Finding Ways To Cope With The World As A Highly Sensitive Person

My mom collected glass bottles. At one point during my childhood, the family got a metal detector. Knowing our house was built on what was once the town dump, my mother thought we’d find lots of treasure. We found mostly unidentifiable lumps of metal, and sometimes tree roots and rocks we couldn’t budge, but we also stumbled on pieces of broken glass and dishes, and, what turned out to be our luckiest finds, glass bottles. We found medicine bottles smaller than my pinkie, old soda bottles, cylindrical brown glass bottles, pale green flasks. I keep a few of them on a pewter tray in my dining room.

A few years ago I learned I am a highly sensitive person. I’ve always known I’m overly sensitive, and anyone who knows me does too, but a few years ago I learned that it’s a physiological trait that about 20 percent of the population are born with. 

“We process everything more than others do, whether we are conscious of it or not,” Elaine Aron writes in The Highly Sensitive Person. In the scientific world, it’s known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which differs from Sensory Processing Disorder. Processing everything more easily leads to overstimulation, and people who are highly sensitive get overstimulated in situations that aren’t stressful to other people and get overstimulated quicker than others in busy and noisy places like amusement parks. 

I’m particularly sensitive to sound. I get easily overstimulated by loud sounds, repetitious sounds, strange sounds. As Elaine Aron explains, “Often we can get used to a stimulation. But sometimes we think we have and aren’t being bothered, but suddenly feel exhausted and realize why: We have been putting up with something at a conscious level while it was actually wearing us down.”

Sometimes I don’t realize a sound is overstimulating until I get to that point of exhaustion and it’s then that I stop and think about what is happening to me. It’s not until I think back on what might be causing it that I realize how much noise I had been putting up with. Recognizing what is happening earlier in the cycle of processing sound more deeply and getting overstimulated more easily than others has been one of the highlights of learning about sensory processing sensitivity and has helped ease my anxiety and improve my relationships. It’s not failsafe, though, and I’m definitely still learning.

One morning I was cursing my sensitivity, already overwhelmed at 8 am by the noise of the cartoons my daughter was watching. I was frustrated that I had at least 12 more noisy hours left in the day and already the noise was more than I could handle. I thought about those glass bottles of my mom’s, each bottle filling up with sounds until it’s overflowing and can’t hold anymore. That day I felt like I woke up with the smallest medicine bottle no bigger than a quarter–a few drops of sound and it was full. There was no more room for more sounds. What could I do?

Unfortunately, a highly sensitive person can’t just dump out the water and start refilling the bottle, but there are ways to cope. For sound sensitivity, I use earplugs–the most comfortable brand I have found thanks to recommendations from other highly sensitive people–I announce that I am taking a break to meditate and find a quiet space to sit, I plan how long the noise will last (“five more minutes, and you’re turning that off”). I have learned to appreciate music more because those sounds that I enjoy can ease my mind after all the clamor. And I value silence most of all when no sounds are calling my attention and no noise is rattling around in my head. Silence is like standing in my quiet dining room in the afternoon sun, holding an empty glass bottle and hearing nothing.

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