A few months ago, I emailed my life coach Christina Salerno about a stressful day that, in theory, doesn’t actually sound so stressful. I went to my partner’s parents’ house thinking we’d get dinner, realized they had to deal with some tax-related stuff that didn’t involve me, got scared that I’d wasted my time going there, frantically worked from their couch, then made an excuse to leave early after they suggested we stay for drinks because I was so bent out of shape about being there. When we got back, I ran around the neighborhood to relieve tension and make up for what I perceived as lost time. “It sounds like you have a very sensitive nervous system,” Christina replied. "A what?" I thought.
A highly sensitive nervous system is one that provides a strong response to various triggers in your environment. These triggers can be anything from an itchy piece of clothing to an insensitive comment to simply a situation you don't want to be in, and the response can include anxiety, startle, excitement, anger, and other states that involve a high level of activation. Your heart may race, and you may feel like you want to jump out of your skin. This trait can be difficult to deal with, but it can also be a blessing.
The truth is, we all have very sensitive nervous systems, Sydney Campos, FeelTank expert and author of The Empath Experience, tells Bustle. We’ve just numbed ourselves out to varying degrees so that the world doesn't become too much for us to handle. But instead of decreasing how many emotions and sensations we feel, we can increase our tolerance for these feelings. The more sensitive our nervous systems are, the more present we are in the world.
"Some people are more sensitive than others due to their trajectory on the path of awakening and may have different levels of sensitivity within different realms of expression, such as sight, sound, feeling, audio or even taste," says Campos. There are as many expressions of intuition and sensitivity as there are humans on the planet because each individual being is so uniquely expressed. However our natural state of being is to be incredibly ultra intuitive and empowered fully with bodies that contain such deep wisdom and guidance for how to live our best lives — rooted in our deepest desires, which are never random."
A sensitive nervous system, then, isn't a problem to be solved. But since it can get overwhelming, it is important to practice self-care if you have one, says Campos. I've personally found that since my nervous system sends me very strong signals when I'm in situations I don't want to be in, an important part of this self-care is doing what I want and saying "no" to what I don't want, even if it offends others.
Here are some signs you might also have a sensitive nervous system and, consequently, an extra obligation to be true to yourself.
1. You Need An Aesthetically Pleasing Environment
Most people don't like being someplace dirty, noisy, or ugly, but if you have a highly sensitive nervous system, such environments may deeply affect your emotional state. Being "more deeply disturbed than most by harsh environments and disharmony" is a sign of a sensitive nervous system, FeelTank expert Amanda Young, founder of Urban Goddess, tells Bustle. You may, for example, have trouble sleeping in hostels or feel unhappy eating in poorly decorated restaurants. This doesn't make you a snob; it makes you perceptive and aware. If you dislike your surroundings, speak up. Chances are, the people around you aren't loving it either. They just may not have noticed how much it's affecting them.
2. You Startle Easily
The startle response occurs when the nervous system perceives danger and goes into overdrive. If yours gets triggered easily, you probably have a sensitive nervous system, says Young.
3. You Wake Up A Lot At Night
Light and sound in your environment can cause you to wake up throughout the night, and people with sensitive nervous systems are especially susceptible to this, says Young. So, it's extra important for people with sensitive nervous systems to turn off the light and volume on all their devices before bed.
4. Your Senses Are Amplified
If you're the only person in the room to hear a song in the next room or smell something rotting in the fridge, you're not being dramatic — you're actually taking in more sensory information than other people. "You may be easily overstimulated by sensory input — loud noises, bright lights, scratchy fabrics, food textures, strong smells," psychotherapist April Snow tells Bustle.
5. You're Often Overwhelmed
My boyfriend, who works in tech, likes to say that my internal computer gets overloaded with input. A simple decision like what to eat for dinner gets so overwhelming, I'll sometimes have to lie down and collect myself. People with sensitive nervous systems are quick to get overwhelmed or anxious, especially when they're sleep-deprived or overworked, says Snow. Again, it's not that you're unable to handle what everyone else can handle — it's that you're handling more than others on a daily basis.
6. You Hate Crowds
Crowds are a sensitive nervous system's worst nightmare. The noise overwhelms our ears, the sights overwhelm our eyes, and the people overwhelm our emotions. "Being in crowds is exhausting and may create a sense of anxiety due to a tendency to be easily overstimulated and emotionally receptive to others," says Snow.
7. You Have Lots Of Feelings
People with sensitive nervous systems may feel strong emotions while watching scary or sad movies and TV shows or being near someone else who appears to be experiencing a strong emotion. Their own emotions also tend to be particularly strong. "Emotions are felt more deeply, whether positive or negative," says Snow. "Perhaps you cry easily during sad commercials and take great joy in the little moments. Due to more active mirror neurons, you will feel a deep sense of empathy for others."
We're here on this planet to experience everything it has to offer, so toward that end, people with sensitive nervous systems are ahead of the game. "If you feel like you feel everything to a deep degree, congratulations," says Campos.
"You’re an awakening human in a boundless body whose infinitely powerful senses are coming back online after being asleep for perhaps quite some time," she says. "Take care of yourself like you’re the most important person in your life because you are."