11 Essential Daily Habits for Thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person
This is part of my HSP Thrive Series, an advice column based on reader-submitted questions. HSP stands for Highly Sensitive Person, a designation coined by Elaine Aron. High Sensitivity (also called Sensory Processing Sensitivity or SPS) occurs in 10-15% of the population. Moderate sensitivity occurs in close to 40% of the population. HS is a normal personality trait with myriad benefits and challenges. I started this series to share the tips and resources I’ve learned as a highly sensitive person myself, in the hopes that it will improve the lives of other HSPs or help the parents/friends of HSPs better know how to interact with the HSPs in their lives.
Todays post is all about daily practices for HSP's that I've discovered are essential for thriving in our over-stimulating world. We all have unique circumstances, but I find the 11 Daily Essentials on this list are applicable to most HSPs.
Take Time for Transcendence
HSP's typically have a rich inner life and likely consider themselves "spiritual" -- regardless of whether they're religious or not. Most HSP's have some sort of transcendent practice on the back burner. Meditation and prayer are the most well know transcendent activities, but any activity that is either meditative or prayerful is also a "transcendent activity." Mindful journaling, "forest bathing," communing with plants / animals / spiritual guides... even intentional slow eating can be a spiritual practice. Daily transcendence is important for tapping into your deep inner reserves of stillness. It's highly restorative and healthy for the nervous system. As a highly sensitive you probably notice a sense of emptiness or disorientation when you don't have time for transcendence in your day to day life. 10 minutes a day is all you need.
Limit Social Interaction
Intentional social time can be very invigorating and restorative for highly sensitives, especially highly sensitive extroverts. But generally speaking, HSP's are easily burnt out by ceaseless social activities. Knowing your limits regarding how much interaction you can take before you start to become depleted is essential. As an ambivert myself, I usually try to limit myself to one or two outward social functions a week (parties, dance classes, art openings, band practices, cocktails with friends, etc.). Occasionally I'll go to a music festival, which I find profoundly inspiring and fun, but I've learned that I'll be "coming down" from the social "high" of the fest for about a week afterwards. I build in time for rest after big social events whenever possible.
Schedule In Solo Exercise Activities
If you're wondering why you "hate exercise" it might be that you actually just hate certain types of exercise: usually the kinds that require lots of social interaction, loud music, competition, forceful trainers / coaches or extreme environments. HSP's need exercise just like everyone else, but solo activities tend to be more our speed. Yoga, trail running, cycling, mountain biking, hiking, swimming, elliptical, lifting (with headphones on)... anything that allows us to have a more inward, contemplative experience is ideal. HSP's also tend to avoid competitive sports, but that doesn't mean we don't enjoy some one-on-one intellectual sports like tennis, golf, competitive dance, racquetball or martial arts. 30 minutes of your solo practice 3-4 times a week is a great jumping off point.
Work Mostly Alone and Uninterrupted
It's essentially that you spend large portions of your work time alone and uninterrupted. If you're a freelancer or entrepreneur like myself, you have the luxury of working alone whenever you like. Make sure you remove distractions from your work space during your deepest work hours -- that might mean putting your phone in another room, putting on noise-canceling headphones or putting a "do not disturb" sign on your office door. You may not be in a position where you can work alone frequently, in which case try to make it a priority to get to a place in your career where you can. See if you can work with headphones in, and let your co-workers know that you need long stretches of silence to be highly productive. Start a conversation at work about how frequent team meetings have been proven to make companies less productive. See if you can shift your work culture (it'll benefit everyone!).
Decompress After Work / School
After your work / school day has finished, make sure to give yourself 30 - 60 minutes of decompression time. Your nervous system will thank you! Decompression time = spend some quiet time in a darkened space doing something "unproductive." You could nap, read, stretch, sip tea, have "transcendent time" or journal. If you live close to nature, a walk in the woods or on the beach is a great way to unwind.
Limit Screen Time
Screens are very draining, and we all happen to be attached to our phones, computers and TV's during most of our waking hours. Give yourself a "cut-off time" for screens to limit your relationship with those pesky, overwhelming media machines. Say, no TV after 10pm. No phone after 8pm. No phone before 10am. Get a partner to do this with you. It's far more likely you'll actually limit screen time if you can be held accountable.
