Sources of Stress for highly sensitive persons

I am stressed out. Most people who only know me casually would really wonder what I am talking about. Stress? This guy? He seems so calm.

But what are the usual things that pop into people’s minds when talking about stress: too many hours at work, children and household chores, demanding relatives, daily traffic jams, Saturday morning grocery shopping or constant calls and emails. What do these have in common? They are all external and quite visible. My stress is invisible to tohers. It’s sensory processing sensitivity (or HSP for highly sensitive person).

HSP or SPS are pretty loose terms with many different triggers and symptoms. Some experts even dispute that they exist and merely subsume the symptoms under different diagnoses like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. But the diverse people who self-identify as highly sensitive have something in common: A heightened sense of awareness about one’s surroundings and sensations combined with the difficulty to switch these inputs off or filter them effectively. Very often HSPs feel a need or compulsion to process information. They are often curious people who want to understand things, are looking for meaning or seeking to make sense of their surroundings.

Now I like being this way but I also hate it. I really love my curiosity, my thirst for knowledge, my seemingly inexplicable capability for making the weirdest correlations and associations, my high empathy and my ability to quickly form deep connections with other people. It is who I am and I would not give it up. But it is also the single biggest source of stress in my life.

I am quite sensitive to noise. Small noises make it impossible for me to fall sleep. People talking on the train are immensely distracting. Social gatherings mean I have to listen to several conversations at once which is overwhelming. I can’t relax and enjoy a movie when the heater makes the whooshing sound. Another thing is clutter. Things need to be put away because my brain can not bear with the sensory overload that clutter produces for me. Looking and searching for things produces anxiety.

Even worse is empathy

Even worse is my empathy. One might think empathy is a good trait to have. Well yes and no. Permanently empathizing (which literally means experiencing the feelings and thoughts of others) is utterly exhausting. My daughter like all children her age expresses all of her changing moods without any care. Toddlers have very little emotional control. Part of me feels with her all the time. It makes me very attuned to her emotional needs but it also drains a lot of energy. Another example: I had a coworker who would constantly complain about stuff. His emotions affected me so much that I became bitter and disgruntled whenever I came home from work. In fact the emotional leakage of other people seems to affect me quite strongly.

An old television set sitting on a couch

This is what many people seem to me. Televisions who just send out their shows without really listening. Conversation is so much more than just telling a story about oneself.

Another facet that makes social interaction difficult is inane small talk, people who just talk and never listen (I call them “TVs”), unreflected comments or attention seekers. My desire for deep connections, for meaningful conversation makes these kinds of interaction very taxing. When my mind always looks for meaning or sense and then detects repetition, boredom or emotional leakage, I feel exhausted and unsatisfied. Like eating a bag of chips and feeling hungry half an hour later. I guess that is why “Waiting for Godot” resonates so much with me. It’s my personal litmus test whenever I meet potential new friends or dates. Someone who gets “Godot” is probably a good match for conversation.

My wife and I reference “Godot” whenever our conversations turn bland and inane. For example when she tells me how many Amazon packages will arrive on which day I might say “mhh…interesting…maybe one of those packages will be delivered by Godot…we’ll just have to wait” and then we have a laugh.

There are more things that trigger my sensitivity but noise, clutter and empathy are the top three. And they induce a lot of invisible stress. I am constantly alert and need to have my guard up. Especially with empathy I have to consciously push out other people’s emotions. Which sometimes leads me to shut down my emotional side and this makes others think I am coldhearted. This often happens with tragic events on the news or social media outrage. But it is the opposite, I am too empathic and it’s sometimes so much that I switch this side of me off completely.

Now there are support groups, meetups, books and online resources for highly sensitive people. And especially with groups I met stimulating people who are mostly thoughtful, reflected and considerate about our often very unique limits and abilities. Nevertheless today’s noisy (literally and metaphorically) world is not an easy place for people like me. And I must accept that not only do I need to avoid my stressors (wherever possible) but to consciously seek calm, quiet places and people to alleviate the stress.

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6 Responses

  1. Wow, I could have written this post. Like you, I’m an HSP and empath. It’s hard to deal with the world. I hear every car drive by, I hear the children playing outside and it’s exhausting.
    Today’s society isn’t really equipped for people like us. You’re supposed to drink and party and go out and HAVE FUN! Yeah, just let me read my book in silence on my own and I’m in my happy place.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Yeah fun and noise. I am grateful that we have HSP meetups here where can just take a walk and talk calmly…this really recharges me. It is always nice to meet other HSP.

  2. Very interesting read. Like you, I can’t handle too much noise around me, and can’t fall asleep with even the slightest noise, which is why I sleep with ear plugs to cancel out as much noise as possible. I’m an empath too, and that can be quite draining too, even though I would not want it any other way. I have many times wondered about HSP, but never looked into it, so I hope you write about it some more 🙂
    ~ Marie

    • I will post a book review about this topic soon. Maybe the book can help you find out?

      How do you sleep with ear plugs…I need the silence too but they always hurt?

  3. I have soft kneadable plugs, and the first two nights it was a bit strange, but I just can’t sleep without them anymore.
    And, I will be looking out for the review 🙂

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