Everyone has pet peeves, but if you're a highly sensitive person (HSP), it can seem like you get annoyed more easily than most. You might cringe at certain sounds, shrink away from strong smells, or avoid loud and chaotic situations — all because they overwhelm you to the point of distraction.
While others might think you're overreacting, these feelings are very real. "Highly sensitive people are the 15 to 20 percent of the population born with a nervous system that's more finely-tuned than others," Brooke Nielsen, LMFT, a therapist and HSP expert, tells Bustle. "This trait of sensitivity is a gene; you were born this way." That’s why it’s nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. Think of it as a “fun fact” about yourself.
Other traits of an HSP include an ability to feel deeply and empathize easily, Nielsen says. But you're also more likely to feel overwhelmed and annoyed by the world around you, too. This is because your sensitive nervous system processes everything in the environment, she says. "From noises, to conversations, to others' bad moods, everything shows up on [your] radar more intensely."
Again, everyone has things that grate on their nerves to varying degrees, but if you’re easily annoyed by the things listed below, experts say you very well may be an HSP.
Rude Social Interactions
Throughout the day, everyone witnesses people who fail to hold open doors, say hello, or stand politely in busy lines. It's annoying for pretty much everyone, but for HSPs these social interactions can be soul-crushing.
"Highly sensitive people have the gift of thoughtfulness," Nielsen says. "They consider how their actions impact their environment, so it's annoying to them when people behave in a way that serves themselves but is inconvenient or harmful to others."
While some people thrive in busy environments, a highly sensitive person will find crowds utterly annoying — and often completely overwhelming. Think along the lines of packed parties, loud concerts, or even busy streets.
“[Someone who is highly sensitive] will likely feel overstimulated by crowds, noisy environments, or lots of people talking, especially for long periods of time with few options to retreat," Adams says. (Hint: This is may explain why you often require more downtime or consider yourself an introvert at heart.)
If you're easily annoyed by the sound of someone chewing, swallowing audibly, or slurping a drink, it might feel like you're overreacting. But according to Nielsen, this daily irritation is something many HSPs struggle with. "The slow chomp-chomp-chomp of [your] coworker at lunch can be hard to tune out,” she says. “[You'll] hear every slurp and lip smack." Remember, it’s because you literally are more sensitive.
Sensitivity To Jokes
While nobody likes to be the punchline of a joke, HSPs tend to read into even the most lighthearted ribbing. And this goes for witnessing it happen to other people, too.
"An HSP’s empathy causes them to consider their words' impact on others," Nielsen says. "If someone tells a joke at someone else's expense, they’ll be able to imagine how hurtful that is. They’re more likely to be annoyed by this than think it's funny."
It can really come as a relief to realize this about yourself. While you don't have to hang around people who make you uncomfortable, it may help to recognize when someone is just trying to have fun and give them the benefit out of the doubt.
If you find that you're completely overwhelmed by strong scents — whether it's someone's perfume, a powerful household cleaner, or a particularly pungent room spray — you might be a highly sensitive person. "People who are highly sensitive have more acute reactions to sensory stimuli," psychotherapist Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, tells Bustle. "Their senses are strung tight.”
It helps to avoid these scents, perhaps by asking those around you to not overdo it with the spritzing and the spraying. You could, for example, request that your roommate not use harsh cleaners, at least when you’re home.
Like the sound of someone chewing, most people barely notice repetitive background noises, like the sound of a ticking clock. They might even enjoy having a little background noise, preferring it over silence. But if you're a highly sensitive person, the tick of a clock could make you want to up and leave a room.
“Distractions can be especially difficult for highly sensitive people,” Dana M. Cea, a mental health professional, tells Bustle. If you get annoyed enough, your go-to coping strategies might not even help.
Unexpected Loud Noises
If you're an HSP, you may find that unexpected loud noises — like a car alarm going off — startles you to a pretty extreme degree. "Again, the sensory system of the highly sensitive is tightly wound up," Matlen says. "HSPs just aren’t prepared for that sensory onslaught and their reaction is to get angry. Even furious. It also causes anxiety in many, many people with these sensitivities."
Negativity In Current Events
HSPs have a hard time watching or hearing about current events — especially when it’s negative. “That’s because they have a hard time disengaging," counselor Travis McNulty, LMHC, GAL, tells Bustle. Instead of watching and separating your feelings from what's happening on screen, you get sucked in and feel angry, sad, or annoyed as a result.
HSPs are often much happier when they turn it all off and take a break from media. If you totally relate, don't be afraid to tune it all out for a while and give yourself a chance to rejuvenate.
If you're a highly sensitive person, unrealistic expectations — such as a jam-packed social calendar, or a too-short deadline at work — can feel completely overwhelming, frustrating, and upsetting, due to the way you think and react to stimuli.
"A highly sensitive person might be more affected by tight deadlines or lots of competing demands, as they prefer to approach tasks methodically and reflect more deeply before responding," clinical psychologist Dr. Alyssa Adams, tells Bustle. "Their nervous system may also be more likely to feel physiological responses to stress when under tight deadlines or overstimulated."
Highly sensitive people might feel annoyed by criticism, not because they don't want to hear someone's opinion, or that they don't find advice valuable, but because their feelings get hurt super easily.
This might be because HSP feel much deeper than others tend to, intuitive psychotherapist Colette Lopane-Capella, MA, LMHC, LPC, tells Bustle.
Sharing Your Thoughts
Being asked to share their thoughts in a group setting — think “icebreakers” at a new job — without advanced warning can be a nightmare for anyone, but especially HSPs. “Doing so invites those people into the HSP's world, something most HSPs don't do easily or without a lot of time spent preparing to let them in,” life coach Jenna Watson tells Bustle. “That's because if the reaction isn't positive or affirming, it can be crushing to an HSP.”
Not Having Alone Time
Not being able to decompress after socializing can be annoying, too. Like, sometimes to the degree you’ll feel extra cranky and possibly even upset. “Though a percentage of HSPs are extroverts, most would likely consider themselves introverts,” Watson says. “They're less able to just let the energy of stress or crowds just roll off their backs — they need time to process, relax, and recharge.”
It might sound silly to be "annoyed" by lighting, and yet "light can be huge triggers for highly sensitive people," therapist Adamaris Mendoza, LPC, tells Bustle.
You might find that you're extra affected by strong LED lights, which can seem way too bright, she says. And again, that's because you're super tuned into your surroundings, and as a result, feel easily over-stimulated.
While being an HSP can cause some irritation and annoyance in everyday life, it also has a multitude of benefits. Being empathic and tuned in to the world around you is somewhat of a gift — so long as you aren't sitting next to someone who's slurping their coffee.
If you find that you're annoyed to the point of distraction, seeing a therapist can be a big help. They can offer advice for getting through the day without feeling frustrated, as well as self-care tips for recovering after overwhelming experiences.
Acevedo, B. (2014). The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others' emotions. Brain and Behavior. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4086365/
Black, B. (2020). A qualitative exploration of individual differences in wellbeing for highly sensitive individuals. Humanities & Social Sciences Communications. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-020-0482-8
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT, therapist and HSP expert
Dr. Alyssa Adams, clinical psychologist
Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, therapist
Travis McNulty, LMHC, GAL, therapist
Dana M. Cea, mental health professional
Colette Lopane-Capella, MA, LMHC, LPC, intuitive psychotherapist
Jenna Watson, life coach
Adamaris Mendoza, LPC, therapist
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