It happened every single day during the first month of my new 9-to-5 job as a nonprofit writer — without fail. I would feel calm as I wrapped up my day, switching off my computer, waving to my coworkers, and stepping out of the office. As I stepped onto the packed streetcar full of rush-hour commuters, however, my inner contentment was replaced with a flood of external emotions.
Behind me, a middle-aged couple argued about their evening plans. Teenagers gossiped about their classmates, their disdain reaching me three rows away. Waves of anxiety emanated from the young woman next to me. By the time I unlocked the door to my apartment, the calm I had felt leaving the office was long gone.
If you are a highly sensitive person (HSP), it’s likely that you, too, absorb the emotions of those around you. Whether it’s your daily commute, getting groceries, or even a coffee date with your best friend, you may struggle with overstimulation from the heightened emotions of those around you.
The good news? It’s not all in your head.
The Science of Feeling ‘Big’ Emotions
A study carried out by researchers from Stony Brook University in the United States has confirmed that HSPs have increased physical reactions to the emotions of those around them. The research team had an equal number of HSPs and non-HSPs look at photographs of sad and happy strangers. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers monitored the areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, with an emphasis on the area connected to empathy.
When the HSP subjects viewed the photographs, the mirror neuron system — strongly tied to empathy — and brain activity in these areas lit up, while the non-HSPs did not show any extra brain activity. Lead researcher Dr. Arthur Aron explained, “This is physical evidence within the brain that highly sensitive individuals respond especially strongly to social situations that trigger emotions, in this case of faces being happy or sad.”
Of course, HSPs know that it’s not just smiles and frowns that can “transmit” emotions — we often pick up on extremely tiny emotional cues that others miss, like a half-second wince or the way someone is slumping.
Another study examined the different reactions of college students in response to feedback about their academic performance, revealing that those scoring high on the HSP scale had far stronger emotional reactions to their grades than those low on the scale. They concluded that HSPs feel emotions deeply, including high levels of empathy, intuition, and creativity, compared to non-HSPs.
In other words, it’s not just absorbing the emotions of others: We highly sensitive people feel our own emotions more strongly, too.
For me, this wasn’t just academic. Realizing that my brain actually has a different physical response to external emotions has allowed me to drop the guilt around being an HSP. It’s also helped me prepare myself to deal with those emotions in a healthy way — by creating a personal toolkit to prepare for highly stimulating situations.
4 Ways to Keep Your Emotions Balanced When Life Is Chaotic
You can’t control the emotions swirling around you in the world, but often, it’s possible to keep your own emotions balanced — a sort of “emotional equilibrium” — even when life is chaotic. Not only is this possible for HSPs, it’s especially important for us because our “big” emotions can sometimes leave us feeling overwhelmed, frazzled, or depleted. Here are four strategies I use to prevent emotional overload.
1. Create a mental hygiene routine — and follow it every day.
We are all aware of the importance of maintaining physical hygiene — you likely brush your teeth, hop in the shower, and wash your face without a second thought. When was the last time, however, you took care of your mental health with the same diligence?
Since creating a “mental hygiene” routine, I’m able to return to my natural calm state more quickly when faced with overwhelming situations. For me, this looks like a mandatory ten minutes of daily yoga, a quick meditation, and a breathing exercise.
For you, it could be as simple as watering your plants, cuddling your dog, or anything else that brings you into the present moment. The point isn’t which activities you do, it’s making them a daily habit that will serve as a time to process and soothe emotions without rushing on to the next task.
2. Schedule recharge time (in advance).
For HSPs, emotional overload often goes hand-in-hand with simple overstimulation. Both physical and emotional input require extra processing for us, and if either one becomes too much, we tend to crash.
So I’ve learned to be prepared. After a highly stimulating situation, I schedule in solo time to do nothing. My partner jokes that he can tell when I need a “battery recharge,” which usually involves him leaving so I can have the apartment to myself. I then dive into a fiction book that allows me to forget about the situation that put my brain into overdrive in the first place. Within a few hours, I can feel my life force returning to my body.
This is so important that I often schedule it in advance when I know I have a demanding obligation coming up, and I communicate that need to my partner ahead of time.
3. Listen to binaural beats.
HSPs, did you ever wish you could have a simple “cure” for overwhelming emotions? Well, you can get pretty close with something free and surprisingly effective: binaural beats.
Put simply, binaural beats use auditory frequencies to change your brain activity and evoke a certain emotion. The sounds themselves are soothing, but they are sent at slightly different frequencies through each earphone, which has some surprising effects on your brain. Listening to binaural beats can alter your brain state to one associated with relaxation. I love listening to binaural beats when writing, winding down before bed, or when out in a stimulating situation such as on public transportation.
One free app you can use for binaural beats is Ananda, which has options for relaxation, creativity, energy, and more.
4. Evaluate your current lifestyle.
If you attempt to include emotional regulation techniques into your life with no noticeable difference, I would suggest evaluating if your current lifestyle is serving you. Instead of working a 9-to-5 office job with a two-hour daily commute in Canada’s largest city, I now work for myself as a writer for social impact organizations. I have the time to integrate practices in my life that make me feel like my best self as an HSP. I put my guiding values first, including slow travel and simple living, and have the freedom to create space in my life.
These specific changes might not be for you, but you may want to evaluate work habits, how much you commit to, or even the friendships and relationships in your life.
So take time to reflect on your life and think about where you truly thrive. Would moving to a smaller town serve you? Is there a way you could reorient your career to one aligned with your values? Or could you simply add an hour of self-care time to your day before going to your job? Sometimes a few small changes are all you need to embody a calmer, happier, and higher version of yourself.
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Your Emotional Intelligence Is a Strength
HSPs often feel different and guilty about the way they process the world. However, our ability to feel emotions more strongly than others is a strength — not a weakness. This emotional intelligence lends itself well to many career paths, including caring professions, the nonprofit sector, and creative fields, such as writing, design, or even coding. It also strengthens relationships and fuels our creativity.
When you consider that your sensitive nature is actually emotional intelligence, you can change your self-image to one you’re proud of. Embrace your natural strengths and set emotional boundaries, and you will notice the change in how you feel — and how strongly you feel it.