- Lisa Blair, M.A.
Therapy Under Five: Highly Sensitive People & Transitions in the Time of COVID-19
As we all struggle with our new and constantly changing reality of living in a world with COVID-19, I want to speak about transitions and especially how this may be effecting you if you're a highly sensitive person. What I mean by the word transitions is the complex shift your identity undergoes when it must move or change from existing in one reality to existing in a different reality. However, before I go into that in more detail, let me share some basic information about highly sensitive people.
Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, are born this way; being highly sensitive is a trait. According Dr. Elaine Aron (author of many books on high sensitivity, including the bestseller The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You), 15–20% of the population is considered highly sensitive, and this is equal among women and men.
WHAT IS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON?
In my own words, I use Dr. Aron's acronym D.O.E.S. to briefly describe some common characteristics that highly sensitive individuals share. (For a more in-depth post on HSPs, click here.) If you're already familiar with what it means to be an HSP, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
D = Depth of Processing. It takes you a longer time to process your feelings than other people. Both strong positive and negative feedback from others deeply impacts you. While others may get over conflicts or powerful events, you may take a longer time to emotionally and cognitively process the conflict or the event. For example, while your partner or friend who is a non-HSP may get over a conflict within minutes or hours, you may take days to process your feelings and reactions.
O = Easily Overstimulated. Your physiological nervous system gets over-aroused more easily than non HSPs. Your body may release chemicals and hormones in greater amounts than in non HSPs.You may feel anxious and/or overwhelmed a lot of the time or more easily and frequently than non-HSPs. You may not do well with a lot of sudden change. Know that you may need to create boundaries with people, events, and stimuli that are too much for you.
E = Emotionally Reactive. You are more likely to react strongly to positive and negative feedback. You may cry regularly or more easily than others, worry more, or feel strong empathy for others. You also might express excitement and joy more readily than those around you.
S = Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli. You notice subtleties and details that others don’t. You are deeply affected by other people’s moods and emotions. It also may mean that you feel things in the atmosphere more intensely than others do, especially uncomfortable or unexplained experiences, or subtle experiences that would go entirely unnoticed by non-HSPs. You may not always know what you are noticing, but you feel unsettled or disturbed by these subtleties in the atmosphere. You may also be more sensitive to things in the air such as allergies, skin rashes, and other environmental, chemical, and electrical sensitivities.
WHY TRANSITIONS ARE CHALLENGING TO HSPs
Even in so-called "positive experiences," transitions tend to be more challenging to HSPs than to non HSPs. As I explained above, I'm using the word transitions to refer to the complex shift your identity undergoes when it must move from existing in one reality to another reality.
Because what I'm referring to is based on a subtle internal feeling shift in a person rather than a more cerebral understanding, it is probably best explained using an example.
The following is an event that most of us would agree to be a positive experience—that of going on a luxurious vacation. It's an experience many of us would look forward to with excitement rather than dread. The reason I use this example is because it's so obviously positive compared to what we're facing these days with COVID-19 which, for many, feels clearly more difficult or negative. Therefore, I'm hoping to make it easier for you to make the leap in your imagination that if a clearly positive experience involving transition could be unsettling for an HSP, than a clearly difficult or negative experience involving transition is that much more impactful on an HSP's wellbeing.
Let's say you and your family are planning a trip for spring break and it's six months away. Together you dream about places you want to visit and soon you all are excited about going on a tropical island vacation. Within minutes and hours, your mind and body start shifting from your current reality of living your daily life at home with your set routines to imagining yourself going to this island. You start researching places to stay online, you start comparing this place to that place. You start reading and talking to others about where is best to visit and what you should do when you get there. In other words, the depth of processing part of being an HSP kicks in to high gear.
You even start worrying about big or little things that may be hard for you such as lengthy travel time or adjusting to a time zone change (because you are sensitive to subtle stimuli and your nervous system gets quickly over-aroused). Your identity is starting down the long road of orienting your mind, body, and entire being around this new reality. It takes extra depth of processing because you're an HSP and any change—positive or negative—takes extra emotional energy.
Clearly, you're in a very fortunate position of having a partner, family, financial resources, time off from work, being able-bodied, and living in safe conditions (and the list goes on and on). Needless to say, things could be a lot worse—this is definitely what you'd call a "first world problem." Nevertheless, setting privilege aside for just a moment, it is still a kind of inner stress for you to adjust your identity to this new experience.