I typically schedule in one day a week as a "screen free" day -- no phone, no computer, no TV. It makes a huge difference in my happiness level, and when I skip it I really feel the impact on my stress levels.
Protect Your Sleep!
"Yes, I have to nap, doctors orders." If only every HSP could get a doctors note for naps! Sleep is crucial for HSPs, so make sure its highly quality and your night-time sleep is long. Most HSPs need at least 8 hours, and many sleep over the average -- 9 or 10 hours nightly. If you’re not getting enough sleep you WILL burn out and edge towards depression, anxiety and become less capable of functioning. Please take this as your excuse to take afternoon naps, because "that blogger told me it's healthy or whatever, so I HAVE TO, k?"
Limit Use of Altering Substances
As HSP's we have lower dopamine and overactive nervous systems, so drugs and dopamine-producing activities can be very attractive. It's very common for HSPs to use alcohol to calm down, coffee to combat burn out and drugs to manage intense emotions. For HSPs the triggers for substance abuse tend to be overwhelming / intense / stressful lifestyle choices.
It’s important that you learn how to thrive without using substances to cope — it will make you more resilient, independent and you’ll feel safer in your day to day experience.
When you're over stimulated, notice when you reach for alcohol / drugs to calm down. 10 minutes of meditation can do a lot more for your sense of well being than a glass of wine.
When you're burnt out, notice how much caffeine you're relying on to function. Some of us process caffeine very quickly and some of us process it very slowly, so be aware of your personal limits. And keep in mind that caffeine overuse can lead to adrenal fatigue, which in turn makes you more reliant on caffeine to function.
Personally, my max capacity for all stimulants and depressants is one to two servings. Two glasses of wine and two cups of coffee are my limit. And honestly I can't even smoke cannabis anymore (it makes me paranoid / anxious). But I consume copious amounts of CBD whenever possible (all the healing with none of the high).
Of course, we're not monks! (Although plenty of spiritual renunciates are HSP's). Alcohol, caffeine and cannabis can be part of a healthy, thriving lifestyle for anyone. In moderation. HSPs tend to need more moderation than others -- but ultimately, it's all about balance.
Speak Positive Affirmations To Yourself
HSPs disproportionately tend to believe there is something "wrong with them" because of the way society treats sensitives, especially sensitive men. It's crucial that Highly Sensitives learn to see their sensitivity as a gift -- we need HS empathy, deep listening skills, spiritual gifts, intellectual acumen, refined tastes, and artistic sensibilities. Replacing negative thought with positive affirmations is the first step to accepting and loving your HS gifts. Every day, practice saying a positive affirmation about yourself. Here are some ideas: "I am whole." "I love and accept myself." "The world needs my kindness." "I am uniquely designed to make the world a better place." "My unique gifts are valuable and beautiful."
Self-care is simply choosing to take loving actions towards yourself that heal rather than hurt. Self-care can be: practicing calming yogic breathing techniques, taking a hot bath, going for long walks with a friend, staying hydrated, taking care of your skin with products that are chemical free, eating a salad.... Seriously, it can be anything as long as its helping you feel relaxed and cared for. Self care is not pampering, it’s a necessity for mental health. Do at least one small thing for yourself daily.
Journal Like You've Never Journaled Before
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by your thoughts, emotions or life in general, it's a healthy practice to journal everything on your mind until your hand cramps up and you just can’t journal anymore. HSPs process their experiences more slowly than others, so your sense of overwhelm may be coming from having a lot of experiences left unprocessed and built up in your subconscious. Journaling has helped me get through some mad times in my life, laying out on the page all of my awful, terrible, verybigbadscaryfeelings so that they don't have to live in my body anymore. Journaling every day for 10-30 minutes is an excellent way to stay on top of your emotional baggage (alas, the price that comes with being human) so that, you know, your bags are mostly empty. Life feels a lot lighter when your inner luggage has fewer nifflers and bowtruckles riffling around inside (pesky creatures...).