Highly Sensitive Refuge

How to Cope with This Crisis When You’re a Highly Sensitive Person

I called up Dr. Elaine Aron, the researcher behind the HSP movement, for some advice.

We’re living in crazy times. A deadly virus is spreading across our nations’ borders, infecting the most vulnerable among us. Our governments have told us to stay home, spread out, and stop socializing. All our lives have been turned upside-down on some level, whether through the loss of a job, a routine, or simply the feeling of normalcy. Worst of all, over one hundred thousand people have died worldwide.

It really is a time like no other. As a highly sensitive person (HSP) — someone who feels and processes information deeply — this crisis is weighing heavily on me.

So I turned to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person (and the new book, The Highly Sensitive Parent) for some explanation — and some comfort during these scary times. Here’s what she told me, via phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

Dr. Aron, a researcher at heart, coined the term “highly sensitive person” in the late 90s. According to her definition, the HSP has “a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.” One out of every five people — maybe more — possesses this distinct personality trait. Unlike the majority of the people around them, HSPs process stimulation much more, meaning they reflect on, elaborate on, and make more associations in their mind about what they experience.

No wonder HSPs get easily overwhelmed — we process everything so deeply, including this crisis!

Although memes abound, being highly sensitive isn’t the same as being easily offended, nor does it necessarily mean crying a lot or being unable to control your emotions (although, yeah, hi, I’m guilty of all of the above at times). Nor is it the same as being an introvert or an empath, according to Aron, although these individuals do share some overlapping traits. In fact, “people who think they’re introverts may actually be highly sensitive people,” Aron said.

(Here are some more signs you’re a highly sensitive person.)

Like any other personality trait, being highly sensitive brings its challenges, but also its gifts. Speaking of challenges…

Why Is This Crisis So Dang Hard for HSPs?

“I have a feeling that HSPs are picking up on something collective,” Aron told me. She pointed to how much media attention the pandemic is getting, because you can’t turn on the TV or go online without being bombarded by information about it.

It doesn’t help that HSPs are more prone to anxiety and worry than other people, even in normal times. However, although anxiety isn’t fun, Aron says the mechanism behind it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for HSPs. “It’s part of our survival strategy,” Aron said. “We pay attention to both opportunities and threats. We reflect before acting.”

And you know what? As a result of all that heightened attention, HSPs may be better equipped than others to survive dangerous situations like this one.

Louder for the people in the back — we’re survivors!

Because their brains are wired to pay more attention, HSPs may think more carefully about what they’ve touched, remember to wash their hands, avoid crowded places where they could catch the virus, etc. For example, Aron said, she’s stopped walking on the nature trails near her home because she quickly noticed that people weren’t taking the social distancing guidelines seriously.

The downside is paying so much attention takes a significant amount of energy, and sometimes, the things we perceive as threats turn out to be as harmless as a basket of kittens dressed in rainbows. That’s where a good coping strategy comes in…

Help Me Out: How Can HSPs Cope Right Now?

Aron urged all highly sensitive people who are feeling anxious about the pandemic to take a step back and look at the big picture:

“See what are the actual risks. Realize this won’t go on forever. Pay attention to the facts. And don’t have too much media in your face.”

“It’s also a good time to go inward. To be curious about what’s going on as long as it isn’t too much.”

Keep a journal, she encouraged HSPs, because the act of writing can shrink big, overwhelming feelings. And who knows? Maybe what you write today will one day fascinate your grandchildren, or maybe you’ll turn your journal entries into a book. 

Basically, right now, it’s all about emotional regulation — doing whatever healthy thing you need to do in order to keep your worries in check.

“Distraction is a good thing,” Aron added. “But don’t watch a movie like Contagion. Try [the Mr. Roger’s documentary] It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

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What Makes the Difference for HSPs?

Aron emphasized that not all HSPs are reacting to the pandemic with anxiety — or to other distressing life situations in general. So what makes the difference?

Aron believes it comes down to your childhood — in other words, how you were raised matters. So, for example, if you had a good childhood, one where your parents taught you how to cope with your worries and the feelings of overstimulation you face as an HSP, you’re probably getting by right now, maybe even better than some non-HSPs. On the other hand, HSPs who had traumatic childhoods may be experiencing the opposite: They’re feeling even more anxiety during the pandemic than everyone else. This is called “differential susceptibility.”

Research shows this effect is true for all of us on some level, highly sensitive or not. According to the CDC, adverse childhood experiences — such as violence, abuse, or neglect, or living in a home where there was instability, substance abuse, or mental health problems — can have “lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, and opportunity.” It can even change your brain and stress response, making you more sensitive to future stressors, and making it harder to return to a normal state after being stressed.

However, this effect is only amplified for HSPs, who experience almost everything in an outsized way.

(P.S. There is hope for HSPs who’ve had a bad childhood; learn more here.)

How Are You Personally Dealing with the Crisis?

Aron is sheltering in place in her home in California and taking her own advice. She learned a lot about the crisis in the beginning (through Google Scholar), but now she doesn’t watch or read a lot of news, as it can get overwhelming for her. Rather, she asks her husband for a 30-second briefing each day, so she doesn’t miss anything big. “It’s helpful to know the facts but not dwell on it,” she said.

(I’ve started taking a similar approach, modeled on Dr. Aron’s advice: Each morning I listen to one short podcast as my daily briefing, then avoid binging on news the rest of the day.)

Although things are scary, she sees this as a time when HSPs can step up. Despite the challenges we face due to our trait, “being leaders is natural for us.” She pointed to HSPs being some of the first religious and spiritual leaders, because we were the ones asking the big questions — matters of life and death and the human spirit. Other early humans, she suggests, may have looked to HSPs for guidance.

“We can be the emotional leaders in this,” she said. “We can stay calm, and spread calm instead of anxiety and fear.”

“And remember, this won’t go on forever.”

Check Out Dr. Aron’s Books

Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, has been a perpetual bestseller since it came out in 1997. This summer, she’s releasing an updated anniversary edition; you can pre-order it here on Amazon.

If you’re a highly sensitive person struggling with the challenges of parenting, also check out her brand new book, The Highly Sensitive Parent. Singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette (a fellow HSP!) says, “This book is filled with validating, healing and empowering information about how to navigate one of the most important roles of our lives while being highly sensitive. It changed my life in the most healing and empowering ways.” You can order it now on Amazon here.

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