Have you ever been told that you are “too sensitive?” If so, you’re not alone.
Sensitivity implies a certain heightened reaction to external stimuli: experiences, noise, chatter, others’ emotional expression, sound, light, or other environmental changes. Sensitivity and high empathy are common experiences for many people, but some people experience these qualities to more severe degrees—and don’t realize that they can be hallmarks of Asperger’s, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory processing sensitivity, and other traits.
This essay is adapted from Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn't Designed for You (on sale March 24th) by Jenara Nerenberg, copyright 2020. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne/HarperCollins.
This is especially true for women, whose sensitivity has historically been pathologized as “hysteria” and misdiagnosed as anxiety or depression. (Note: The experience of sensitivity and a woman’s experience generally is clearly genderless, nonbinary, and equally applicable to trans women and cis women.)
Elaine Aron’s use of the term “high sensitivity” in her 1997 book The Highly Sensitive Person refers to a depth of processing of external information—a person with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), also called HSP. For someone with Asperger’s, sensitivity might imply a sense of being overwhelmed when overstimulated. And for someone with ADHD, it’s common to feel overwhelmed by emotions and to have trouble regulating them. For the person with sensory processing disorder (SPD), certain smells or textures heighten their reactions. And for the person with synesthesia (a synesthete), the presence of suffering or strong emotions in others can overwhelm them, an aspect of synesthesia called “mirror touch.”
It is interesting to note that all five of these neurological differences—HSP, ADHD, autism, SPD, and synesthesia—often imply some version of “melting down” emotionally. As many studies suggest, adult tantrums, quick-appearing migraines, or outbursts of anger are often the result of sensory overload.
So, how can you deal with sensory overload?
Interoception-focused therapy—which helps people to look inside their own bodies—is enjoying some buzz, made popular by U.K. researchers Sarah Garfinkel and Lisa Quadt at the University of Sussex. Many sensitive people perceive bodily sensations—such as heartbeats—intensely or not at all, and so better accuracy through interoception tends to reduce anxiety. One approach is to do jumping jacks for a minute, and then try to count your heartbeat without putting a finger to your pulse. Merely being able to detect it with accuracy can be grounding and calming.
Medication is another route, but it’s important to find a physician who understands the strengths of a differently-wired brain, says Stanford-trained psychiatrist Lawrence Choy, who himself has ADHD and runs a clinic in Silicon Valley. For example, stimulants for ADHD can be used as a stepping stone to practice executive functioning skills. Once a sense of mastery is achieved on a smaller scale, clients can be encouraged to think of larger goals they’ve dreamed of but have not been able to work toward because of executive functioning challenges.
There are also ways to design living space that lessen stimuli. For example, “snoezelen” is an aesthetic employing dim lights and ethereal, colored lighting such as outer space projections on the wall, “bubble tubes” that stand tall with water inside and blue lights, and shades of magenta lighting up corners and cushions.
Here are some other tips from my new book, Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You. If you are discovering for the first time that you may have ADHD, synesthesia, or SPD or be on the autism spectrum, take your time experimenting with what works for you.
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Thank you to Greater Good for your kind permission to use this article.