Is Some Stress Actually Good for HSPs?

Adaptive stress

Sensitive people want calm, happy lives. Is ‘adaptive stress’ the secret to getting there? 

A bee stung me for the first time when I was 26.

Not just once, but multiple times. On the face. 

Before then, I’d never before been stung by a bee, wasp, hornet, or any of their cousins. Nevertheless, in elementary school I’d still been the girl who squirmed and fled at the mere sight of a small body buzzing yellow through the pollen-filled air. Once at the outdoor cafeteria, when it looked like a bee was keen on sharing with me, I even surrendered the entirety of my Nacho Lunchable that I’d begged my mom for weeks to buy me — leaving it behind as I relocated to a new table.

Despite how nervous bees made me, over the years I’d somehow developed the philosophy that if you leave them alone, they’ll treat you in kind. This philosophy instilled in me an almost Zen-like stillness when in their presence, allowing us to peacefully coexist while I read my book or did some yoga or watched the water flow past me at the river. I had no vigilance or anxiety whatsoever. I was chill around bees, coexisting with them in the same way I did ladybugs, butterflies, and lizards. Sometimes I’d even marvel at their beauty.

Years later it occurred to me, as I rinsed my swollen face with soap and water following the sting that day, that my seemingly wise mantra had failed to protect me — at least against this one particular wasp. I wondered whether the experience would revert me back into that petrified and bee-averse girl I’d once been. At a minimum, I knew I’d be at least a little more wary (and less Zen) around these buzzing creatures from there on out.

What I did not realize was that the stress of that experience, though uncomfortable, was actually making me better

This is what scientists call adaptive stress.

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What Is ‘Adaptive Stress’? 

Adaptive stress happens when a stressful or unpleasant experience causes us to become better at protecting ourselves, triggers restorative processes, or teaches us to avoid future harm. It usually happens when the initial stressor is relatively mild, like a bee sting, even if it feels serious at the time. 

We all need some level of adaptive stress in order to survive. Our ancestors heeded it as a signal to evade getting eaten by predators. Stress over a threat that is real and proven — and where there are actual steps you can take in response to it — always serves adaptive purpose.

Take the example of gluten, a real threat to those with celiac disease. Ingesting as little as 10 mg — about 1/250th of a piece of bread — can trigger vomiting, diarrhea, and autoimmune response that can potentially lead to organ failure. Yet stress over gluten can lead celiac people to avoid dining out in unsafe environments. It leads them to wash their dishes thoroughly, read labels carefully, and communicate with eating establishments in advance. Celiacs who do not take these steps are much likelier to ingest gluten and experience small intestinal damage — but most will learn from their gastrointestinal distress and start to protect themselves. 

When Is Adaptive Stress Good for HSPs? 

As highly sensitive people (HSPs), maybe you stress about finding places that won’t be noisy, or where the lighting won’t feel too harsh. Maybe this stress pushes you to research venues in advance (I know it does for me). For example, with dating, as an HSP who is sensitive to environmental stimuli I can never predict what factors such as lighting, noise levels, smells would be like at the place my date and I chose to meet. To help with this I’d try to arrive early, so that I could scope out the place and choose a seat where I’d be most comfortable. Dimmer lighting, relative quiet, comfy furniture — every HSP is different, but these are things known to soothe us.

Stress also pushes me to be more conscientious about the people I choose to surround myself with — preferably people who will understand and be considerate of my needs. (I once lived in a household that called my noise sensitivity “dramatic.”). We HSPs are used to encountering dismissal when making requests that others downplay or don’t understand (especially our noise, light, and fragrance triggers). Some people even respond to bids for reasonable accommodations as attacks, or as limits to their personal freedom. Maybe they think we’re just nitpicking, or maybe they don’t realize just how profound an impact seemingly “minor” issues actually have our wellbeing. 

Thus, being choosy about our friends and the company we keep becomes necessary to protect our energy. As psychologists Hans Veiel and Urs Baumann write, “Perceiving greater support from friends is associated with a greater sense of purpose and control over one’s life.” Other researchers have found that social approval is one of the biggest drivers of self esteem — and self esteem is especially important to HSPs, as it helps unlock the sensitive boost effect.

In each of these examples, some amount of stress pushes us to make choices that increase the likelihood of a positive experience for ourselves. We just have to be open to learning from our unpleasant experiences. 

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Not All Stress Is Good Stress

Stress about things over which you have no control is less constructive. If it’s preventing you from functioning and focusing on the tasks of daily life, or if it’s interfering with your sleep, you can consider this “maladaptive stress.”

Worrying excessively about what people think of you or whether your boundary upset someone, for example, are things that we HSPs sometimes do. And yet these worries are things we only have minimal control over. Therefore our stress and vigilance would be better diverted to somewhere more constructive. It’s not easy, but this is where it’s time to break out the techniques that help you change your train of thought and soothe your anxiety

Likewise, extremely big stressors are seldom adaptive — at least not in the short term. A major injury, being mugged, losing a loved one, or a nasty divorce are all examples of stressors that are overwhelming rather than adaptive. Yes, you might gain some insight from them a few years down the line, but you’re also likely to carry trauma from them. You don’t have to force yourself to find a silver lining. Instead, focus on the things that are under your control, and get the therapy you need to recover from your trauma and minimize long-term effects

How to Recognize and Use Adaptive Stress — Without Overwhelming Yourself 

I think that much as it may inconvenience us at times, some level of stress is there to help us make better choices. Accepting that is the first step in making use of it, and helps establish the growth mindset you need to get the most out of adaptive stress. 

Then, when you do run into stress that you can learn from, take it slowly. Use baby steps. Take time to think about what changes you can make to prevent or overcome the situation in the future. 

Personally, for a few months following the sting, I couldn’t be near bees at all. Then I could, but only for short periods, and never with the ability to pay full attention to whatever activity I was engaging in. Half of it would be keeping continual tabs on the bee, monitoring its movements, tracking its changes — highly attuned to any indication that it would attack.

A bit later on, I started to relax slightly (but not fully). I’m still at this point with bees. Eventually I’ll relax more. Maybe one day I’ll be able to go back to my Zen-like calm, but maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just be a little cautious. 

I’ve decided this slight amount of vigilance is necessary and okay. When it comes to my celiac disease, I wish I didn’t have to stress about minuscule amounts of gluten. I would like to believe people who say I should be more relaxed about my condition. It’s just that I don’t believe what they’re peddling. Life as a celiac HSP— or life as a person in general — will never be easy or completely free from stress. My body is highly sensitive when it comes to gluten and other provocations.

And I’m okay with that. The stress I feel doesn’t degrade or detract from my quality of life — in fact, I know it’s improving my life by protecting me from harm.

I think this is true for all sensitive people. Whether your adaptive stress is over celiac disease, noise triggers, or overstimulating environments, you get to decide what amount of vigilance is healthy. Not anyone else. 

There’s a great deal of freedom in that. 

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