There are many mental health game-changers HSPS can try — usually, it requires trial and error until you find the strategies that work best.
If I’ve learned anything from the past two years of uncertainty and upheaval brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I can’t underestimate the importance of taking care of my mental health.
The Mental Health Association’s “The State of Mental Health” report found that, prior to the pandemic, in 2019, 19.8 percent of adults experienced mental illness, equivalent to 50 million Americans. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has exacerbated the prevalence of mental health struggles.
Why Mental Health Is Important for HSPs
Because we highly sensitive people have a finely tuned nervous system, our sensory processing sensitivity trait makes us experience the world around us with greater detail and awareness.
While sensitivity is a wonderful personality trait, HSPs can be prone to burnout and overstimulation more so than others. After all, deep processing takes a lot of physical and emotional energy. In addition, HSPs experience their emotions more intensely than non-HSPs. And because sensitive people’s nervous systems are heightened, they’re more reactive to external stimuli, which can be super challenging in our loud and technicolored world. So, without balance and practicing self-care, this can lead to mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
However, by understanding their HSP tendencies, highly sensitive people can create — and maintain — balance and improve their mental health. Learning about the nervous system and how it works is the key to living in harmony with the full range of HSP traits.
Here are ways to make the most of your sensitivity and maintain good mental health.
10 Mental Health Game-Changers for Highly Sensitive People
1. Start tracking your moods, either via an app or through journaling.
When you’re struggling through a bad period of mental health or a difficult time, people have a tendency to keep their head down and trudge on. And it is hard to pull yourself out when you’re in the depths of depression or the coil of anxiety. That’s why it’s useful to develop your awareness muscle so you can tap into the signs or triggers before they take hold.
One way to do this is to use a mood tracker app, like Moodfit, or create a simple journal entry using a scale of 1-10 to reflect how you’re feeling each day. (Overall, journaling is a great way to help you make sense of your emotions.)
When you become more responsive to your mood — and use your high HSP emotional intelligence to focus on you — you can take action to get your ship back on course. When I notice my mood consistently dipping below a “5,” for example, I go back to basics: make sure I get enough sleep, eat only whole foods (not ones full of preservatives), take time to get outside every day, and so on. After all, we HSPs need more sleep anyway, so that alone makes me feel better!
2. Create a healthy environment for yourself.
We know how important physical environment is for HSPs. When I moved to a new house and all my belongings were in cardboard boxes, crowded around my desk, I recognized the claustrophobic feeling immediately. To make sure I could concentrate when I worked from home, I kept one room clear of boxes and worked in there instead. In other words, I was aware of my environmental psychology and adjusted accordingly for my HSP needs.
What makes up a healthy physical environment will differ for each highly sensitive person, although there are general things to bear in mind — use colors that calm you or cheer you up, find inviting textures with soft furnishings, make use of good storage, and avoid clutter.
3. Develop a wake-up and morning routine.
My wake-up routine is key to having a good mental health day, and automating it has shown to help avoid decision fatigue. I get up at the same time every day, eat breakfast, and then take a short walk. These repeated actions help me feel in control and gently guide me into the new day.
Planning the first moments of your day has many benefits, and these positive signs send a signal to your brain and body that all is well. Give it a try for a week and see how you feel.
4. Work with your “rest and digest” function.
The vagus nerve is the main controller of the parasympathetic nervous system, one-third of our autonomic nervous systems. Part of the “rest and digest” function, the vagus nerve takes messages to the regions of our brain responsible for our body’s stress response, including heart rate, breathing, and digestion. “Rest and digest” is opposite that of “fight-or-flight,” the stress response.
Research shows that when you increase your vagal tone, you will see a positive effect on your mental health. Studies have demonstrated that singing/humming, chanting, and yoga therapy can improve emotional resilience significantly.
5. Spend time with animals, whether they’re a friend’s or at a shelter.
Highly sensitive people have a special bond with animals. Research, too, shows that animals have a therapeutic effect on mental health, particularly in times of crisis. For example, during the mid-2020 lockdown, two neighborhood stray cats began visiting my backyard. Week after week, I got used to seeing them dozing beneath the shade of the plants or chasing each other across the tall neighboring walls.
Somehow, they brought a different energy, a calming presence that pulled me out of my anxiety and into the present moment. If you don’t have a pet, you might consider taking a friend’s dog for a walk or volunteering with an animal charity.
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6. Listen to music to help soothe you.
The impact of music on mood regulation has long been understood. Music’s wavelengths have the ability to make us feel. Whether those feelings are upbeat, sad, or hopeful, music has the power to elicit our deepest emotions.(And we all know we HSPs have deep emotions!) Who hasn’t been cheered by their favorite song on a Monday morning or suddenly found themselves crying to a song that comes on the car radio?
For HSPs, the soothing and mood-boosting effect of music is greater, due to our ability to feel more deeply than others. If you’re having trouble getting to the bottom of why you feel out of it, I recommend finding a song that matches your mood and listening to it. Often, a word or phrase will resonate with you and you’ll be better able to identify and process your emotions.
7. Use somatic techniques, either through movement or meditation.
Somatic therapy is a mind, body, and spirit therapeutic practice that’s particularly useful for those with anxiety or trauma. I use somatic movement to help me process and release the pent-up energy following a busy work week. There’s no special way I do this — I put on a piece of music and let my body move along to the rhythm.
Performing movement in this way demands that the mind focus on physical rhythms, which disrupts anxious thoughts. Simple movement like this brings me out of my head and into my body, improving my mood for hours afterwards. If movement isn’t your thing, you can also try somatic meditation.
8. Work with your dopamine system to help regulate your emotional response.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the “reward and pleasure” area of the brain. The hormone is released as a reward for doing something — it’s that feel-good hit when we achieve a goal or satisfy a craving. The neurotransmitter also regulates our emotional response.
HSPs are less motivated by external rewards than non-HSPs, and they respond differently to dopamine. Highly sensitive individuals may find themselves shy away from highly stimulating parties or crowded bars as a means of shaking off the work week. Instead, they may be drawn to exercise, being creative, and listening to music to increase their dopamine levels.
9. Slow down your breathing to help relax you.
Sleep and mental health are closely linked. When your mood is subpar, it’s not uncommon to oversleep, or even struggle to get to sleep, due to racing thoughts.
Coherent breathing is a method of slow breathing that has transformed my rest and sleep. Essentially, it reduces the number of breaths per minute from an average of 15 down to five. Slowing our breathing signals to our autonomic nervous system (ANS) that we are in a relaxed state and ready for rest.
If you want a relatively quick way to bring calm to a worried or busy mind, especially before sleep, you may want to give it a try. Here’s how:
- Breathe in slowly for a count of six
- Release the breath slowly for a count of six
- Repeat for as long as you need
10. Prioritize downtime — it’s an HSP need!
HSPs need space to decompress, process their emotions, and fill up their depleted cup. With deep processing abilities and our tendency to feel so much, there is science behind why HSPs need more alone time than others.
Building downtime into the day can be a buffer, even if it’s just 10 minutes with a cup of herbal tea between your commute and starting work. During busy times, I often book a day off from work so that I can rest, spend time reading, walking, or writing. This strategy has helped me keep overwhelm at bay. There are lots of ways to recharge your batteries, and even if time is scarce, we can all find five minutes for downtime in order to protect our mental health.
It’s All About Trial and Error
You’ll come to identify the things that improve your mental health the most through trial and error. Be open and curious. One day, something that you’ve relied on in your mental health toolbox may turn out to not work as well. That’s okay. Sometimes, this is an indication of positive growth and improvement. Other times, there’s no rhyme or reason for it.
The thing to do is to move on to the next tool. Try out a new hobby. Mix and match — and try not to overthink it (which we HSPs do all too well!).
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