Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person wearing a mask and reflecting what she’s learned from 2020.

5 Things 2020 Taught Me About Being a Highly Sensitive Person

Let’s not pretend we’ll all emerge stronger, but there are five key lessons highly sensitive people can carry forward. 

It was only very recently that I first came across the term “highly sensitive person,” or HSP. I have always been aware, of course, that some people are more sensitive than others: some cry more easily, some are more compassionate, some people are deeper thinkers, and some are more easily overwhelmed. 

Yep, I had all the signs

But it hasn’t always been easy for me to accept it — to be kind to myself instead of berating myself for it. I wanted to know why I would have days when one additional task could tip me into an abyss of stress, or why I’d get easily overstimulated by something as low-key as a family meal. Still, until recently, my sensitive quirks weren’t a terrible source of turmoil. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by people who could comfort me even when I couldn’t comfort myself; it’s funny — they seemed to accept my sensitivity before I did.

And then COVID-19 struck. Relatively speaking, I was lucky: I moved back home from my job abroad and enjoyed unexpected time with my family. It was an opportunity to slow down, live rent-free, and take time for hobbies I’d neglected. 

That said, the virus derailed my plans spectacularly. I’d been teaching English in Ecuador when COVID-19 arrived, and all schools were closed immediately. I said goodbye to my students, chuckling nervously as we wondered, “See you soon…?” The company I was working for wasn’t prepared to move online — and neither were the students. And so my job was put on hold… indefinitely.

As the situation worsened, I began to fear I would get trapped in the country. Flights out were becoming rarer and rarer. When I saw a post on the US Embassy Facebook page announcing that there was just one flight left, I made the call to book it, leaving my job, friends, students, and boyfriend behind me. I must reiterate that I was lucky to be able to do so — my family helped with some of the cost of the flights and going back home felt warm, safe, and cosy, especially for my highly sensitive self.  

Yet it was this very feeling of safety and comfort that made my emotional response to the whole situation so difficult to understand and accept without shame or self-criticism. 

Panic attacks are surely one of the clearest signs that there’s something you’re not coping with. I’d never had one until about a month after I got back from Ecuador. Anxiety, yes; worries, of course. But this time, though I recognized the signs of simmering anxiety, it took me by surprise when it boiled way out of control. I couldn’t understand why my mental health was unraveling when I was in such a safe, comforting environment. And I wasn’t kind to myself for it. 

I sought professional help, but it was also around this time that I came across Highly Sensitive Refuge — and the term HSP, which described me to a T. Through my reading, I began to see several things differently, looking beyond the facts of my current situation (“I am comfortable, safe, loved — why am I so overwhelmed and anxious?”) to a more holistic picture of my emotional processes. I’d been feeling mentally and emotionally flooded, and I learned how to manage it better.

Here are some things I came to understand and accept about myself through finding a community and discovering my high sensitivity is a trait shared and acknowledged by others.

5 Things the Hardship of 2020 Taught Me About My High Sensitivity 

1. I had to admit — and become comfortable — with the fact that change overwhelms me.

I know that I’ve always been most comfortable when in a stable routine, but I have not always examined or been accepting of the way I react to the opposite of routine: change. (I think this is a problem most highly sensitive people will understand.) 

Particularly when a change is good, it’s hard to understand the feeling of overwhelm that might come with it. In the past, I have tried to muscle my way through or tell myself to snap out of a negative feeling I don’t believe I’m “allowed” to have. 

Not often do you encounter change which affects every facet of your life so thoroughly and so rapidly as COVID-19 did mine (and many others’). I’d been hard on myself because going home felt like a privilege, not something that should send me into a mental health crisis. Consequently, and because of the initial relief I felt when I arrived home, I hadn’t really allowed myself to be upset about everything I’d left behind. 

Yet I learned that this kind of change, and the losses that came with it, takes time and significant emotional energy to come to terms with. 

2. I discovered I needed a creative outlet more than I ever have before. 

Writing is my go-to creative outlet — it helps me put language to my experience in a way that I’ve found I cannot do through speaking or any other form of expression. Plus, highly sensitive people are prone to being big thinkers, which is probably another reason why writing suits me.

It is a form of therapy that also allows for creativity and expression on my own terms and provides me with a clarity that spoken communication doesn’t offer. Sometimes I reveal something in my experience that I immediately know to be true, but that I hadn’t been aware of until I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). The result on the page is something totally honest, but that I could never have visualized before I began writing. 

3. I embraced that access to nature is crucial — and it can lead to complex emotions.

My home is on the fringe of a small town. There is a busy road in front of our house, but our garden backs onto a nature reserve. I hadn’t realized how much I was missing green space while cooped up in my apartment in Ecuador. It was a breath of fresh air, quite literally, to arrive home to this. 

But I found myself dwelling on how the position of our house acts as a bridge between the urban and the rural. I would stand by the pond in the nature reserve and listen to the sounds of the birds mixed with the rushing of traffic (yes, loud even during lockdown) and felt terrified by the encroachment of human life into the natural environment. 

Despite feeling more whole for being closer to nature when I’d arrived home, it also really depressed me. And, as a highly sensitive person, every sound — like a bird squawking — is magnified, for better or worse.

I felt that I was being ungrateful and caught in a cycle of negative thinking that wasn’t helping me (which is probably true). But slowly I came to acknowledge that, from an environmental perspective, it is problematic for the urban to be always encroaching on the rural, and it doesn’t mean I’m a negative person for thinking it. I’d just now finally had the perception to notice it with my HSP senses. 

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4. I needed to withdraw sometimes — and I think we all need to be okay with that. 

I mean, we all need to withdraw sometimes, right? But even though most socializing was impossible under lockdown, there were times when even being around my closest family members would make me feel overstimulated. I would retreat to my room, partially close the curtains when the light felt too obtrusive, and build a nest for myself. 

Reading about others HSPs helped me normalize this need for time and space to myself, rather than putting a label on myself like “recluse” or “antisocial.” 

5. I discovered that I need a sense of purpose in my life — always.

Leaving Ecuador meant leaving my professional life, my social life, and my romantic life. Rationally, I knew that just because I’d left those things behind me, it didn’t mean my life was pointless. But because the pandemic made the cogs of the world stop turning, it was very difficult to imagine when or how I would have a distinct purpose again. 

And with that thought nestling into my mind, there began the cycle of negative thoughts: I don’t know how to find my place in this world … there is no place for me in this world … and so on. 

I’m beginning to realize that the way in which I process experiences should be revered, not questioned or suppressed. After all, there are many benefits of being a highly sensitive person. For example, it’s something which might make me more perceptive than others, more compassionate, and understanding. 

Figuring out that I’m an HSP isn’t about differentiating myself from others or putting a label on my problems. It’s about feeling that my reactions are acceptable, and that a tendency toward overwhelm is a part of my life that probably won’t change, but that I don’t need to turn to apathy to deal with it. 

It was like someone held out a hand and encouraged me to, for once, not wonder why I am so sensitive, but to accept my sensitivity and even see the beauty in it. 

However, having high sensitivity to the world — to the connections you make with people and your environment, and the profundity of your thoughts and experiences — does pose its own challenges. Ultimately, it is beautiful, overwhelmingly so, and this time I truly mean overwhelming in a good way. 

So although the virus initially had a negative impact on my life, it brought out the best in me, too: I can proudly say I’m a highly sensitive person and am embracing it — and my new awareness and appreciation of it — as best I can.

Want to reduce stress and thrive as a highly sensitive person? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.

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