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.
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.