Now, let's say a few days, weeks, or months pass, and your family decides that you won't be going to an island for your vacation. Perhaps it's too expensive or the weather will be bad or other circumstances have changed and it's no longer the best trip to take. You all decide instead to go camping locally. It's cheaper and the weather should be good and besides, you've all been wanting to go camping together for a long time now and this is your best opportunity to do so.
You'd finally managed to shift your identity from your normal everyday reality to the new reality of a going to an island and now you must shift yourself yet again to a camping trip. Your energetic body has to wrap itself around this alteration even if you are 100% behind the change and will ultimately enjoy it. It'll take some extra time to process your feelings when the rest of your family—who may be non HSPs—have already moved on.
As bizarre as this may sound to many people (especially to non HSPs), this transition may indeed take a lot out of an HSP. It may involve taking some extra reflective time alone. In order to adjust and reorient your inner compass, it may take some extra emotional energy that you can't put to other activities that you enjoy. It may cause stress in your body that you'll have to address with extra self-care, supplements, exercise, or meditation. You might even get symptomatic as you make the change because of the extra adrenaline and cortisol running through your system. You might lose valuable sleep over the change further taxing your immune system and contributing to difficult mood shifts. You might find yourself more irritable or anxious as you address the shifting emotions in your being while you let go of what was and try to embrace the new narrative. So, while having this vacation is, of course, a positive experience, it can still be cause for major inner upheaval in an HSP.
SHIFTING EXPECTATIONS, PLANS, AND VISIONS
Whether large or small, whether you have a partner, a family or none of the above, our identities are regularly in transition from one reality to a different reality and we're forced to adjust our expectations, plans, and visions. Any changes that require your identity to make such shifts are challenging for most everyone more or less, but they are especially challenging for an HSP.
Let's take another example: Maybe you've decided to go back to school to get a degree to grow your skills and career. You are behind this change, you want the degree, it's your choice—and yet, it will require a major shift in your identity to undergo such a big change in your daily routine and your deeper being, one that will bring both positive changes to your career life and self-confidence, but will also bring difficult disruptions to your inner sense of safety, comfort, and calm. Your expectations and visions of yourself and your life must grow into this new plan.
Or perhaps you get laid off from your job at no error of your own doing. Maybe you didn't even love the job, but, in any case, you imagined you'd be there for awhile longer and relied on that income to get you through a difficult season in your life. Now you must shift your identity to a new normal of being on unemployment or landing a new job with different coworkers, hours, or tasks. While job changes are stressful for everyone (any big changes are), it's likely to take you even longer to adjust to your new reality than it would take a non HSP because while you're still processing your job having ended, you are also now processing your feelings about all the new people, tasks, and changes in routine, feeling sensitive to your new coworkers' atmospheres, moods, and personalities, and likely feeling overstimulated by all the information you're learning at your new job.
Some changes are obviously more impactful on our psyches and nervous systems than others. For example, if a solo HSP makes plans and trains for a special long-distance hike, but then the conditions change at the last minute and the trek is cancelled, it will likely have a significantly greater impact on them than if they had just planned to go for a walk in the nearby woods only to find that it's raining outside. Nevertheless, both have some level of impact on our feelings and require our identity to shift more or less to our new reality.
As an HSP, you simply may tend to be more sensitive to any shift, large or small. You may even welcome the change or look forward to it, but undergoing the change requires a lot of you, and takes a lot out of you.
TRANSITIONS IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
Whether you identify as an HSP or not, this new reality we are facing is, for many of us, unprecedented in our lifetime. We've perhaps never before been faced with what feels like a sudden, severe change to our daily lives or our normal reality as we've known it. We are all witnessing the dramatic and rapid spread of COVID-19 worldwide. This alone is terrifying for many whether we're worried about our own health, the health of our loved ones, or the health of our larger community and global citizenry.
At minimum, we are witnessing this on a daily basis and this alone is a dramatic change in our personal and collective identities. In addition, we are likely making radical changes to our daily lives in the form of new or amped up habits around washing our hands or cleaning surfaces in our homes and cars. We are also exposing ourselves to 24/7 news coverage showing scary scenarios and predictions, startling numbers, and spiking graphs. These experiences alone are plenty to make anyone anxious and unsettled. For an HSP, these represent major identity shifts as we seek to find a new normal inside our minds and bodies that we can rest in.
Still others are living through more severe conditions of mandatory quarantines, or shelter in place orders, disrupting their daily routines and habits in significant ways. Others have been ordered to work at home when they haven't been before or are completely out of work because their business was deemed "non-essential." Others have their children home from school with them and are trying to manage home-schooling tasks or simply living in a new daily reality of working at home while having to manage their children's lives, too. Some of those people are single mothers who were already frequently overwhelmed by the responsibilities they carry on their shoulders alone; with their children now at home 24/7, life can become nearly untenable.
