5 common triggers for highly sensitive people, and 5 antidotes to help them survive social distancing

5 common triggers for highly sensitive people, and 5 antidotes to help them survive social distancing

My family of six is spending a lot of time together these days. We enjoy spending time together—and up till about five years ago, we homeschooled our four kids—but now, with social distancing orders in place, we are spending all our time under the same roof.

My husband Will and I both work from home more often than not, yet we’ve been genuinely surprised at how much the change to virtual schooling from home has changed everyone’s routines. It’s thrown me for a loop; I’ve had a hard time adjusting.

I’ve felt out of sorts, and I’ve attributed it to being out of routine, and to all kinds of grief. But this weekend I realized there’s something else going on: as a highly sensitive person, our new situation is massively overstimulating, and that’s a huge reason why I’m feeling so drained. (If you’re not familiar with HSPs, click that link to read what the term means; highly sensitive does not equal highly emotional.) Several of my kids have HSP traits as well, so this is important for my whole family to know.

It’s funny it took me so long to diagnose myself, because I’m no stranger to high sensitivity: it’s obviously something I’ve had to find ways to cope with in the past. But because I’ve become so adept at structuring my life to avoid my triggers and build in time to recharge, I no longer experience the highly sensitive meltdowns I used to, before I learned how to navigate what it means to be an HSP. But when our circumstances suddenly changed, I was once again surrounded constantly by triggers. Because it had been so long since I’d experienced them to this extent, I was slow to recognize the cause.

Now that I’ve identified what’s going on, I can do something about it.

I wrote my first book, Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, about how understanding our own and others’ personalities can benefit us in all sorts of real, tangible ways. Chapter 5 is all about what it means to be a highly sensitive person, and how to navigate your world if you or someone you love is an HSP. I’m borrowing a bit from that chapter today to share a handful of common triggers that drain highly sensitive people’s fuel tanks, and how to give HSPs what they need to feel calm, content, and collected.

I can’t share all the tips from that chapter (because copyright), but I do hope you find the following helpful.

5 common triggers for highly sensitive people

While different sorts of HSPs have different sensitivities, there are certain common themes, including the following:

1. Noise. HSPs frequently dislike loud noises and nonstop noise of any sort. In another life, I would tell you that rock concerts, the buzz of a cocktail part, or coffee hour at church are all stimulating—perhaps over-stimulating—environments for the HSP. In this life, if one kid is Facetiming a friend and you’re trying to listen to your governor’s daily Facebook news update while your spouse wants to talk to you about what’s for dinner … the HSP brain is going to feel overwhelmed. Just hypothetically, of course.

2. Clutter. I hate this but it’s true: messy spaces are draining for many HSPs because there’s too much visual input. Although I would never describe myself as a neatnik, I’ve noticed that keeping my house tidy (or tidy enough) keeps my metaphorical fuel tank full. If you’re an HSP, clear counters do a lot for inner calm.

These days I’m all about controlling the things I can, and so keeping clutter at bay has become a higher priority than usual—especially because I’m spending so much more time at home.

3. Information overload. Taking in lots of information in a short period of time makes HSPs feel overwhelmed. So when my HSP kids say they’re struggling learning how to navigate entirely new ways of doing school from home, with new platforms, new assignments, and new rules—of course they are. This kind of thing is hard for anyone, and even more so for the highly sensitive.

4. Media. In addition to the information overload aspect, media can also cause big feelings (another common trigger), and the combination is brutal. HSPs are especially vulnerable to crumpling when faced with nonstop coverage of a devastating event.

5. Decisions. Decisions are a major source of energy drain for HSPs (and many introverts). Everyone experiences decision fatigue to some degree, but for HSPs, who are better able to perceive the nuances and subtle implications of every possible outcome, decision fatigue kicks in sooner and lasts longer.

5 high-priority things HSPs need to feel like themselves

In a nutshell, HSPs need white space, both literal and metaphorical, to give them a break from the tidal wave of sensory input.

1. Quiet. This is the #1 item on many HSPs’ punch lists. More than anything, HSPs need some noise-free zones in their days so they can rest, reflect, and recharge.

