Life is filled with ups and downs for everyone. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to feel ups and downs even more intensely than people who are not Highly Sensitive. Tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs can help.
Reactivity isn’t a bad thing. It can make life more stressful, though and is a core challenge to being an HSP.
For anyone, reactivity is especially common when feeling overstimulated. Too many things are happening at once, and your whole system is overloaded. It makes sense why someone may respond by reacting quickly or in a way you’d not otherwise if you were in a state of calm.
Highly Sensitive People have stronger reactivity to external and internal stimuli. Examples of external stimuli include noise, light, or course fabric. Internal stimuli includes things like hunger, fatigue, or pain.
The tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs are definitely NOT a suggestion that there is something wrong with being a Highly Sensitive Person. Or that something about you is broken and needs fixing. You’ve likely heard those kinds of messages — “you’re toooo sensitive” — outright or insinuated by others for years. That is not what these tips are about.
Bottom line: As a Highly Sensitive Person, you’re genetically predisposed toward overstimulation and reactivity. As a result, you’re prone to have strong reactions to things. That is just what it means to be Highly Sensitive. And there is definitely a silver lining.
First, an example of Reactivity:
Let’s say you and a friend are wading in the ocean. The water is cold, so it takes you a little longer than your friend to walk in up to your knees. You’re enjoying the sound of gulls and happy children. The warm sun on your skin feels phenomenal, and you’re in the here and now. Deep in thought. And feeling calm and centered. Ahhhhh. It is great to be alive!
You peer into the clear ocean water to look for sea creatures. There are hermit crabs, starfish, and minnows swimming by. You start writing a book in your mind about hermit crabs and the way they go about choosing the shell they call home.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, your friend splashes the cold, salt water in your face and laughs. You freeze momentarily. Then anger surges through your body. You have an impulse to scream. But you squelch the scream and leave the water, ignoring your apologetic friend. You may even notice tears in your eyes while you are simultaneously stomping to shore.
Your non-HSP friend is perplexed by what she considers to be your overreaction. She was only being playful, after all, and being splashed is ‘no big deal’. You, on the other hand, need to sit in the shade by yourself and ‘chill’ for a few minutes. Your entire nervous system feels out of sorts. Doing anything else feels non-negotiable. There is no faking it til you make it.
The hardest part of having the High Sensitivity trait is managing emotional reactivity. Especially when your mind becomes so overstimulated with thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
But there are ways to manage and ride the roller coaster.
Here are other examples of Reactivity/Overstimulation triggers for HSPs:
- Chemical smells
- Too many items on the to-do list
- Being late
- Unexpected traffic
- Cancellation of a planned event/appointment
- An appliance, mobile device, or your vehicle malfunctioning
- A dripping faucet
- Being observed
- Unexpected visitors
- Favorite food/drink being discontinued
- A task taking much longer than expected
- Transportation delays
- Lights that are too bright
- Doing a task under time pressure
- A loud or gross smelling hotel room
- The hum of a fan
These examples seem benign. And they can be But they can also be a source of ‘too muchness’ for HSPs. Especially if the things accumulate, and there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Whether a last minute change in plan–or you are splashed in the face with cold, salty water– reactivity is your system’s default mode.
While you can’t exactly alter your DNA and change this about your nervous system, there are other ways to navigate.
This is where tips come in handy for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs.
Consider these 4 tips:
1. Tip #1 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Awareness:
Aka Be familiar with your Reactivity/Overstimulation triggers.
Pay attention to how being an HSP affects you and your day- to- day experience of life.
The more self-aware you are, the more agency you’ll have over choices available to you.
As you become familiar with how you roll, you’ll have a sense of what sets you off, why, and when.
Self–awareness puts you more in the driver’s seat. You can choose to head off overstimulating situations before you become reactive. Sometimes just knowing what could set you off can be helpful. (Which does not mean you ought to be on edge the whole time.)
Knowledge is power.
2. Tip #2 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Acceptance:
AKA Recognize that the trait has plusses and minuses.
There are so many aspects to being an HSP. It can be a superpower. Even reactivity can be a superpower. For example, if you’re watching a sunrise, your reactivity may cause you to become tearful. You re “verklempt” by the beauty of the sun’s rays and the start of the day.
Accept all facets of being Highly Sensitive. The hardest feature as an HSP to navigate is the reactivity to surprise, novelty, or aversive stimuli. Just knowing that is helpful.
Have self-compassion for yourself and your built in reactivity.
3. Tip #3 for Highly Sensitive People is to Anticipate:
AKA Certain scenarios, people, and feelings are more likely to cause you to be reactive.
But, not all HSPs react strongly to the same stimuli. (That is often due to the way nature and nurture affect development.)
You may for example find loud music enjoyable if you’re listening to it on your earbuds. But at a concert or in the car it’s too much. Someone else may prefer to listen to music at a concert and not just on their earbude. Anticipating the possibility of (or the equivalent of) nails on the chalkboard can provide you with some cushion (a soft, pleasant- to- the- touch- fabric kind of cushion, of course!). It may also provide an opportunity to have a conversation in advance to let others know you may be taking breaks and not to worry if you do.
4. Tip #4 is Self-care:
AKA Self-care is important for everyone, and a key tip for Highly Sensitive People to navigate life’s ups and downs with less reactivity.
HSPs feel things intensely. That includes our own or others’ emotions, the beauty of nature, or the stinging pain of a hangnail. Crowds, noises, and small talk can be hard to take.
Because of the extra stress we may be navigating and internalizing every single day, we have to treat our tender sensitivity as if it were a friend or loved one.
Speak in a caring tone to yourself, especially to the part that is prone to reactivity. Allow yourself to take breaks/time-outs. Schedule down time each day. Allow your units of energy to replenish.
Mindfulness exercises can be helpful. Examples of useful practices include deep breathing and body scans, as well as yoga and meditation. These are practices, not ‘perfects’.
Make note of how using any of the tips helps. Also note which ones need tweaking. Are any unhelpful?
Reactivity and overstimulation are known to cause stress, and stress contributes to physical ailments, including headaches, back pain, joint pain, insomnia, GI problems. A host of psychological challenges too. Such as anxiety, depression, and low self esteem.
Awareness, acceptance, and anticipation of situations that are more likely than not to cause reactivity is important.
Empower yourself by considering your options for how to proceed. Do you confide in a friend who will also be there, asking for their support? Or do you mention you may need to leave early? Do you make a promise to yourself to recognize when early signs of reactivity occur and then from there decide how to proceed?
Understand the indicators that extra rest or self-care are needed.
However you choose to handle the reactivity from life’s ups and downs, simultaneously recognize the many blessings and gifts that go along with being a Highly Sensitive Person.
You have those too.