Being a Highly Sensitive Person During the Coronavirus Crisis
How this situation is affecting HSPs in unique ways and how they can cope.
Posted March 30, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
HSPs feel everything more intensely than others. We cry when we watch the news, we have nightmares when we watch a scary film. And what other people may find unpleasant, we find distressing. And of course that is more true now than ever.
As an introvert and a highly sensitive person, I thought being socially isolated and forced to stay home would be a relief. After all, HSPs can easily feel drained by too many activities, being around too many people and listening to too much small talk, but this situation has brought some unexpected challenges for highly sensitive people.
Shopping. I’m not upset that I can’t buy toilet paper or that all the grocery store delivery slots are booked, but by how the empty shelves tell me that people are just thinking of themselves. It is distressing to realise just how self-centered people can be. I’ve also experienced people shouting at each other at grocery stores, accusing people of jumping the queue and getting angry if someone steps over the tape on the floor. The thought of people trying to buy food for their family and finding the shelves empty because someone has been panic buying is a huge source of stress.
Unkindness is very upsetting to HSPs. We feel intensely and we think deeply and that can be overwhelming. This is what Elaine Aron refers to as ‘depth of processing’, the core trait of highly sensitive people, which means that we sort, compare and categorise information, both consciously and unconsciously. Further research found that highly sensitive people use more of those parts of the brain associated with deeper processing of information, especially on tasks that involve noticing subtleties.
Worrying. HSPs worry about other people, often more than themselves. And we tend to worry more than others, partly because we are so aware of what’s going on around us and of the people around us. There is a lot to worry about these days, such as hearing that people are threatened with eviction if they get sick and that people are struggling to work from home with their children at home. There are people who have serious health conditions who cannot leave their homes, and people in domestic abuse situations who are stuck living with their abuser.
Feeling isolated. While many people are feeling socially isolated these days, HSPs can feel emotionally isolated. We often feel different from other people because we are more sensitive and process things more deeply, and social isolation hasn’t changed that. Many people are trying to connect with others online through social media, video, and instant messaging, but that can cause more stress for HSPs. Even when we’re working at home, we can still get overwhelmed by the constant pinging of messages. We need time alone, and quiet time. But we also need meaningful conversation, not small talk. We need time to process our thoughts and emotions and this is often something that others fail to understand, making us feel that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re not capable of having ‘fun’ like everyone else. Consequently, we can sink deeper into feelings of depression, loneliness and shame.
Why do HSPs feel emotions more than other people?
A study by Aron and her colleagues have found that highly sensitive people’s brains are different from other people’s. Using fMRI imaging, they found evidence that the HSP brain shows greater activation in the region associated with empathy and noticing emotion.
Researchers also found that HSPs experience depression, anxiety, and feel very stressed more than other people, partly because we are more aware of our feelings and we find it difficult to accept those feelings. Many HSPs also lack the confidence that they can do anything about them.
What can we do to cope?
1. Accept yourself. HSPs have stronger emotional reactions than other people. We feel emotions deeply and think about things intensely. And that’s okay. Accept your feelings, even the difficult ones. Don’t try to bury them. And don’t be ashamed of them. Instead, find ways to express them, such as talking to a friend or writing in a journal. Mindfulness meditation can also help. My book, Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness, provides many simple ways you can meditate every day to relieve anxiety. The mountain meditation encourages you to focus on the present moment by imagining yourself as a mountain and your feelings as clouds. You remain steady and strong while the clouds drift by and disappear.
2. Be creative. Use the time you have during social distancing and self-isolation to express yourself creatively – write, paint, draw, cook, design, garden, volunteer. HSPs need to process our thoughts and feelings. And we need to feel like we’re making a difference. Our constant absorption of sensory information from the world around us often makes HSPs very creative individuals. It’s not until you start working creatively that you discover how much your subconscious mind has been absorbing and how much you have to share.
3. Exercise. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise helps to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Research shows that exercising in nature is particularly beneficial. Just 20 minutes of outdoor activity can reduce stress.
4. Rest. We often forget that the mind and body are connected. Absorbing information, processing, worrying and feeling stressed take a toll on us emotionally, and that affects us physically as well. Take some down time to be alone and disengage from people. Don’t feel pressured to engage in lots of video chats. Turn off your phone, take a break from the screens and don’t watch too much news. Be sure to get plenty of sleep.
5. Listen to music. I find it especially calming to listen to music in the morning, instead of rushing around or talking to people. Other people often like to engage with others to start their day but HSPs might find it better to have quiet time in the morning, listening to music, meditating, or writing in a journal. Starting your day with quiet time and soothing music gives you time to just breathe.
6. Feed your mind. Read books and articles, watch documentaries and think about things that interest you. Many HSPs are introverts who love to think about ideas. What other people consider fun and relaxing isn’t always the same for us. We need an inner life, not just an outer one.
The current coronavirus situation is affecting our lives in many different ways. For highly sensitive people, that can mean we’re enjoying the comfort of staying home. But it can also present challenges, such as increasing levels of stress, depression and anxiety we may feel when we worry about this situation and its effect on other people. We can also worry about our own emotional responses to stress, which can damage our self-esteem and our mental health. But by using all the skills and strengths of a highly sensitive person, such as creativity, empathy and appreciation of beauty and nature, we will get through this difficult time. HSPs are the people who have the sensitivity to create, to care and to cope.
My new book, Sense and Sensitivity: Why Highly Sensitive People are Wired for Wonder, will be available on June 9, 2020.