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.
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.