7 Struggles of an HSP in a Caring Profession

A highly sensitive nurse speaks to a patient

Empathy is a vital component to working in a caring profession as an HSP. Yet it can also become so overpowering that you need to step away and take a break. 

As a senior nursing student, I often consider being a highly sensitive person (HSP) to be my special superpower. When I was little, the only thing I knew for sure about my future was that I wanted to help people in whatever career I ended up in. Luckily for me, I found my calling in nursing, and have kept that drive to help people throughout every visit to the hospital. I always ensure that my patients are well taken care of during clinicals, and it brings me joy to see them improve. 

When a patient compliments me on my bedside manner, I make sure to remember that moment whenever I feel insecure or overwhelmed from all the stimuli around me. I wouldn’t trade being an HSP for anything, because I know it gives me an advantage in the medical setting. But even though the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks, there are still several struggles I know all too well as a highly sensitive person in a caring profession.

Highly sensitive or not, every student has struggled with the tougher parts of nursing school — it’s not exactly known for being an easy major and has developed quite the reputation for being a bear of a degree. But for those of us who are highly sensitive, the difficult aspects of our coursework and clinicals weigh on us in a much greater way than others, and more often. These struggles are just a few that I’ve faced as a highly sensitive nursing student, and will probably continue to face as I finish college. 

7 Struggles of an HSP in a Caring Profession

1. The empathy can be overwhelming. 

Empathy is a vital component to nursing. It’s one of the first things we learned in class: If you can’t be compassionate, you shouldn’t be a nurse. But for HSPs, that same empathy can become so overpowering that we need to step away and take a break. 

There are several patients I’ve had in school that tugged at my heartstrings so intensely, I could hardly bear it. When one of my favorite patients went on end-of-life care, I sobbed all the way home. I still think about her today, and how much I adored caring for her. It takes a lot of practice to cope with letting go, as well as having such a high level of empathy. I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of it… and who knows if I ever will.

These days, I try to talk out my feelings with other nursing students and healthcare professionals. When it feels like no one else understands, they’re always there to prove me wrong. I also take the time to acknowledge and affirm my feelings after a shift in the hospital, making sure that I don’t bottle everything up inside until it explodes. 

2. You’re emotionally and physically exhausted… all the time.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve come home from clinicals and collapsed on my couch, unable to do anything but sleep, I’d be a very wealthy woman. After a long day of sympathetic communication, bed baths, and starting IVs, it can be difficult to even gather the energy needed to change out of scrubs. Sometimes I have to muster up all my strength to greet my roommate hello. 

And no matter how much I try to push through that exhaustion to get some schoolwork done, I always end up passed out pretty soon thereafter. Nowadays, I just give in and take a nap as soon as I get home so I can recharge my body’s batteries.

When I’m at work and can’t sleep or relax, I usually take a few laps around the unit to keep my eyes open, or steal a few moments of silence in an empty break room. Even though it’s not as good as sleep, sometimes you need those little bits of a break to keep you going through all 12 hours.

Take it from me: Let yourself rest. You can be productive later.

3. You are absolutely terrified to make mistakes.

Many sensitive people know the struggle of feeling like everything has to be perfect. But in nursing, someone’s life could be in your hands. Or at the very least, their comfort. Both are major responsibilities, and the pressure that can bring along with it is not easy to cope with. 

The first time I tried to insert an IV, I messed up and had to start over. I felt horrible that I had to put my patient through two needle sticks, and felt even more nervous that I could mess up again. Although I am much better at inserting IVs now, I still remember that moment sometimes… and cringe.

To keep from dwelling on these little hiccups, I try to focus on remembering the times I did well. I always smile at one memory in particular, when one of the nurses gave me a high-five for inserting a catheter properly. Remembering these moments keeps me grounded, and helps remind me that even though I may mess up here and there, it doesn’t make me a bad nurse.

4. Criticism is the worst.

Speaking of making mistakes, you will become hyper-aware of them when your nursing instructor evaluates you. You have to sit there and listen to all their suggestions for how you can improve. No matter how nicely they phrase it, each critical comment or helpful suggestion feels like a punch to the gut. Constructive criticism isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s especially tough for us HSPs.

Most of the time, the mistakes we make aren’t major — just things to work a little harder on, like therapeutic communication (which focuses on the patient’s emotional wellbeing) and time management. But our brains don’t care: With each thing our professors tell us we can improve, the only thing we hear is that we are not good enough.

But now, I try to remind myself that my professors and preceptors were once students, too, and they had their fair share of critiques. If I remember that no one is perfect, then I don’t have to work so hard to be perfect myself.

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5. Scrubs — enough said!

If I ever have to deal with scratchy scrub tags and uncomfortable fabric again, I may lose my mind. As you probably know if you’re an HSP reading this, we don’t deal well with itchy or uncomfortable fabrics

Although I can’t do much to change the comfort of my school-issued scrubs, I made do with what I had. Wearing a soft long-sleeved shirt underneath a scrub top is a great way to keep comfortable (and warm if the hospital is on the colder side). When I worked as a nurse technician over the summer, I made sure to go into my local scrub store and test out fabrics before I bought them, just to make sure I could stand how they felt. It’s difficult to find the perfect scrubs, but once you do, it’s a feeling like no other. 

6. Losing focus when studying could have major consequences.

The moment when you can physically feel yourself losing focus on the topic at hand is panic-inducing for many nursing students. For me, it happens often, more often than I’d like to admit. And every time it does, I have to force myself to step away for a change of scenery… or risk burning out

Lots of HSPs may need frequent breaks to keep from becoming unfocused or overstimulated from the amount of information they are taking in. And losing precious study time by taking breaks can cause more anxiety to boot. It’s a vicious cycle, and if I knew how to stop it, I’d tell you.

I do try, however. When I’m getting distracted, I try to ask myself what I need in that moment. Am I missing a basic need (food, water, sleep, etc.)? If all my basic needs are fulfilled, I try to go to a makeshift HSP sanctuary — a private room — and turn on some instrumental music. The music keeps me focused on the moment without the distraction of lyrics, and the privacy helps me feel secure.

7. Sleep is all but a pipe dream.

The days when I can get more than six hours of sleep per night are the world’s greatest blessing. I can’t remember the last time I got eight hours of sleep or more, and that sleep deprivation can show up in my assignments if I’m not careful. 

Sleep is vital to everyone’s health, especially an HSP’s. After all, highly sensitive people need more sleep than others anyway from all the overstimulation we experience. If the proper amount of sleep isn’t attained, all the struggles previously mentioned on this list can be made even more difficult to deal with.

So I try to take in naps when I can, and listen to my body for signals that indicate I need sleep. If I feel a little under the weather, or have a headache, it’s often my body telling me that I need to recharge. I’ve learned to listen… but I was certainly stubborn for a while.

But, All This Said, We HSPs Love Working in Caring Professions Anyway

No matter how many sleepless nights or exhausting clinical days we endure, HSPs thrive in caring professions like nursing. The opportunity to help people of all different backgrounds with their health and well-being is a privilege unlike any other, and I feel honored to undertake the challenge every day. 

Being an HSP may come with its own set of struggles, but it makes me a better nursing student, and will serve me greatly in my future career. It can be challenging, but I will always consider it my superpower. 

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