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Frequently Frazzled - The Highly Sensitive Person

by Handan T Satiroglu(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 145 - March 2008

More than five years ago, when I stumbled upon Dr Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, I breathed a sigh of relief at seeing myself for the first time. Her book was of great comfort to someone who grew up being told to loosen up, quit being so sensitive, and stop overreacting to situations involving noise, crowds, or bright lights. It was not unusual for my teachers to talk to me after class, their voices dripping with concern, urging me to be more social and less timid – as though being timid was a grave fault. Little by little, I became contaminated with self-doubt and anxiety. Indeed, by the time I was a young adult I was convinced of my ‘defect’ and I thought I needed to change in order to cope with, and survive, in a chest-thumping, go-getter and highly-charged world.

If these feelings resonate deep within you, you just might be a Highly Sensitive Person, or an HSP, a term coined by Dr Aron. Although high sensitivity isn’t a newly identified trait, in the past it has often been mislabelled or confused with timidity, introversion, or fearfulness. In her groundbreaking book, Dr. Aron identified HSPs as individuals “who pick on subtleties, reflect deeply and therefore are easily overwhelmed.”[1] High sensitivity is found in approximately 15-20 percent of the population and, contrary to popular myth, in as many men as women. Dr Aron identified the cause of this innate trait to a biological difference in the nervous systems of HSPs, involving a strong “pause and check system.” The brains of HSPs have higher than usual activity and “blood flow in the right hemisphere, indicating a more internal rather than external focus.”[2] Undoubtedly, this unique trait gives birth to an array of benefits such as creativity, intuition, and conscientiousness. However, acute sensitivity, this sponge-like effect of internalizing and processing every stimulus, can also give way to problems of over-stimulation.

Assaults on the Senses

In a world submerged in the turbulent sea of technology, we spend a good portion of our days subjected to an unrestrained orgy of sensory bombardment. Car engines snarl angrily; lawn mowers buzz across over-fertilized lawns; cell phones bleep away in the library. The scenery flashing by our car windshields as we drive back and forth between work and errands is a kaleidoscope of human-made images: of concrete, wheels, wires, electronics, and machines. Such is the intensity of stimulation of modern life that most have resigned themselves to or even become accustomed to – that is, unless you are among the ranks of those born ‘abnormally, inhumanely sensitive’. Poet Pearl S Buck understood the phenomena all too well. She was not exaggerating when she wrote: “To him... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.” What is moderate stimulation to the non-sensitive is all too often overwhelming to the sensitive person. In a world where sensory barbarism reigns supreme, it can be akin to living in a perpetual state of mild suffering, or in extreme cases “being bludgeoned to death” as Edward Readicker-Henderson in “The Quietest Place in the World” for the National Geographic put the sentiments.[3]

But the trait of extreme sensitivity need not be a cause for despair or ailing health. Instead of the trait being considered a cumbersome impediment blocking the path to a sense of well-being, it should be perceived as a unique trait to be treasured and nourished with a few essential tools. The key to surviving in a high volume sensory world as an HSP is to learn to manage the effects of both physical and emotional external stimuli. Understanding and respecting this trait is essential in the process of creating an environment that is conducive to well-being. How can you be more aware of what affects you? What steps can you take to avoid over-stimulation? Following are some suggestions to help you regain a sense of balance in an overwhelming world. Over-stimulation affects most of us in society, and these tips will serve all who are frazzled with life, but especially HSPs.

Familiarize Yourself with Other HSPs

“Our culture is not designed for highly sensitive people, and they are frequently misunderstood,”[4] says Dr Aron. As an HSP, you need the support that only comes from being around fellow sensitives. In our aggressive, go-getter culture, sensitivity is often seen as a sign of weakness. Many sensitives have internalized the belief that there is something inherently wrong with them, and go to great extremes to hide or deny their trait. This is especially true for sensitive men raised in a ‘John Wayne’ culture of bravado and swagger where they are taught from an early age to subscribe to the ‘boy code’ at all times. One HSP man told me that to be accepted and approved by his peers, he perfected the art of putting on a ‘stone’ face. Judging from his appearance in public, I would have to say he excelled at the art. As Dr Zeff in The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide poignantly points out, the consequences of deviating from the boy code can be real in the form of humiliation and ostracism by peers, or by society at large.[5]

However, the good news is that you are in good company. The 19th century writer EM Forster discovered that the sensitive and considerate “are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet.” As you become aware of your own sensitive nature, you will probably begin to realize who is sensitive among your friends and co-workers. You will not fail to notice fellow HSPs in a crowded room who wear a wistful, pensive, often sad gaze, according to Dr Aron’s book. “Trade ideas with them for dealing with the jolts the world throws at us,” says Dr Aron. “Notice the nice ways in which you are different from others.” Indeed, sensitivity is the emblem of a secret sister and brotherhood.

Retreat, Replenish, Rejuvenate

If you have a highly-attuned nervous system, it is important that you retreat from time to time. In the chaos of our accelerated lives, few people realize that one of the best ways to replenish, rejuvenate, and recuperate from sensory overload is to completely disengage ourselves from the human-made world. “Think of yourself as having a gas tank, and your gas being used up by stimulation – noise, confusion, travel, work, and so forth. You refuel through down time,” advises Dr Aron. “Don’t be upset that others can spend the day shopping or in museums and the evening at parties or movies. You can’t, but that is normal for the highly sensitive [person].” It might seem like luxury to retreat several times a week, but it is as essential as oxygen to those with highly tuned nervous systems.