2. Peaceful, clutter-free environments. Not always, of course. But when HSPs need to recharge, environment matters.

3. Privacy. When HSPs need to focus, they often prefer to work (or read or walk or think) alone.

4. Downtime. More than most, HSPs need to be deliberate about resting and recharging at regular intervals.

5. Routine. Embracing routine is helpful for many HSPs, because smooth routines make for fewer decisions, and often carry the added bonus of less talking.

We’re living through strange times. Even the safe and healthy among us are struggling—and being a highly sensitive person has its own unique challenges right now. My hope is that by being able to recognize the triggers in your life (or in the lives of those around you), you’ll be able to do something about them and bring more peace into your life.

I’m cheering you on, friends. Take care of yourselves.

– Anne

P.S. If you find this information helpful, I’d recommend checking out my book Reading People. If you’re parenting a highly sensitive child right now, I recommend reading this post written from the trenches of parenting a highly sensitive child.

P.P.S. In my Stay at Home Book Tour session for Don’t Overthink It, I focused on practical strategies to help you navigate the covid-19 era, including common overthinking triggers, how to make decisions in these times, and what to do if you find yourself trapped in an overthinking cycle. Click here to watch that free replay.

5 common triggers for highly sensitive people, and 5 antidotes to help them survive social distancing

40 comments | Comment

40 comments

Leave A Comment
  1. Colleen says:

    During this time I have found the Insight timer app to be very helpful! I am trying to do a short meditation everyday and sometimes one at night ( trouble sleeping lately)! Brings at least 10 minutes of calm to my life!

    • Mary Lou says:

      Colleen: I discovered the Insight Timer app this past week-end at the recommendation of a friend, and I agree it is wonderful.

  2. Christy McQueen says:

    Thank you for this! It came at the perfect time. I am definitely an HSP and this time has really been a struggle. Just trying to make myself sit down and read has become a chore during these uncertain times. If I following your guidelines this week, I hope to be able to get back on track emotionally and restart my reading life too!

  3. Yes, yes yes! Thank you. I’ve FINALLY started a daily routine checklist (handwritten and laminated and then crossed out w/ dry erase marker) and it’s helped me SO much during this time. I’ve never been able to implement it before, but it seems more needed than ever. Also making my bed and having something in order in each room has helped.

  4. Claudia Templer says:

    Thanks, Anne, for the reminders. In addition to the COVID-19 chaos in the country, we are in the midst of moving to another state to be closer to some of our family. There have been (and are) many “triggers” causing me great distress at times. Since we are “downsizing” the triage of our stuff is difficult, especially with businesses temporarily closed or shut down (eg. library for our excess books, Goodwill for still usable items, books etc, second hand furniture dealers). In all the chaos, though, the Lord has shown us great grace in helping us to resolve problems that arise! We’re so grateful for that!

  5. Carrie says:

    Anne- Thank you! I should have figured this out weeks ago- it’s due to HSP. I’ve been head-achey, cranky, and not sleeping well. Even with just extra person home, it’s noisier and more TY on. And more clutter. My safety net is my walk with my dog.

  6. RuthAnn says:

    Thank you for this! It’s just my husband and me in our house, but I felt like, did he always talk so LOUDLY? I am also on video call overload. It’s as if working remotely is more draining to this introvert than being in the office, but how does that even make sense? I’m sure that the external stress and instability are contributing to my lower-than-normal thresholds, but still. In the moment, I feel irrational.

  7. Deborah Gray Ball says:

    This book was mentioned by you years back Anne, but The Highly Sensitive Personality by Dr Elaine Aron has been so helpful in my life and especially empathizing with others who don’t process quite the same way. It is an older book but highly informative and ground breaking. In my spiritual direction counseling I have found this is also linked to the gift of compassion, and it helps me understand why compassion so often hurts when we feel it. Please look this book up ladies, and thank you Anne for bringing it into my life! Be well!

  8. Aly says:

    I feel like you wrote this blog post for me. I am having a really difficult time with having all 5 of my family members in the house ALL DAY LONG! And i work as a nurse, so right now I feel like I have no time or ability to get away and be by myself in quiet. THank you for the suggestions. I don’t think I truly realized I was a HSP until this pandemic…

  9. Suzanne says:

    Anne, thank you for putting these feelings I’ve been having so succinctly. As Carrie commented above, “I’ve been head-achey, cranky, and not sleeping well”. (Amen to that!) Maybe your words will help the others in my house understand why I need some quiet and some cooperation about clutter.

