How to Survive College as a Highly Sensitive Person

As daunting as it was to start college, I thought I was looking forward to one thing: the sports events. I’m a huge fan of football, basketball, you name it, and to me, the chance to finally attend college games as a student was thrilling. That changed when I went to my first basketball rally.

To kick off the season, the school held an assembly. I was so ready to go and enjoy time with friends and get pumped up for the season (and get a free t-shirt!). But as soon as I walked through the doors, I was assaulted by the chaos of hundreds of students, megaphones, and glaring fluorescent lights. I made it through the assembly and got the free shirt, but did I enjoy myself? No. I am a highly sensitive person (HSP), and I was finding out that college would be much harder than I thought.

I didn’t end up going to a lot of sporting events in my college days, but I did find ways to have a great time — eventually. Had I known some of the tips I’ve learned over the years, I would likely have been able to feel at home much sooner, and even attend more of the events I had looked forward to.

Here’s why college can be so daunting when you’re a highly sensitive person, and how to have the time of your life anyway.

Wondering if you’re a highly sensitive person? Here’s how to find out.

Why Starting College Can Be a Shaky Time for HSPs

Highly sensitive people are keenly aware of our surroundings and internal worlds; we are constantly on “high alert” and are extremely observant because of it. From birth, an HSP’s brain is wired to notice any sensory input — which is an incredible skill but can also cause extreme anxiety when we get overstimulated. And unfortunately, overstimulation is very common for HSPs.

That level of overstimulation, obviously, makes it harder to enjoy events others might not think twice about — like my college sporting events. But it’s not just games: an HSP’s senses can be assaulted anywhere there’s a crowd, loud music, or other loud sounds, bright lights, or simply too much activity. Even an aggressive schedule can make otherwise comfortable environments seem like “too much” for an HSP.

And if all those sources of overstimulation sound like they’d be common parts of the college experience, you’re 100 percent right.

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Of course, entering college can be a daunting task for anyone, and it’s not just HSPs who can get overstimulated. But for sensitive people, the world is simply “turned up” a bit louder. Even situations that seem “normal” and not overwhelming at all to most people can overstimulate us, so we’re often the ones who really struggle with the sensory overload of meeting new people, living with a roommate, adjusting to classes, rushing, and schmoozing professors — and dealing with the emotions of people around us in every one of those situations.

But maybe the biggest factor is simply that young HSPs often don’t know they’re highly sensitive, or even what that is (I didn’t!). This can leave them confused as to why they’re responding differently to college life than those around then, and can even cause young HSPs to assume something is wrong with them. If you are young, sensitive, and feel like you don’t fit in, rest assured: You are perfectly normal. In fact, you have a gift.

And you can not only survive, but truly enjoy college. Here are five things I learned the hard way — to help you do just that.

5 Tips to Survive College as an HSP

1. Create a “bungalow” in your dorm.

Arguably the most fun part of moving into a dorm is getting to create a space that is entirely your own. Granted, you only have half a room to work with, but the effect of really putting yourself into your space can be great. If possible, speak to your roommate about what you want your room to look like and see if you have similar tastes.

Even if not, though, you can still be be intentional about making your space yours. Twinkle lights (if allowed) can significantly help HSPs because unfortunately most dorms provide fluorescent lighting, and after a long day of sensory activity, that’s the last thing you’ll want to come home to. Lamps are also effective.

Get a candle warmer, essential oil diffuser, or wall plug-in to provide some calming sensory stimuli. Make sure your bedding is inviting and get a mattress pad (trust me on that one!).

Moral of the story: Make your space safe, low sensory, and comforting — a perfect little bungalow to retreat to.

2.Optimize your schedule (and your roommate’s).

Even the most social HSP can use time without other people around to recover from overstimulation (and even prevent it).

You don’t have to be obvious about it. Instead, during your first days of rooming together, start to make a note of your roommate’s schedule. Notice when they’re in class or tend to get meals. Notice when you both tend to be back at your room and when you get the room to yourself. Once you have this rough schedule down, start planning purposeful self-care times when your roommate is absent.

Use that time to dim the lights, play soft music without headphones in, take a nap, do some mindfulness or yoga, and turn off sensory stimulation for a while. Make this a routine so you have a specific time you can look forward to when you’re overstimulated and needing a break.

3. Pace yourself at events.

Socializing in college can be a dangerous combination of extremely fun activities and high sensory input. Especially in the first weeks of college, you may find yourself involved in assemblies, sporting events, rushing, and dorm activities. As fun as these events may be, pay attention to your limits — if you need to escape to the bathroom for a bit, do it. If you need to skip a sports game, meet up with your friends for pizza afterward (meeting for ice cream turned out to be my go-to replacement for many sports events).

Highly sensitive people have unique needs, and even we HSPs ourselves often overlook them — there’s simply too much pressure to do more, more, more. But if you say yes to every event, you’ll soon find yourself exhausted and homesick. Don’t fall into the belief that you have to cram everything into one week; you will have a whole year of fun events and will thank yourself later for being kind to yourself.

4.    Find your “spot” on campus.

Take time to identify a place that you can call yours. People are creatures of habit, and having a special spot on campus where you can tune out the world and de-sensitize yourself can be hugely relieving.

It might become a nook in the library, the student lounge in your dorm, or the table by the window in the coffee shop. Wherever it is, make it yours and use it as a refuge whenever you need some “me time.”

5. Own it.

College is a time when people start really developing their identities, which is a powerful journey to walk. That means you not only accept your high sensitivity, but can incorporate it into your identity (being “the sensitive one” looks good on anybody, by the way — athlete or artist, geek or socialite, male or female, or anybody else). That simple act of self-love can foster relief, empowerment, and true acceptance by your peers.

More than that, once you know about your sensitivity, you can use it for good. It can become the source of your creativity, your social charm, your wonderful empathy for others, and your success at academics or, one day, career. You may even want to seek out other HSPs, start a club, write a paper about it, or otherwise rally around it.

The next few years will be overwhelming at times. But they can also be a wonderful time of self-discovery. Be patient and kind with yourself as you figure out who you are and what personal boundaries, self-care tactics, and coping skills you need. And remember: Fellow HSPs are everywhere, and there are hundreds (or more) just at your school. You are never alone on this journey.

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