In stressful environments, HSPs are more likely to become sick or burnout.
The walls were reverberating with noise. My heart raced. I felt my vision narrow and darken around the edges.
“Everyone! Quiet!” I yelled. My class of 36 kids froze. They knew something wasn’t right. Their teacher never yelled. I looked around at their concerned faces with my head throbbing.
Then I went blind.
I’d never experienced a migraine before. That’s what they decided it was. A visual migraine to add to the increasing list of health concerns that I seemed to be collecting. I’d dislocated a rib the week before. In the year and a half that I’d been teaching, I’d had more sick days than I was allowed. But worse was coming.
A few months later, I was hospitalized. My immune system shut down. I was sick and, still, I felt relieved. I had a reason to quit my job.
Stressful environments for a highly sensitive person (HSP) have a much bigger impact than for others. While other teachers could manage loud, busy classrooms, the emotional load, and hours of paperwork, my HSP nervous system couldn’t cope.
According to research by Thomas Boyce, M.D., highly sensitive people are more likely to become sick in stressful environments. They’re vulnerable to developing anxiety and panic attacks, depression, immune disorders, and even physical illnesses. This may sound like bad news, but there’s another side — we also do much better and get less sick than others in calm environments.
Elain Aron, one of the lead researchers into highly sensitive people, calls this “differential susceptibility.”
Why HSPs Are More Vulnerable to Their Environment
Maybe you’ve noticed this situation: A stressful event occurs in a family such as poverty, death, divorce, or abuse, but the siblings react completely differently to it. One child seems to adjust and carry on as usual, while the other child becomes unwell, depressed, and vulnerable.
Differential susceptibility means HSPs do far worse than others in high-stress environments. Boyce, in his research, observed that HSP children experiencing stress at home were much more unwell than non-HSP children.
HSPs also find things stressful that others might not. Our sensitive nervous systems mean we process information differently and more deeply. Where one child might adjust to a loud, chaotic home environment, their HSP sibling might feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed — and get sick because of it.
Boyce also discovered that HSP children do far better in non-stressful environments than their non-HSP peers. This is the other side to differential susceptibility. In positive environments, they:
- Are healthier.
- Often do better academically and are more likely to develop areas of giftedness.
- Thrive more than non-HSPs in a number of areas, including creativity.
He saw that when you take a non-HSP out of a stressful environment, it will have a small impact. Take an HSP child out of it, though, and the impact was dramatic. They were highly reactive to their environment — both the good and the bad.
What This Means for HSPs
High stress is far more dangerous for HSPs than for non-HSPs. Teaching was too high stress for me. I needed a much quieter environment with less people contact. As soon as I quit teaching, my health improved dramatically.
How can we reduce the negative impact of our differential susceptibility? It’s important that we:
1. Listen to our bodies.
Your body will tell you what you need if you pay attention. We live in a culture of pushing ourselves at work — hours are getting longer; bosses have higher expectations; we pressure ourselves to do better, produce more, and get bigger results; we pursue side-hustles, work two jobs, and set up businesses alongside our day jobs.
As HSPs, it’s important that we regularly check in with ourselves and ask, “Is my body (and mind) coping with the pressure I’m putting it under?”
Early signs that you need to rest are:
- Rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, headaches, or upset stomach
- Feeling excessively tired or tired all the time
- Losing enthusiasm
- Trouble concentrating and forgetfulness
- Trouble sleeping or waking
- Getting sick more often
- Changes in your eating — appetite is less or more than normal
2. Actively reduce stress with healthy lifestyle choices.
Eating well, getting enough sleep, and balancing work and rest all play a part in helping you manage stress well.
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3. Learn to say no.
To avoid conflict, some HSPs end up agreeing to do things they don’t want to do. Conflict can be difficult for an HSP, but learning to place firm boundaries is necessary and healthy.
When you say no, think of it as opening yourself up to saying yes to the opportunities you really want in your life. If you say no to a low paying job, you can be free to say yes to the higher paying one. If you say no to helping a friend clean her house, you can say yes to spending time with your family.
Don’t compare yourself to non-HSPs or think, “Everyone else seems to cope with this, so I should too.” Learn your own personal limits and don’t worry if they are different than those of other people. If you know the loud concert will be too much for your sensitive hearing, saying no is totally acceptable.
4. Assess our environment.
Work to reduce overstimulation and chaos in your home and workplace. As HSPs, we need to pay attention to creating calm environments for ourselves. This might mean doing a declutter, creating better storage spaces, or placing your desk in a different position (facing a corner, for example).
Here are more tips on how to create your own HSP sanctuary.
How to Make the Most of the Positives
Our differential susceptibility means we thrive and prosper more than non-HSPs in good environments. HSPs are deep thinkers and reflective, so when our environments are set up to be supportive and calm, we flourish. HSPs respond powerfully to:
- Self-development and personal growth programs
- Self-care efforts
- Mentoring or learning opportunities
High sensitivity makes us more affected by our environment, both negatively and positively. We probably didn’t have much control over the environment we grew up in as children, but as adults, we can make use of our susceptibility and see it as a strength rather than a weakness.
As HSPs, we can set ourselves up in environments where we flourish — using our sensitivity to grow, achieve our goals, and stand out among our non-HSP peers in a powerful way.
How does your environment affect you? What are some tips you have for creating a good one? Let me know in the comments below.