I was different from the other kids, and my sensitivity was an immense source of shame. Now, in my mid-30s, I’ve finally embraced this quality as a superpower rather than a defect. (I even wrote a song about it.)
- Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist, life fulfillment expert, and author of Date Smart, Joy From Fear, and Aging Joyfully
- Debbie Jacobs, LHMC, licensed mental health counselor and board-certified art therapist.
- Josh Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist, performance coach, and the chief behavioral scientist for health-engagement technology company ChipRewards
It all started when I read the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron last summer. I learned that being easily startled by my partner’s presence, getting inexplicably irritated by a stranger tapping their leg, and over-empathizing with my friend’s relationship problems were not just personality quirks—but hallmark traits of a highly sensitive person (HSP).
“When HSPs aren’t able or willing to create ongoing self-care practices, they face a very real risk of emotional—and mental—burnout.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
Being an HSP isn’t a medical diagnosis or a mental health condition; it’s more like a personality trait. The term was coined by Dr. Aron in 1996, and it describes someone who is extremely sensitive to physical, emotional, or social situations around them. (It’s also known as sensory processing sensitivity, or SPS.) We’re emotionally sensitive, and also tend to have stronger reactions to external stimuli like noise, light, and temperature. Armed with this new self-awareness, I’ve begun the very important work of finding coping mechanisms for HSPs in order to protect my well-being.
According to Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and host of the upcoming Imperfect Love podcast, self care is especially paramount for HSPs. “Highly sensitive people tend to expend a great deal of energy reading others, tending to others, and processing the vast amount of sensory, emotional, and mental information they absorb throughout the day,” she says. “The HSP is nearly constantly immersed in a sea of feeling and sensing others’ energy. When HSPs aren’t able or willing to create ongoing self-care practices, they face a very real risk of emotional—and mental—burnout.”
That said, Debbie Jacobs, LHMC, a licensed mental health counselor and board-certified art therapist, notes that it can be challenging for an HSP to prioritize self care—particularly in our American culture, which emphasizes constant hustling and 24/7 availability. In terms of tips for the highly sensitive person, Jacobs advises starting with the basics—getting enough sleep, eating nourishing foods, and consuming plenty of water—before making other self-care efforts.
“Other people often really don’t understand how important it is for us to take a break,” she adds. “However, an HSP can use their sensitivity to tune into exactly the type of self-care needed to help mitigate overwhelm and promote a sense of self-compassion, authenticity, and confidence.”
With that in mind, here are a handful of therapist-recommended tips that have helped me to navigate this harsh, overstimulating world as a highly sensitive person.
6 self-care tips for the highly sensitive person
1. Schedule daily downtime
Before I became acutely aware of what it means to be an HSP, I used to pack my daily schedule down to the minute, leaving no breathing room whatsoever. But according to Joshua Klapow, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, behavioral scientist, and creator of Mental Drive, daily downtime is crucial for HSPs to reset, regulate their nervous systems, and restore their energy.
According to Dr. Manly and Jacobs, this can look like going on a half-hour walk in solitude before work, doing a five-minute meditation or breathing exercise in the midst of a workday, enjoying a soothing bath at the end of the day, or even taking a cat nap in the middle of the day or after work.
Jacobs advises finding what might feel most restorative and nourishing to you. “This time enables us to tune into our own needs and experiences without interruption,” she says. “It might very well be resting and not doing anything.”
Mid-afternoon walks and evening baths have the most beneficial effects for me personally. The former allows me a few mindful moments to reconnect with my body and breath in the fresh air and sunshine, and I find that I’m able to focus even better when I resume work. The latter feels like a mental cleansing ritual that washes away any built-up stress from the day and prepares me for a quality night’s sleep.
2. Minimize time spent with emotionally draining people
The more I practiced mindfulness in my everyday life, the more aware I became of how much another person’s presence could impact my mood, energy, and overall well-being—for better or for worse. (Talking to certain family members on the phone, for example, left me feeling so depleted.)
“As we get to cherish and celebrate our HSP-ness, we might become more aware of certain relationships, places, or activities that are particularly difficult or draining, and need to establish gentle limits and boundaries,” says Jacobs.