  10. Eileen says:

    Thank you, I needed this! I am an HSP who keeps forgetting I am! I have always known I was an introvert, and adding HSP makes my life challenging at times! I have also noticed my husband speaks loudly and feel guilty for getting overwhelmed by such a trivial character trait! Everything seems to overwhelm me now from information overload, easy tasks becoming hard Like grocery shopping and missing family! Self care is more important than ever, but sometimes I feel like I am overindulging myself!

  11. Leanne says:

    Amen and amen! These are such important reminders as we all navigate this “new normal.” I’ve been working on spring cleaning in the morning, taking time for lunch, walking to the mailbox, then relaxing the rest of the afternoon. No children and hubs is still working, so it’s just me and the cat. Still, I find a semblance of a routine to be necessary and taking a news break has been super helpful. Also, getting outside, weather permitting, and breathing in some fresh air is wonderful.

    • Lisa Z says:

      Leanne, I love how you put this so much. I struggle with always feeling like I should do more at home, and your lovely routine gives some casual structure to a day as a homemaker. I tend to be fairly relaxed when alone, but since my part time job is closed and my husband is now working from home as a high school teacher (unprecedented!), I struggle with trying to prove myself as a “productive person” too. Your ideas help! (As well as either hubby or me shutting the door to separate spaces through the work day! I need quiet to function at all.)

  12. Susan in TX says:

    I’m not really a HSP, but I am an introvert and all of the above applies somewhat to introverts as well. I recognized the first week of April when my kids were just on spring break (right before we knew it was going to be indefinitely extended) that as one who is used to empty nesting that I had to look out for my energy level. Now all 4 kids have been sheltering here for a couple of weeks and that’s even more true. For the most part, we’re doing pretty well, but I’m finding that I just don’t want to do “extra” Zoom chats, etc to hangout and connect, because I’m almost “over-peopled” at home. I’m just too tired to get on another conversation. The first week of Stay at Home Book Tour was intense for me because I was trying to hit them all live and keep up with things here. I was so relieved we had a week off. I think this week will be easier as I’m finding the balance better. Everyday for a week feels like a lot, though. Especially now that people are putting out SO much content (most of which I’m ignoring). If there’s more to come after this week, it might be nice to spread them out more – just a thought. I can’t imagine the pressure on you, Anne, to be prepped for them daily with everything else on your plate. I’m loving them, don’t get me wrong, and the option to watch later when it works for us is wonderful, just don’t want our host to burn herself out. ❤️

    • Lisa Z says:

      As an introvert, I agree so much with this! I am finding all the Zoom meetings and classes, FaceTime conversations, and general texting and talking overwhelming right now. At first all this great new content and connecting was exciting, but pretty quickly I had to tune almost all of it out because it was too much. I decided to mostly stick with what I was already doing in life before Covid–so I’m only attending my own yoga studio’s Zoom classes, and only going to work meetings I am required to attend, etc. I’m also trying to keep my work hours (I work very part-time) to the usual hours I work in regular life. Finding some sort of normal routine even though it’s all done differently has helped a lot.

  13. Thank you for these timely reminders, Anne. I’m trying to fill my time with good activities, but it is a shock to be suddenly home all day, and have my eldest son also home all day, and my husband home most of the day. We have a little house, so it’s often hard to find privacy and quiet. I am lucky to have a garden to work in, so I’ve been spending a lot of time out there, catching things up and preparing for spring. Reading, gardening, and writing have always been my sanity savers.

  14. Wow–I needed to hear this. I couldn’t figure out why I had an epic meltdown yesterday or why I still feel so stressed today. Thanks for the tools to help me figure this out and make some changes!

  15. Barbara E. says:

    Thank you for this well-considered article.
    I love quiet. And that’s why, for example, voice-activated electronics have zero appeal for me.

  16. Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson says:

    Terrific insights! I live alone in a “cozy” apartment. I’ve noticed clutter is really getting to me and I’m making an effort daily to declutter.

