The Science Behind Why Highly Sensitive People Need Alone Time

a highly sensitive person has downtime

As I waited in the ticket line, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The whole room buzzed around me as dozens of people laughed and talked. My friends excitedly poured over the tour brochure. I was on a weekend trip to Seattle, and we were about to embark on a “world famous” underground history walk.

In that moment, I loved my friends. I loved Seattle. But I was also so, so exhausted.

The trip had been full of stimulation — three days’ worth. Places to go, things to see, conversations to catch up on. I was making incredible memories, I was experiencing a city I’d always wanted to visit, but as a highly sensitive person (HSP), it was suddenly too much.

Pretty soon I was struggling to answer simple questions like, “What tour time should we book?” and “Should we eat before or after?” Thankfully, my closest friend came to my rescue. She knows me well and could see that I was completely overstimulated and overwhelmed.

“Why don’t we take a break and come back tonight,” she suggested. “We can each do our own thing for a while.”

Relief washed over my face. I was so overloaded that I hadn’t even realized that alone time was what I desperately needed. I loved my friend so much in that moment for protecting a need of mine that I couldn’t even articulate myself.

We did what she suggested, each going our own ways. As I walked around the city, then spent time in my hotel room — alone — I could physically feel my thoughts becoming clearer, my muscles becoming more energetic, and my mood lightening.

Later that night, we came back fully charged. The history walk that seemed so daunting only hours earlier was now one I could savor.

All Highly Sensitive People Need Alone Time

Many people aren’t familiar with high sensitivity. It’s actually fairly common: About 1 in 5 people are biologically wired somewhat differently from everyone else. We feel things deeply, process information thoroughly, and can be quite sensitive to our environment — noticing details that others miss. And, for most of us, our sensitivity means we need to withdraw for lots of time to ourselves.

“Wait,” you might say, “Doesn’t that mean you’re an introvert?” Not necessarily. HSPs have some traits in common with introverts (and also empaths), but they’re not the same thing. You can learn more about the differences here, but basically:

  1. HSPs can be introverts or extroverts.
  2. Introversion and extroversion have to do with where you get your energy — quiet pursuits or external stimuli. High sensitivity has to do with how much information you take in about the world around you, no matter what you’re doing.
  3. All HSPs, even extroverted ones, need downtime.

Want to know if you’re an HSP? Check out my post, 21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person.

Why HSPs Need Alone Time — the Science

On the trip, all my friends got tired, but I was the only one who got mentally and physically wiped out by the weekend’s events. So why do HSPs like me get overwhelmed more easily than others? And why is downtime so crucial for us? Turns out, it’s science.

Dr. Elaine Aron, author of the book The Highly Sensitive Person, explains on her website that:

“At the foundation of the trait of high sensitivity is the tendency to process information more deeply… HSPs simply process everything more, relating and comparing what they notice to their past experience with other similar things.”

And this is something we do whether we’re aware of it or not. Imagine you had to solve a math problem one way, then go back and solve it again a different way — and repeat that process thirty more times! That’s how the HSP brain thinks about everything. If that sounds exhausting, trust me, it is.

Recent research confirms that HSPs process information deeply. For one, research by Jadzia Jagiellowicz of the Highly Sensitive Society found that HSPs use more parts of the brain associated with “deeper” processing of information, especially on tasks that involve noticing details.

Another study conducted by Aron and others found that, compared to non-HSPs, highly sensitive people could more easily solve a perceptual task uncommon to their cultural background. In Aron’s study, the tasks were challenging and required more brain activation or effort depending on the culture the person was from. The non-HSPs struggled in exactly the way that the researchers expected, but the HSP subjects did not experience this same struggle.

Aron explains, “It was as if [the HSPs] found it natural to look beyond their cultural expectations to how things ‘really are.’”

Finally, research by Bianca Acevedo and her colleagues has shown more brain activation in HSPs in the insula. This tiny region of the brain plays a huge role in our concept of self-awareness, including awareness of our bodies and emotions, and how they interact to create our understanding of the present moment. Some scientists have even called it our “seat of consciousness.”

It makes sense that HSPs would have more activation in this area than others, because we’re more aware of what’s going on inside us and in the world around us.

The HSP Brain Works Overtime

All this to say, if you’re an HSP, your brain is always working overtime. No wonder you get drained easily and need plenty of downtime. Aron perfectly sums it up:

“We, however, absolutely must, simply by our nature, have downtime to recover from overstimulation and digest our experiences.”

How to Get the Downtime You Need

Unfortunately, not every HSP has a friend like mine who swoops in (wearing a metaphorical superhero cape) when they’re overstimulated. Most of the time, I’m not so lucky. What usually happens is I get more and more overwhelmed, becoming exceedingly tired and cranky, unable to make decisions about little things, and spiral downward into negative thoughts. If I don’t get the alone time I need, I crash — hard.

I’m learning to take better care of myself, and you can, too. Here are three things that help me get that crucial downtime:

1. Adopt a “minimalist” lifestyle when it comes to your calendar.

Minimalism is all the rage these days, and for good reason — it can help you simplify your life and consume less. But minimalism isn’t just about your closet — it’s about your calendar, too. I know that’s easier said than done, but for HSPs, it’s crucial to learn to say no and pick your battles. Here are some tips to help you say no effectively.

2. Know the signs of overwhelm, and catch it before it’s too late.

On my Seattle trip, I was so far gone that I didn’t recognize my own exhaustion. Sometimes that happens, and although it’s not great to experience, I’ve learned to not beat myself up about it. Most days, I do a better job of recognizing when I’m about to plunge headlong over the cliff of overwhelm. The key is to create downtime before I’m mumble-mouth exhausted and about to crash. 

3. Be your own advocate.

Most days, you will have to take matters into your own hands and speak up when you need downtime. Although your spouse, friends, and coworkers may know you well — and know you’re an HSP — they probably won’t materialize a relaxing bubble bath when you need it most. I know it can be hard for us HSPs to disappoint others (we have so much empathy), and we hate being “that one person” who needs special consideration. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we learn to speak up for our needs — because, dear HSP, although your natural inclination to put others first is noble, your needs matter, too.

HSP, you may need more downtime than others, but there’s a good reason for it — it’s all that deep work your brain does every day. And that’s okay. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad about it.

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