In my quest to shake off sensory overload from the din of modern life, I have found total immersion in the natural wonders of the planet to be of great benefit. As I savour the moments in snow, rain, or forest, noticing the scent of leaves or damp grass, I find myself gleefully abandoning the one-dimensional, human-made world. By allowing yourself to become part of nature, even if temporarily, you can escape the relentless daily assaults of modern life. Be sure to leave the ubiquitous iPod at home when you go outdoors to quiet natural surroundings. Silence allows you to gain a heightened awareness of the signals your body is sending, as well as to get deeply acquainted with your thoughts. Revel in what poet Rainer Rilke calls the “uninterrupted message that emerges from silence.”

An HSP acquaintance of mine resorts to similar efforts in escaping the buzz of daily life: She finds much solace in retreating to a monastery twice monthly. The retreat allows her to step back from the material world, honoring nature and thereby elevating her to a higher spiritual footing.

Sleeplessness Be Gone

Having their senses and possibly even their organs thrown into shock from a bombardment of external stimuli, is it any wonder that a majority of HSPs suffer from chronic insomnia? It seems the reckless negligence of sleep is a cause for concern not only for HSPs but also for non-HSPs. According to the prominent health insurance company BUPA, in the UK almost a quarter of the population experiences bouts of sleep disturbances, while an estimated 29% of men and 37% of women over the age of 65 are affected with chronic insomnia.[6]

I recall clearly that my first bouts of insomnia began around high school. Not only was I preoccupied with problems associated with adolescence, but I also could not fall asleep due to ‘normal, everyday’ noises such as the sound of the fridge, air conditioner, or heater. As an HSP, extraneous sounds have long been a grave source of over-stimulation for me. Although I suffer from insomnia occasionally, depending on the circumstances surrounding my life, I have found simple changes to the bedroom to do the trick in attaining a healthy sleep pattern. To reduce stimulation to the sensory system, the bedroom “should be a quiet, dark and safe place,” writes Dr Zeff. Because HSPs startle easily, it is important to “transform the room into a womb.”[7]

Be sure to add soft, calming colours to the bedroom, such as light green, blue, and white to evoke a sense of serenity that helps the worries of the world melt away easily. Pictures in the bedroom should be of a festive nature so that buoyant thoughts gently flow through your mind as you slip into a deep

Dousing the space with elements of the plant kingdom – the essence of life – can further bring peace to your bedroom. The plant kingdom is infinite in its healing properties. Since pre-historic times, people such as the Egyptians and the Chinese have made extensive use of scented oils to help restore the imbalances of our bodies and minds. Adding a few drops of essential oils gathered from plants such as lavender or bergamot into our bath or steam inhaler before bedtime can infuse us with pleasant emotions fostering a deep sense of serenity.[8]

A calming of the sensory system, though, must be complete. And in this regard neutralization of extraneous noise plays an equally important role in creating an independent retreat. I have found that a white noise machine that echoes the sounds of nature, placed near my head, helps muffle out the world’s roar. The sound of gurgling water, for instance, can be helpful to achieving a tranquil mood. Using foam ear plugs with a decibel rating of at least thirty can help you reach a greater sense of tranquillity. Essentially, I have found the combination of ear plugs, white noise machine, and in extreme cases ear muffs – within as well as outside the bedroom – go a long way in my quest to capture silence. Lauree Ostrofsky, a communications consultant based in New York and a self-identified HSP, swears by another device – noise-cancelling headphones. The headphones can be found in most electronics or travel stores, she says. Sharper Image has good options.[9]

As an HSP, you will not be completely free from the dizzying array of jolts that a largely insensitive world throws your way, but you can actively “create an environment that minimizes stimuli,” writes Dr Zeff. “If you can anchor yourself to a ship of tranquillity, you won’t be tossed about by the waves of stimulation.” Like members of most minority groups, it is important for you to strive to understand, appreciate, and accept the qualities that make you, as an HSP, unique, so that you can release any negative thoughts about your trait. Although being an HSP can be challenging, remember that it can also be enlightening.


1.    Elaine Aron, PH.D. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Broadway. U.S.A. p.11. 1997.
3.    Edward Readicker-Henderson. The Quietest Place in the World. National Geographic Traveler. September. 2006.
4.    Personal Interview with Dr Elaine Aron. June 2007.
5.    Ted Zeff, PH.D. The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. U.S.A. P. 8. 2004.
7.    Ted Zeff, PH.D. The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. U.S.A. P. 88. 2004.
8.    Personal interview with Michele Williams, founder of Aroma Rx, Inc. April 2006.
9.    Lauree Ostrofsky, Communications Consultant and Life Coach. November 2007.

Further Information


  1. Jenny Reynolds said..

    I read the book a few years ago . Now I'm retired i'm studying it more. I know it relates to me.

  2. Mary Kay Parkinson said..

    HANDON, you are an excellent writer. I have read many, many articles on highly sensitive people and this one is especially well written. thanks!

  3. Debbie Healy said..

    I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron, and it changed my life. I remembering thinking: How can someone (Dr. Aron) write a book that completely describes me when she has never meet me??? As an early childhood and elementary school teacher, I am passionate about trying to get this information out into the mainstream. I would like to see Education Majors (a.k.a. Tomorrow's Teachers) be required to read The Highly Sensitive Child as part of their professional training. I think that we need to do more to "get the word out" about the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity. There is so much work that needs to be done in this area from educational research to education of practicing/certified teachers, school administrators and parents. I
    am always appreciative of people who discuss this topic and enlighten others.

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About Handan T Satiroglu

Handan T Satiroglu is a freelance writer based in Colorado. Her writings can be found at  

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