My parents used to say that I was like the princess in The Princess and the Pea. Every little thing that went wrong could ruin my sleep — and my entire day. It can be unbearable living life as a highly-sensitive person (HSP). Everything from the smell of someone's food to a not-so-friendly look from a stranger can throw you off. So, your self-care routine has to be a bit different from everyone else's.
Being a highly sensitive person manifests differently for everyone, but for me, it means I'm extremely responsive to tiny changes in my environment. Drinking coffee at 10 a.m. keeps my heart beating uncontrollably until 4 a.m. the next morning. If I sleep on a hard mattress, I wake up with a sore back. Any sort of itchy clothes give me a bright red rash immediately. If I get on a bad sleep schedule, my period stops. Every negative thing someone else says about me can change my behavior for years. And I cry whenever a celebrity's dog dies.
"As an HSP, it can feel as though the world is unsafe," life coach Christina Salerno tells Bustle. "It can feel as though we’re too big, too much… too sensitive. And one of the most common messages we hear is to toughen up, to not care as much… to be less sensitive."
Salerno says researchers have found this trait in 20 percent of every species. "For 80 percent of the population, they may very well be able to do this. For the 20 percent who have the genetic trait of sensory sensitivity, we may be able to build up a fortress of survival mechanisms, but we can’t turn off our sensitivity as if it were a switch," Salerno says. "...There is nothing wrong with you if you feel highly sensitive. The way you are, innately sensitive, is important and much needed."
But how do you live in the world that's not made to support your nervous system? A common way highly sensitive people get by is through addiction. Workaholism is my addiction of choice to numb the feelings I'd feel if I were present in the world. Another coping mechanism I have is mindlessness; I'm constantly spacing out. Because of this, some people get the impression that I don't feel much when it's the opposite.
Then there are the healthier ways of coping, like understanding that you have unique needs and going out of your way to fulfill them. This is easier said than done, because in a world meant for less sensitive people, some might not understand why you're behaving as you are. But the advantage of that is, you learn to defy convention and take care of yourself at all costs, and that is extremely empowering.
Here are some ways I've learned to take care of myself as a highly sensitive person — and that you can take care of yourself, too, whether you're highly sensitive or not.
1. I Leave Situations I Don't Like
Boring conversations, negative people, parties that aren't fun, and other sucky situations bother most people, and we should all leave them if we don't want to be there. But highly sensitive people tend to learn this lesson earlier than others, because these situations bother us especially deeply. Politely saying you're tired or you have somewhere to be or you just are going to leave is an extremely valuable skill for highly sensitive people.
2. I Ask People To Stop Doing Things That Bother Me
The other night, I was at dinner with my partner when I smelled an incredibly strong, repulsive smell of fish from his plate. I lost my appetite and couldn't focus because it was so vile. Once he was done, I told him how much it was bothering me, and he took the plate away. I felt ridiculous for asking for that, but it was little to no effort on his part, and it made my night much better. Moral of the story: If someone else is bothering you, say something. You're not wrong for being bothered. You can't help it.
3. I Avoid Foods That Make Me Feel Crappy
I've always known that if I eat bread or pastries without any protein or drink black coffee without any food, my stomach will feel like something's eating away at the inside of it, and I'll be desperate for food to make it feel better. Yet it took me years and years before I did anything about it. I wouldn't pay close attention to the feeling, so while I knew it was there, I didn't think about what could be causing it or how to prevent it. I became so much more energetic and able to focus once I stopped eating and drinking in ways that made me feel like crap.
4. I Get My Feelings Out
It might seem like having a lot of feelings will hurt your mental health, but it's really keeping them all in that does that. When I'm feeling completely overwhelmed and debilitated by my feelings, I try to figure out what I'm really feeling and what's behind them. I'm often afraid that if I feel my emotions, I'll feel worse, but I usually feel better. The more I cry, in fact, the better I feel.
5. I Spend Money On Accommodations
I've learned the hard way that being a highly sensitive person and being a compulsive saver do not go well together. When I used to travel using hostels and Couchsurfing, I'd become extraordinarily sleep-deprived because the tiniest noise wakes me up, and less-than-soft surfaces make my back hurt like hell. Whether they're temporary or permanent, comfortable accommodations are worth the investment for anyone and can be particularly life-change for a highly sensitive person.
6. I Cut Back On Caffeine
Being a highly sensitive person generally goes along with having a highly sensitive nervous system, and highly sensitive nervous systems are often very responsive to stimulants. The rule of thumb of "don't drink coffee at night" is not enough for me — even coffee in the morning will make falling asleep at night difficult. I still can't seem to function to my fullest without coffee, but I've limited myself to one cup as early in the morning as possible, and that's made a huge difference.
7. I Improved My Sleep
If your nervous system is highly sensitive, a poor night of sleep can send it into overdrive, leading to anxiety and all sorts of health issues (like, in my case, missed periods). The difference between a poor night and a good night of sleep for me is night and day, so it's been important to make the time for relaxation and everything else that prepares me for a good night's sleep.
8. I Avoid Negative People
The phrase "sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me" is BS, and nobody knows this better than highly sensitive people. You can give yourself pep talks about how nothing's personal, but other people's words will probably still affect you, and it takes a lot less time and energy to just avoid exposing yourself to others' negativity.
Being a highly sensitive person doesn't mean you're not as tough as other people. Many highly sensitive people are thriving despite the world's constant assault on their senses. If you're not practicing proper self-care, you may have an active life and a successful career, but you're also probably not living up to your potential. Even if it seems like an inconvenience temporarily, taking care of yourself sets you up to do better in every area of your life.