7 Ways to Balance High Sensitivity With Sensation Seeking

a highly sensitive person is also sensation seeking

High sensation seekers love novelty and hate boredom, which can be especially tricky to balance with being an HSP.

I’ve never been the kind of person who knows how to set meaningful limits for myself. In high school, it wasn’t “be a theater geek,” “play in marching band,” “join the jocks,” “work part-time” or “earn straight-As” — it was all of the above. In college, I struggled to limit my studies to one specific area and ended up earning two bachelor’s degrees for different majors, in addition to minoring in two more subjects. I’ve lived in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America, and love the thrill of being somewhere new. I’ve learned how to scuba dive and rock climb, and have spent the last couple years training in 14th-century sword fighting and wrestling. 

Sometimes I think there’s no way life could ever be long enough to cram in all the experiences I want to have. Yet I abhor scary movies and violence, regularly find myself crying over news items that have little to no impact on my life, and feel exhausted after a couple hours at a party — all the signs of being a highly sensitive person (HSP). And taking Dr. Elaine Aron’s High Sensation Seeking Test was one of the most revelatory experiences of my life — I learned that in addition to being an HSP, I’m a high sensation seeker (HSS). 

The Tricky Combination of Being an HSP and an HSS

Yes, it is in fact possible to have these strange, oppositional forces at play within one person. This happens when you’re a highly sensitive person who is also high sensation seeking, and Dr. Tracy Cooper, author of Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person, believes it occurs in about 30 percent of HSPs. These people love novelty, hate boredom, and are willing to step outside the borders of what’s deemed “socially normal” in search of new experiences. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll dive straight into risky behaviors, but that they’re always ready for something new. 

(Think it might be you, as well? Check out 8 Signs You’re Highly Sensitive and High Sensation Seeking.) 

Balancing overwhelming emotional and sensory stimuli with the intense desire for novelty can be like walking a tightrope: You feel like your brain will implode if you have to sit at home doing nothing, but spending time in crowded, noisy places or doing too many new things at once quickly leads to burnout. 

This gets even more complicated if you find yourself being homebound for some reason. But rest assured, there are still plenty of ways to keep your highly sensitive, high sensation seeking brain happy

How to Balance High Sensitivity With Sensation Seeking

1. Let the internet — and library — be your friend.

We HSPs who are also HSS like to constantly have something new to think about. This is where the internet and your local library come into play. Try going to Wikipedia and clicking the “Random Article” link in the left-hand corner: You never know what you’re going to get! Or check out illustrated books from the library, like eclectic art collections or architectural design books that will set your imagination churning, all from the quiet of your own home. 

2. Take a mini vacation somewhere unknown.

One of my favorite road trip experiences happened completely by chance. My partner and I had been driving for several hours and desperately needed a rest stop, but instead of getting off at the first gas station, we followed signs for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We ended up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a strange combination of outdoorsy activities and carnivalesque attractions. We’d never heard of the place before, and had a great time wandering around for a few hours. 

One of the best ways to discover something new is to throw planning out the window and follow the road to whatever sounds interesting. Even if you can’t go far, you can still drive out of town and follow signs for parks, forests, scenic overlooks, or random attractions.

3. Sign up for an online class.

When you find yourself indoors, as many of us are right now due to Covid-19, online classes can be a great way to stay engaged: take a history class, learn more about the craft of writing, or learn about video production and start that YouTube channel you’ve always dreamt of. If you’re missing going to the gym, you can also find a countless number of exercise classes online or finally take that dance class you’ve been eyeing. There are even more opportunities to learn now that so many activities have become digital.

4. Study a new language.

If you’ve always wanted to learn French, now’s the time. Apps like Duolingo provide lessons and daily reminders to study the language of your choice. You don’t have to spend all day with a workbook to pick up a few phrases, and those skills might just come in handy the next time you’re abroad or want to practice ordering in French at your favorite bistro sometime.

5. Practice meditation.

If you haven’t hopped on the mindfulness train, it’s a great time to do so. High sensation seekers don’t like boredom, and meditation might sound suspiciously close to “sitting around doing nothing.” But with help from apps like Headspace or Calm, you can follow a guided session to work on things like anxiety, depression, insomnia, or happiness. Building up a meditation habit can also be helpful for the future, when you inevitably get burnout from trying to do too many things. Yes, we need novelty to keep our brains happy, but we also need room to process all those experiences — and meditation is a great tool for that. 

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6. Volunteer for a cause you believe in.

Even if you’re largely stuck at home, there are still plenty of organizations that need help. Maybe you can volunteer at a community garden or for a youth sports team. If you have any special skills, like foreign languages or coding, you might look for refugee groups or nonprofits that need help. Getting involved in the community is a great way to stay active, meet new people, and feel like you’re being engaged. 

7. Try out new cuisines.

Even if you’re homebound, that doesn’t mean you have to eat PB&J sandwiches every day. Order carryout from a restaurant you’ve never been to before, try your hand at new recipes, and get groceries from specialty stores or international markets. You never know what new food you might come across, and novelty in flavors can be just as stimulating as experiences that activate our other senses. Plus, you can try pairing your new meals with whatever language you’re studying on Duolingo.

Embracing Both Sides of Yourself

Sometimes being both highly sensitive and high sensation seeking can feel like an exhausting tug-of-war — especially if you’re stuck at home more than you’d like. But even with the emotional highs and lows that accompany these two traits, it’s absolutely possible to find happiness — it may just take a little bit of work and a lot of experimentation, which is something that high sensation seekers revel in.

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