The term “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP for short) refers to someone whose nervous system is wired differently from others. They are deeply affected by sensory information, like excessive noise, bright lights, or violent movies. The highly sensitive person also tends to observe and “ingest” the emotions of those around them, embodying others’ feelings for long periods.
This trait affects people of all ages and backgrounds and can prove to be burdensome and draining. Nowhere is it more of a burden than in high school or college, however. The high-volume workloads, deadlines, and complex relationships that take place in the life of a student can make for an overwhelming experience for most students. When you combine these things with the HSP trait, however, it becomes vital to develop some coping strategies.
The ups and downs of HSP.
Hypersensitivity is not a disorder, although it might not always feel like a strength. There are a lot of wonderful aspects to being highly sensitive, and some that require understanding and insight with which to cope. Over time, learning about your triggers and stresses can greatly improve your peace of mind.
Highly sensitive people tend to have a complex inner life of emotions, thoughts, and reactions, many of which seemingly arise from nowhere. A thing as simple as a text message, feedback on an assignment or a comment on a report might have very triggering effects on the highly sensitive student. This is not wrong and it is not an overreaction. It is part of the HSP trait to take to heart and process information more deeply and to be affected more obviously than most.
Besides being deeply affected by the words and emotions of others, the nervous system of the HSP is stimulated dramatically by sensory information. Conditions others may find innocuous could feel very adverse and hostile to the highly sensitive person.
An overly lit room can have an overwhelming effect on the HSP, whereas a poorly lit one can imbue a feeling of depression and sadness. A room that is crowded, noisy and hot will have the HSP feeling drained and exhausted. Already it is easy to see why the highly sensitive student might struggle in school.
Introverted or HSP?
The HSP trait is often dismissed as introversion or inaccurately diagnosed as autism. The HSP trait does often present alongside neurodivergent traits, such as autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder (SDS). However, the majority of highly sensitive people are introverted by necessity.
They require a lot of time alone to decompress and unwind in a neutral and comforting environment that is void of any emotions save their own, and with sensory information that they can control (such as lighting, scent, and temperature).
In addition to this, adverse childhood 3xperiences often piggyback off of the HSP, making for intense behavioral combinations. For example, a teen or young adult who has a fear of abandonment may naturally use people-pleasing behavior to ensure that he or she is of value to those around him or her.
Combined with being highly sensitive, he or she will more keenly perceive rejection or abandonment. His or her natural tendency to show empathy will become part of his or her people-pleasing defense mechanism, and he or she will feel somewhat trapped in his or her tendencies.
The most common aspect of the HSP is also the most difficult one to navigate, and it is called emotional absorption. This is where the HSP embodies the emotions of those around them, taking them in and feeling what others feel.
This is done without being conscious of what is happening, and without being able to control it. The “phantom feelings” are often vivid and powerful, even if the HSP does not know from where they originated.
For example, a close friend may be experiencing a depressive episode due to a recent breakup. The HSP, deeply caring for their friend, may begin to embody that depression in themselves. Their energy, outlook, and mood could all be affected for days, weeks, or months, even though it was not their mood, to begin with.
In many cases, the friend whose mood they were absorbing finds closure and moves on, while their HSP friend is stuck with the powerful emotions akin to grief, all over a situation that has since expired in relevance.
The highly sensitive person can also be affected by moods on a smaller scale, from people with whom they are not emotionally invested. A teacher or lecturer having a bad day and exhibiting low energy can drastically impact the highly sensitive student. In a crowded room, the conflicting emotional signals from every person can get caught in the crosshairs of the HSP nervous system and make for emotional overload.
In an educational environment, the highly sensitive student may be forced to find pockets of peace where they may. Many educational facilities place a biased value on integration, believing that it will promote unity. And there is often very little space given (literal and figurative) to introverted students or those who are neurodivergent and have nuanced needs.
Coping strategies for the highly sensitive student.
Though being highly sensitive can make for a rich and meaningful connection to the world around you, it also means having to develop strategies for coping with the downside of the trait. If determining where you land on the sensitivity scale is step one, and understanding aspects of the trait are step two, then developing a coping strategy for dealing with the difficult days needs to be step three.
Learn who to avoid and who to trust.
People who display rampant narcissism, egocentric behavior, aggressive or passive-aggressive communication styles, or loud and abrasive characters are the ones likely to sap the energy of the HSP, leaving them drained and frustrated. Luckily, the HSP possesses stellar intuition, and it is likely that they automatically find themselves avoiding these energy vampires.
In combination with making a habit of avoiding problematic people, is leaning into uncomplicated friendships. Give access to the types of friends who make no demands, treat you thoughtfully, and pour energy back into you.
Build boundaries and find balance.
This could look like blocking an hour out of your day to gaze out of a window for an hour. It might seem counterproductive, but it could be incredibly nourishing to an exhausted highly sensitive soul.
If time and space are hard to come by, creating a nourishing study space could transform deadline pressure into a more positive experience. Pasting up affirmations, photographs of loved ones or pets, a calendar with a countdown date, or anything that refills your optimism could be transformative in bringing balance.
Make time for cathartic release.
Highly sensitive people are a lot like emotional storage tanks, and many of the emotions they store are collections from other people. The anger or frustration or sadness you are feeling is probably not your own, but it’s still inside you, having some sort of effect.
Emotions are stored in our bodies as literal kinesthetic energy, begging to be released. This is why toddlers have tantrums: it is the way they release emotional energy build-up.
Adults conform to socially acceptable forms of cathartic release, like going to the gym, dancing, running or walking, climbing, boxing, or yelling (in a remote space). Anything that uses your body and breath helps release pent-up emotions and the strain that comes with storing them.
Being a highly sensitive student is not always easy. You are surrounded by a maze of sensory information that will have some effect on you, whether it is drama from people or a hostile atmosphere wreaking havoc on your nervous system. You are not alone; you are not overreacting and it is possible to use your trait as a gift.
While educating yourself about the HSP trait is a helpful start, it is also a good idea to talk to someone about it. You will find that many counselors are themselves highly sensitive people, and this makes sense, given the way the trait enables us to be compassionate and empathetic. They may be able to draw on their own experiences in dealing with the trait, and together you may be able to work on some specialized coping strategies.
However, even if the counselor is not a highly sensitive person, he or she will know about it, and be able to listen with compassion and understanding. Please contact our offices today if you require an appointment with a counselor. We are available to help.
“Pensive”, Courtesy of Raphael Nast, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting on the Steps”, Courtesy of Gaelle Marcel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Happy”, Courtesy of Omid Armin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friends in a Field”, Courtesy of Melissa Askew, Unsplash.com, CC0 License