  17. Liz says:

    I wonder what the correlation would be between HSP’s and Enneagram 9’s… Since I am a 9 and an HSP, and so are you – coincidence? Or maybe just a higher percentage of HSP’s are 9’s also? Curious…

  18. Bonnie says:

    I am feeling SO unmotivated these days, even though I’m still working. Once I come home, I sit on the couch and don’t do much else until bedtime. The fact that my husband hasn’t worked the past two weeks doesn’t help any. And he’s gotten NOTHING done at the house. I’m so annoyed. Still grateful to you for introducing me to the concept of HSP. It explains why I have never been able to stand kites, wind chimes, or swingsets (clanging together). Most people think I’m nuts. I am great one-on-one but detest crowds and small talk. (You won’t be surprised to hear my husband is the exact opposite.) I pray we get through this sooner rather than later. And I wish I could tackle my clutter. Somehow it must not bother me too much, ’cause I have plenty of it!

  19. Alisa says:

    Oh my goodness! You’re blog today is speaking directly to me! I’ve always known I could be sensitive to certain triggers, but you definitely narrowed and put into clear terms exactly what I need to think and feel my best. I am definitely going to check out your book. Thank you again!!!!

  20. Diane says:

    Wow! I’m almost 60 years old and never realized I am a HSP! I’m a self-described neat-freak, family members have a nickname for me and my heightened sense of smell and my MIL thinks my hearing is better than everyone else’s (it’s not) because I’m always asking her to turn the TV volume down when we’re all trying to have a conversation in the living room. And taking a walk, by myself, without headphones, so I can listen to the birds and insects is my go-to break. I could certainly use some pointers on other ways to cope. I have a copy of Anne’s “Reading People” on my shelf. Excuse me while I go read it . . .

  21. Whitney Holder says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m an HSP who has also been feeling out of sorts, and I didn’t think about these triggers either. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Now I can go about righting myself. Phew!

  22. Carol says:

    Five minutes ago, I would have said I am not an HSP. Reading this…well, I am. But I routinely employ many of these coping strategies…because I need to. I need to NOT follow my friends on facebook who feel the need to talk politics non-stop. Regardless of the side of the aisle that they fall on, I can’t take the banter. I turn off the news. Especially when it’s election season. TV isn’t my jam, give me all the books! Please, no roller coasters. I actually like safer at home. I just never knew what all this added up to. Thanks for the eye opener. It all makes sense, now.

  23. Cassie says:

    I’m home with a 4yo and my now working from home hubs. The only time it’s quiet is when everyone is sleeping. The video calls, texts, extra how to entertain a kid at home are so, so overwhelming. Less of that. More of our normal stuff. Candles burning. Cozy socks (I notice every crumb I step on). Headphones and music on. Please dont talk to me about the virus. Dressing very comfortably… soft, loose clothes. Cooking dinner. Coloring. I’m still an introvert. I still only want to talk to you once a week. It’s not you, it’s me.

  24. This was a great article, thank you for sharing! I knew I was an HSP, but never more so until we’ve been quarantined at home together. All of these make so much sense to me. Thank you, also, for including some practical ways we can help ourselves during this crazy and strange period. God bless!

  25. Ohhhhh…this is helpful! I’m an introverted homebody so I’m pretty ok with time at home (although there are certainly things I miss, like seeing my parents in person and attending church and even browsing Target!) but I am also an HSP and I have my 1st grader home all the time right now. Which means I don’t get real quiet when the 2 year old is napping. This nice weather that I send him outside to play in is very nice!! I need some real quiet in my day, for sure.

  26. Itto says:

    thank you so much! I never thought that I could be HSP, but maybe I am – these points just make so much sense to me! thanks for all these deep thoughts.
    Greetings from Morocco – and stay safe and healthy!

  27. Suzanne says:

    Ironic that I’m reading this in a separate room, with earphones in, listening to meditative prayer while my kids watch a video. After busy morning with homeschool, husband on work call, older kids on school meetings… I’m just exhausted.thx for encouragement.

  28. Debra says:

    I cried when I read this. Thank you so much! I have known as long as I can remember that I am highly sensitive, but I had no idea it was a “thing,” like a personality category. Knowing there are resources is amazing, and I really appreciate your bringing this forward and sharing your knowledge. I bought your book, Reading People, loved it, and am now trying to broaden my research to include Aron’s resources as well. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *