Have you ever been teased for being “overly sensitive” or “too emotional”?
Do you try to avoid busy places, noisy events, and large crowds of people because you tend to feel drained or stressed afterwards?
Have you ever walked into a room and instantly felt anxious or sick to your stomach, only to find out later that there was a heated argument between a group of people right before?
If so, then chances are you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP). And for you, staying healthy may look very different than it does for other people. Here’s why.
Wait, What’s a Highly Sensitive Person?
A highly sensitive person is more sensitive to the subtle cues of other beings, spaces, and environments than the average human. (Find out if you’re a highly sensitive person here.)
This means we are keenly aware of our surroundings and feel deeply. We are extra-sensitive to all types of stimuli, whether it be internal or external, including noises, scents, emotions, chaotic environments, and large crowds of people.
It’s often estimated we make up 15-20% of the population, but multiple studies suggest that up to a third of all people may be highly sensitive.
Either way, being sensitive affects how we experience the world — including how we stay healthy and how we thrive.
Because HSPs are constantly picking up more subtle information from all around us, we can easily become overwhelmed and overstimulated, which radically changes the kinds of health challenges we face.
Common Health Challenges for Highly Sensitive People
While every HSP is different, here are four of the most common health challenges HSPs experience:
- Sensitivities and intolerances. HSPs tend to have a lot of sensitivities to food, chemicals, and environmental triggers. Although the reactions are less severe than true allergies, they can still greatly affect us and decrease our quality of life. Lactose and gluten are common food intolerances. Sensitivities to food might show up as digestive discomfort, feeling tired after eating, or headaches, just to name a few. Reactions show up differently for each person.
- Anxiety. HSPs have overactive processing going on in their brains. We have a tendency to get stuck in negative thoughts, worrying, and “OMG, what if?!” patterns. Or anxiety might just stem from the constant overstimulation we experience day to day.
- Depression. Because of our empathetic nature, and being therefore so easily affected by those around us, we may even pick up on other people’s negative emotions and (unknowingly) absorb them as if they are our own. And hey, let’s face it: There can be a lot of sadness and distress in the world at any given moment. We can easily go into sensory overload mode because we’re inundated with so much information, which only adds to our stress load. Because being sensitive or emotional is often treated as a bad thing, we might feel like an outsider and that others don’t “get us,” causing us to feel alone and unsupported.
- Addictions. There’s no evidence that addiction is more common among HSPs than the general population. However, many highly sensitive people have suggested that a continual state of overwhelm can lead us to turn to drugs, alcohol, food, and unhealthy behaviors in general. It may be that we’re trying to block or drown out our sensitivities. (Yes, I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of using alcohol to “tone down the noise,” so to speak, so I don’t have to be soooooo aware of every single detail around me, gahhhhh!)
Yikes. Being sensitive sounds kind of rough, huh? Well… not exactly.
Turns out, what at first may look like an inconvenience or weakness may actually be one of our biggest strengths. Although our first inclination may be to bundle up and hide from the chaotic and noisy world, there is great power in acknowledging our sensitivity and even embracing it.
Cultivating an optimal lifestyle that wholly supports our health — one that works with our sensitivity, not against it — is vital to thriving as an HSP.
5 Health Strategies for Highly Sensitive People
As a highly sensitive person myself, and a coach to other sensitive souls, here are my recommendations for HSPs on how to deal with these health challenges:
1. Be mindful of your diet.
I don’t mean following health fads or pushing yourself to extremely restrictive dietary restrictions.
Although this should go for everyone, eating a clean, plant-based diet that’s full of fresh, whole foods incorporating all the colors of the rainbow has an even more noticeable impact to someone who is extra-sensitive to what goes into their body. This simple change alone can make a remarkable difference in your energy level — and how well you can handle those “too stimulating” days.
Clean eating can also reveal food sensitivities or allergies you didn’t even know you had. Ask yourself, are there any patterns you notice during or after consuming certain foods?
To find out, monitor your body and how you feel after eating. You might be surprised at what you notice. For example, you may find you have a stuffy nose after eating dairy products, or feel very fatigued after eating bread or pasta. It helps to keep a food journal to track what you’ve consumed and how you feel afterward. If you notice a pattern, try eliminating the suspected culprit from your diet and observe how you feel. This can be a game-changer!
And, across the board, reducing or eliminating caffeine and alcohol — or other harsh stimulants — is big recommendation for HSPs. These substances have effects long after you think they’re out of your system, and may connect to mood or anxiety issues in ways you don’t suspect.
2. Detox your living space.
As an HSP, you may notice that your sensitive system reacts to synthetic chemicals, such as the ones found in perfume, and personal care and cleaning products. Take a look around your home. Are there items that could be replaced with natural alternatives? Pay close attention to anything you put on your body daily, such as lotion, soap, shampoo, and makeup.
I actually discovered that when I took all the harsh chemicals out of my home, my sense of smell somehow became more enhanced, and I breathed more easily (yay to fewer stuffy noses)! I was also amazed at how the natural cleaning products did just as good a job as the conventional ones — without leaving me feeling lightheaded.
3. Say yes to contemplative practices.
Because HSPs are overstimulated easily and prone to higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depression, taking time daily for restorative healing practices is a must. This could be self-care time to reflect, pray, meditate, write, or just consciously take some deep breaths.
Bonus points if you do any of this while out in nature, which is rejuvenating to everyone, but especially soothing to our sensitive system. Forest bathing, anyone?
4. Add in some conscious movement.
When it comes to physical activity, you may experience an extra benefit from holistic movement practices like qigong, tai chi, yoga, and nature walks in your exercise routine. These practices combine intention, gentle movement, and a mindful approach to give an experience deeply different from 30 minutes on the treadmill. They are great for calming the sympathetic nervous system, which I believe tends to be overactivated in HSPs, causing us to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.
Even martial arts, which are ostensibly about fighting, can be a spiritual path with a similar focus on growth and mindfulness — and build a strong sense of inner strength in the process.
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5. Ensure your social circle energizes and lifts you up.
As they say, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so make ’em count!
Because HSPs are so deeply affected by others, this one is HUGE. Although we have no control over what family we were born into or who our coworkers/bosses and neighbors are, we each have the lifelong opportunity to make conscious choices about our friends, partners, and how much time we spend with them.
If you constantly feel drained after hanging out with a certain someone, it might be time to reevaluate that relationship and whether or not it’s serving you to be around them. You may decide to come up with a plan to limit the overall time spent with them each week, or to only connect with them for special occasions. You may even find that seeing them in particular environments is best. For example, I can handle a one-on-one tea date in a quiet coffee shop with a high-energy friend, but I’m not going to let them drag me to a loud concert at a jam-packed venue.
As highly sensitive people, our sensitivity is our strength. We should celebrate this ability to pick up the minutiae that most people miss throughout the course of a day, the hidden intricacies we observe, and the heightened feelings we perceive. These amplified intuitive, sensory, and empathic faculties are priceless gifts.
Which is why they deserve proper care. Creating a conscious lifestyle that promotes health and wellbeing is a powerful and necessary tool for highly sensitive people. It won’t just help you manage — and even prevent — your recurring health challenges. It will help turn your sensitivity into a source of joy.