As Dr. Klapow points out, HSPs tend to “take on” other people’s emotions and energies. Dr. Manly adds that negative energy from others can overload the HSP’s nervous system, resulting in feelings of overwhelm, fatigue, sadness, and anxiety.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you have to cut emotionally draining people out of your life (unless that’s what’s best for you!). However, I noticed that I’ve been able to conserve more energy in my relationships with these people by setting a 10-minute time limit for my phone conversations with them, checking in with myself during conversations to see if I’m beginning to feel drained, and not answering when they call/text if I’m already feeling emotionally flooded.
3. Use affirmations to uphold emotional boundaries
I’ll admit it: I used to think affirmations were for the woo-woo crowd. I didn’t buy the benefits. I felt silly talking to myself.
Then, one day, I had to make a dreaded phone call to a family member who I knew was angry. I put a hand on my pounding heart, took a deep breath, and said aloud: “I do not need to take on someone else’s anger, or other emotions. I am a separate emotional being.”
It felt good. I said it three more times. And it got me through that phone call without spiraling.
“As an HSP, I use affirmations to remind myself that another person’s energy is theirs to hold, not mine,” says Dr. Manly. Her favorite affirmations include:
- “I may feel or witness another person’s energy, but I do not need to absorb it.”
- “I can choose the energy that I welcome into my space.”
- “I choose to accept only positive, loving energy.”
These kinds of mantras can help an HSP avoid overstimulation or “emotional blending,” says Jacobs.
“It takes practice for an HSP to be exposed to strong emotions and not be overtaken by them,” adds Dr. Klapow. “These affirmations are not just words of support—they are cognitive skills.”
4. Wear earplugs when necessary
“Much like people with ADHD, HSPs often need to turn the volume down on stimuli in their world,” says Dr. Klapow.
To say Loop earplugs (which cut down decibel noise without blocking out all sound) have been a game-changer for me might be an understatement. My best friend, a fellow HSP, sent me a pair last year—and I tend to pop them in before big social events with a lot of auditory stimulation, like sports games and concerts. Sometimes, I’ll even wear them at a crowded supermarket or chaotic family gathering.
Jacobs notes that even wearing sunglasses can help “take the edge off” in overstimulating environments.
“Try deepening the breath, tuning into what is physically supporting your body, taking a moment to break intense eye contact or blink for a moment longer than usual,” she says. “If possible, give yourself permission to take a break when feeling overstimulated.
Another practice that can be settling for HSPs, says Jacobs, is “palming the eyes.” “To try this, place the heel of your palms on your cheekbones just below the eyes, and gently drape your palms over the eye socket with your fingertips extending up towards your forehead.”
5. Spend time in nature
Nothing recharges me quite like kayaking on an empty lake, hiking through the first snow, or lounging on a beach. Amidst all my phone’s constant “Ding!”s and vibrations, honking cars, and the other incessant stimuli competing for my attention, the great outdoors feel like a much-needed refuge.
“HSPs benefit immensely from the grounding and healing power of nature,” says Dr. Manly.
Of course, how you access nature will depend on where you live. Dr. Manly notes that even taking a walk in an urban park or through your tree-lined neighborhood, gardening, and closing your eyes to envision a soothing nature scene can be beneficial.
Research supports this, too. A 2019 review in Science Advances found that spending time in nature is linked to increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive social interactions, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life—as well as decreases in mental distress.
6. Get creative
Taking in the world with heightened sensitivity can have its challenges—but according to Jacobs, one advantage is an immense capacity for creativity. “Expression is revitalizing and also provides the opportunity to release pent-up responses and reactions to the world,” she says.
For me, songwriting and experimenting in the kitchen feel especially restorative. When I’m grappling with emotions that are too big or overwhelming to communicate in a traditional way, I channel them into songs. When I just need a therapeutic activity that relieves stress and engages all my senses, cooking never fails.
Depending on your interests, though, your creative outlet may be crafting something you saw on Pinterest, playing the ukulele, writing a fictional story about a person you saw on the subway, or dancing to Taylor Swift around your living room. The idea is to find something that brings you joy and release. Start paying attention to how different activities, rituals, and people make you feel. Notice what brings you calm, restores your energy, and makes you feel connected to your own thoughts, feelings, and needs.
“In a self-care practice [for HSPs], we develop love and compassion for the sensitive, creative, thoughtful, smart, and intuitive parts of ourselves,” says Jacobs. “We start by recognizing that there may have been good reasons that we developed a heightened sensitivity. We celebrate the unique perspective that this offers us as we navigate our world(s). When our sensitivities feel attended to, and given the time, space, and support they need, we then find that we have more to offer to ourselves, as well as our families, clients, and communities.”
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