Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person in a cafe

Why a Little Bit of Environmental Psychology Can Be Life-Changing for HSPs

The goal is to be mindful so that when you have the option to choose or modify your environment, you’ll be equipped to make the changes that best serve you.

Inside the modern cafe with minimalist furniture, I order my coffee and sit down to write.

Not long into the writing sesh, quite incongruously to the surroundings, SoulJa Boy begins blasting from the speakers (I’m not exaggerating —  Crank That pulses through the cafe at near-nightclub status). Hipsters shift in their seats, some darting their eyes around the room, others pulling their summer beanies over their ears to block out the noise.   

Even with my headphones on, the background noise pierces through the bridge I’m trying to build between the paper and my purest thoughts.  Senses overwhelmed — particularly since I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) who’s more aware of their environment — I elect a more cognitively simple task to engage in until the moment passes.

Four songs in though, it still hasn’t — so I relocate to the back patio.

Back here, in lieu of Soulja Boy, I hear sparrows chirping and the soft clack of my fingers against the keyboard. The air is fresh, and a calming breeze tussles my hair. Much more my jam.   

Senses no longer hijacked, I begin entering a  “flow state,” which is something we HSPs excel at. Suffice it to say, for highly sensitive people, our environments can make or break us.

What Is Environmental Psychology?

As a highly sensitive person who is definitely influenced by their environment, I began paying attention to the way environmental factors affect mood and productivity. I was inspired after taking an environmental psychology class while a student at  UC Davis. It was through this class that I also began to think about how modifying our environment can, in turn, improve our mental health. In fact, a  study conducted in 2010 found that “wives who consider their home cluttered had higher cortisol levels during the daytime.”

While an awareness of the field can be important for everyone’s well-being, this is especially true for HSPs, who are more sensitive to environmental stimuli. As John Montgomery, Ph.D., wrote in an article for  Psychology Today, “When we live in environments that are drastically different from the environments that we’re biologically adapted for, we become subject to various ‘evolutionary mismatch’ effects that can be extremely detrimental to our physical and emotional  health. Perhaps the most important consequence of this mismatch is that we become highly prone to being triggered repeatedly and unnecessarily into various states of ‘survival mode’ by our surroundings and circumstances.”

Factors from lighting to noise level to the comfort of furniture  can have a profound impact on well-being — especially for HSPs. 

4 Environmental Psychology Factors That Can Influence Highly Sensitive People

1. Noise level — too much can easily overstimulate HSPs

Julie Bjelland has done research on, and worked with, HSPs — and has found that we have more sensitivity to noise. To that end, one night inside a crowded bar, I found myself inadvertently pushed and shoved by taller bar-goers while I waited in line to get a drink. After finally getting one and returning to my table, I kept having to shout and repeat myself with my companion. The noise in the room had the effect of reducing our conversation to caveman language, and I found myself feeling frustrated.

So, my fellow HSPs, pay attention to your noise threshold. How much is the “right” amount? At what level do you begin to feel anxious? I’ve personally found that   too much noise can be overwhelming while just the right amount can enliven and pump energy into the interaction.

2. Lighting — many HSPs suffer from light sensitivity

In addition to writing, I work as a Spanish medical interpreter in various hospitals and clinics around the Bay Area. I find that when interpreting inside fluorescently lit rooms that have no windows, discomfort arises after more than 20 minutes, as I begin to feel like I’m inside a buzzing electrical box. I start to feel disconnected from the natural world, or like the patient and I are lab specimens inside a science experiment. Rooms with a window and natural lighting have me feeling much more at ease.  

Research, too, has found this to be true, highlighting that humans  have a strong need for safety and security, and that we look for those attributes in our environment — seeking physical comfort (i.e., an environment with the right temperature), and one that is psychologically comfortable, with a balance of familiarity and novelty.

Because many sensitive people suffer from light sensitivity, it’s good to assess what lighting you best function under and adjust your environment accordingly.

3. Proximity to the wall and window access 

Past experiences can predispose certain individuals to particular environmental triggers. For instance, many war veterans find that facing a wall while seated can spark claustrophobia, triggering visceral reminders of times during which they quite literally could not escape their physical surroundings. Conversely, facing a door or window while seated allows them to feel like they have a quick escape, should they need it.

I experienced something similar to this once at a cafe in San Jose. After having trouble relaxing back into the couch, I realized this was because its back was to the balcony.

It seems like there would be some evolutionary basis to this seemingly idiosyncratic preference. For instance, having a view of their entire surroundings protected our ancestors against potential predators, whereas when their backs were to everything, they were literally in a more vulnerable position.

Weird, Eleni. Do you really think a predator’s going to come attack you while you’re sitting there reading your Joan Didion book and drinking your cup of coffee?  I ask myself. Rationally, no. But the body sometimes follows a different logic than the mind does.

