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How to Stay Sane if You're Sensitive

I have always considered myself to be a very sensitive person—something I have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, sensitivity is a requirement for the work I do. Even outside of my career, this quality allows me to connect deeply with people, feel compassion and sympathy, and (hopefully) help others feel included and supported.

On the other hand, sensitivity has given me a certain amount of grief throughout my life. It has felt like an obstacle in my previous career as a journalist, my former years as a competitive dancer, and in my relationships with others. Even my mum tells me that disciplining me as a child didn’t take much; she simply had to look at me the wrong way and I’d burst into tears, knowing exactly what I'd done wrong and that I'd never do it again.

Today’s post is dedicated to all of my fellow sensitive friends out there who have gone through similar struggles so we can continue to live authentically, yet in a way that keeps us protected.

First Thing’s First: What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

thinking oprah gif

In recent years, American psychologist Elaine Aron coined the term ‘highly sensitive person,’ which gained quite a bit of buzz. There are three main domains in which a person can experience heightened sensitivity, including (1):

Sensitivity about oneself:

  • Having trouble letting go of negative thoughts or emotions

  • Feeling physical symptoms when something unpleasant happens during the day (i.e. tension headaches, sleeplessness, loss of appetite)

  • Beating yourself up after falling short of your expectations

  • Feeling anger or resentment about situations that seem unjust

Sensitivity about others:

  • Often worrying about what others are thinking

  • Taking things personally

  • Experiencing difficulty “letting things go”

  • Feeling hurt easily

  • Having a hard time accepting constructive criticism

  • Feeling as though others are judgmental even if there isn’t much evidence to suggest this,

  • Having strong reactions to real or perceived provocations

  • Feeling worried about a partner’s approval in romantic relationships or feeling unreasonably afraid that your partner is going to judge or reject you

Sensitivity about one’s environment:

  • Feeling uncomfortable in large public crowds or in situations where too many things are occurring simultaneously

  • Feeling uncomfortable when exposed to bright lights, loud sounds, or certain strong scents

  • Startling easily

  • Feeling upset when reading/watching the news

  • Regularly feeling unhappy when following people’s posts on social media

As is the case with other mental health disorders, high sensitivity is partially considered to be a personality trait that you’re born with. The attachment you experienced with your caregivers can also be relevant, as can traumatic experiences you may have had in childhood.

That said, as Elaine Aron writes, “The hypothesis of ‘I am just born highly sensitive’ has a dangerous side. It can mean someone does not take the time to look at other contributing factors that can actually be effectively treated.”

What You Can Do About It

1. Identify the contexts in which you primarily experience heightened sensitivity.

Although your sensitivity might be provoked in a number of situations, it’s likely that there are a few domains in which it's particularly present. For me, it’s usually in close relationships. I might be minorly affected by people I don’t know very well, but if a loved one says something in a certain tone my mind starts scrambling.

It’s important to have this awareness for yourself so you can learn how to cope accordingly. The skill of depersonalization from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been a huge help for me. CBT is a model of therapy that says our interpretations of events cause emotions, not the events themselves. For example, if my friend was late for lunch and interpreted that as, “They don’t care about me,” I’d feel upset. If I thought to myself, “Perfect, I have some extra time to finish that work email I’ve been stressing about,” I’d feel fine.