putting them outside for a moment can be a great gauge of smog levels, since they’ll double over hacking and wheezing in no time.
Crowded city streets full of car exhaust may make them ill for days, which is why so many HSPs find peace and solace in rural areas: not only are they a lot more quiet and peaceful, but the air is actually breathable.
It’s not uncommon for an HSP to have a slew of food allergies and sensitivities, and these can shift and change as they go through life. Foods they loved as children may set them off later in life, or vice versa. Some may have Celiac disease or Crohn’s, or anaphylactic reactions to everything from peanuts or mushrooms to celery or garlic.
If an HSP only eats a small, controlled variety of foods, it may not just be solely for comfort: they may be unable to eat anything outside of that spectrum without getting violently ill.
The vast majority of people with autoimmune diseases or sensitivities are HSPs. They tend to be ill quite often, and can suffer from everything from thyroid issues to bone and joint conditions like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. Many of their ailments can be alleviated with an anti-inflammatory diet such as the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol or the GAPS diet, both of which are designed to reduce inflammation by eliminating allergens and triggering foods.
Heightened Sense Of Pain
Needles, insect stings, toothaches, menstrual cramps… all of these pains may affect HSPs far more than others. Pain that registers as a 1 or 2 on a standard pain scale may be more like a 4 or 5 to an HSP. Furthermore, it can often take an HSP longer to recover from injuries or surgical procedures than other people.
Tiny issues with your clothing that may just irritate you a little bit can be excruciating for an HSP. That “kind of itchy” woolen sweater? Yeah, it feels like steel wool and barbed wire sloughing their skin off. The tag at the back of their neck is grinding into their vertebrae and making them want to rip all their clothes off and set them on fire.
Jeans feel like they’re made of cardboard, and their silk blouse is rippling and caressing them too softly, making their skin run hot and cold at the same time. Many HSPs will eschew what’s fashionable for what’s comfortable, and what they can actually tolerate.
It’s important to understand that HSPs have an incredibly difficult time with everyday life. Situations that don’t affect you at all can affect them badly. Many choose to numb themselves with drugs or alcohol because that reduces the constant sensory overload, while others can go for short periods of pretended normalcy, but need a lot of silence and solitude to recover and recharge.
If there are HSPs in your life, please be patient with them. If you find that they occasionally flinch or recoil, don’t take it personally: instead, ask if they’re overwhelmed, and how you can help. Trust that they will appreciate that beyond measure, and you may find that they’ll open up to you a lot more once they know that you understand them, and what they’re experiencing.
Are you an HSP? How many of the above points can you relate to? Leave a comment below to share your experiences.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.