4. Ceiling height 

Look up. How high above your head is the ceiling? How are you feeling right now? What are you trying to accomplish?

I’ve found low ceilings promote the feeling of being enclosed, protected, and safe. With fewer distractions, I’m better equipped to concentrate.  A possible explanation for this is the cathedral effect, which is the relationship between perceived height of a ceiling and cognition. In other words, the perception of high ceilings enables creativity and free-thinking while low ceilings enable attention-to-detail and rational thinking. Research, too, has found this to be the case. Two associate professors believe the cognitive effects of ceiling space can be used to students’ advantages when they study. It will benefit them to go to a spacious area with high ceilings if they’re studying for something creative whereas it’s best to go to a smaller, more confined area if they have to complete a test.

 Higher ceilings, on the other hand, I’ve found work better for  creative tasks or unbridled “expansive thinking.” When I want to generate new ideas or get out of a creative rut, I head to cafes that have them. When I want to crack down, focus, and finish something, I settle into coffee shops that feel more like burrows.

It’s not always easy to gauge whether the cause for our discomfort is internal or external. When we’re off-balance for whatever reason, environmental factors that, under ordinary circumstances, may have been negligible suddenly become all too apparent and disruptive. 

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Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) To Help Feel More Comfortable in Various Environments

When we cannot escape our environment(s), a simple practice can help:  cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people learn to identify (and challenge) maladaptive thought patterns. I was first introduced to CBT in therapy as a teenager, but didn’t begin applying it to my relationship with my tangible environment until years later, after I had an understanding of environmental psychology. 

When I’m having trouble sleeping, for instance, all of a sudden my bed may feel physically uncomfortable (even though it caused me no discomfort the night before). In this case, or if for whatever reason I can’t modify my environment, I’ll practice CBT.

Feelings aren’t always these vague, nebulous sensations that randomly take residence inside us. Many times, they’re the direct product of thoughts. Identifying those thoughts and working through them can, in turn, shift our feelings. 

An example:

I’m anxious right now. Why? Because I’m facing the wall.

What is it about facing the wall that  triggers your anxiety? I’m aware of the presence of people behind me and I can’t see what they’re doing, and that makes me feel vulnerable.

And then you can keep going with it. By doing so, you will shine light on the perceived threats and can disarm some of their power. Perhaps your mind will begin to see that the threat was exaggerated, or if not, at least begin to see them as less threatening.

If CBT Is Not Possible, Practice a Grounding Exercise

It may be inopportune or impossible to do such thorough self-analysis when directly in the moment, in which case a simple grounding exercise might suffice. In other words, direct your attention to your tangible environment.  Doing this is key for highly sensitive people since it’s so easy for us to feel overstimulated.

Naming objects and their physical characteristics inside the room (for example,  What color are the walls? Lime-green) can bring you out of your head. Now busy thinking of them, the mind replaces inward-based rumination with outward observation of concrete details.

If we compare the mind to a beehive, grounding exercises are like the flute that lulls the bees to sleep. More generally, take note of what you like about a place, and make a point of returning to environments with similar qualities. This will also help  prevent your highly sensitive soul from getting too overstimulated.

Pay attention both to your surroundings and to how you’re feeling. In what way are the chairs positioned? How close are you to a window? For instance, in one  study, when participants were closer to the window in a VR setting,  decreases in physiological stress levels were found. 

See if you can link some of these environmental factors with any anxiety, claustrophobia, or sudden lethargy you may be experiencing. When you’re calm and present, notice that, too. 

Journaling is also a helpful way for HSPs to process things, so it can help to write your environmental observations down. Here’s an example from when I did that in response to a positive experience at a cafe:

“The balance is optimal — sequenced enough that I don’t feel chaotic, overstimulated, or like things are out of control — but also with enough life to inspire me and keep the thoughts flowing. The visual variety imbues the coffee shop with its intrigue and personality. People may be less likely to think, ‘The world is boring and limiting and you always know what to expect’ when inside here. Oftentimes, loud conversation, jarring fluorescent lighting, and a high ‘person to empty space ratio’ severs the cord connecting me with my thoughts — but that wasn’t the case here.”

As an HSP, Always Stay Mindful of Your Environment

Many of us HSPs have preferences and subtle triggers, even if we’re not aware of what they are specifically. We can become more conscious in selecting a “perfect” environment once we’ve identified them.

The goal is not to hyper-focus on  every small detail and become stubborn or rigid about the environments we choose to place ourselves in. Rather, it’s to be mindful so that when we do have the option to either choose or modify our environment, we’ll be equipped to make the changes that best serve us.

Personally, I’d love to see an app called “Got Your Back, HSP” that could track how many people are currently inside a given place. It could also alert you to the current decibel rate, availability of comfy chairs, and the proximity of those comfy chairs to loud groups. Maybe someday… In the meantime, I’ll keep taking my advice above and hope you do, too.

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