Many other people are now living entirely alone with no more face-to-face contact with coworkers, friends, or family, except perhaps that of going to the grocery store once a week but having to maintain six feet of distance between you and the strangers in your aisle. Many are experiencing a whole new level of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety with few people to rely on or help them through this.
In addition, many are also now feeling dire consequences from the severe financial impact of the virus on the economy as well as the stock market. People are losing thousands of dollars in income they relied on and/or retirement savings they worked for years to build. Many don't know how they'll pay their rent this month or feed themselves or their children.
Still others are on the front lines of the healthcare system, undergoing moment-by-moment stresses that many of us can't even imagine. Nurses, doctors, EMT personnel and others are overwhelmed and inundated, having to take risks and make choices that no one should ever have to make.
And yet, still thousands upon thousands are actually sick with COVID-19. While many are experiencing "mild" symptoms, others are suffering enormously, while still others are fighting for their lives, often alone in a hospital ICU room with no loved ones allowed to be by their sides. And still others are having to make the ultimate transition to death.
So, given all of these massive changes and intense experiences around COVID-19, how are these even more unsettling for an HSP?
In short, because it engages all of an HSP's four characteristics in a very sudden and intensified way. Because we are hearing new information at such a rapid pace, HSP's are constantly in a deep state of processing their feelings and feel like they can't keep up with the pace of information. Because the information is so extreme and novel, HSP's are constantly in a state of overstimulation, their nervous systems are literally in a chemical and visceral state of over-arousal or overwhelm. Because the information coming at us involves intense suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and alarming rates of hospitalizations, death, unemployment, and more, HSP's are often feeling the pain of others both emotionally and at times physically. They're also sensing the fear and panic in the atmosphere at a higher volume than before COVID-19. Lastly, all of this comes with intensified emotional reactivity of their own in terms of anxiety, fear, body symptoms, tears, shock, and more.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT
No matter where you find yourself in this particular moment in time, we are all undergoing significant demands on our identities to shift from our status quo of "normalcy" whatever that may be, to a new normal. And this new normal keeps changing, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.
Especially if you're an HSP, you find yourself trying to shift your inner compass as quickly as you can in a world that is already way ahead of where you are, of where you can possibly get to internally. You may feel constantly behind the eight ball.
You're likely to feel disoriented, dissociated, off-center, ungrounded, anxious, over-stimulated, overwhelmed, unrelated, and more. You're likely to need more quiet time, more inner or alone time, more sleep, more self-love and compassion, more deep breathing, more movement, more imaginative time, and more healthy distractions.
Here are some things to manage this constant transition, especially if you're an HSP. Know that some ideas will resonate more than others. Trust your intuition and body. They will tell you which ideas are best for you.
1. Stay connected: Especially if you're alone, make an extra effort to keep in touch with friends and family through social media, phone calls, and video conferencing as is good for you. For everyone: reach out to those who you know are alone to offer your loving company or your help if you feel moved to do so and as your own needs allow.
2. Talk it out: Talk to a therapist, loved one, or trusted friend about your feelings regularly, on a daily basis if it's possible. Just making human-to-human contact and talking through your feelings can help you arrive more where you are right now.
3. Journal: Write in your journal on a daily basis to process your feelings so you can become more aware of where you are actually at and to access the voices in the those deep places inside you who have a hard time speaking out loud.
4. Take alone time: If your circumstances and responsibilities allow (and you're not feeling isolated), consider if you need more time to yourself than you usually take. Take this time to process your deeper feelings, to just "be" with yourself unrelated to others and their needs, or use this time to nap, drift off, meditate, or listen to soothing music.
5. Slow down: If you find yourself especially anxious or moving at a fast pace, stop, take a deep breath, and sloooooow down. When everything else in the world is coming at you at a particularly fast pace, choose to slow things down and allow your nervous system to relax a bit.
6. Make boundaries: Consider how much news you're taking in and notice when it gets to be too much. If this happens, put a time limit on watching and reading news as well as conversations and social media that revolve around the news. Know that you are likely more taxed than usual these days, so your personal needs and care should be either your top priority or right up there. Do what you can for others but don't forget yourself.
7. Move your body: Continue to exercise even if that means dancing in your house or doing yoga with an online video. If you don't already have an exercise practice, start one now. Moving your body is one of the very best ways to move effectively from a state of dissociation to feeling centered and in yourself again.
8. Sleep: Get more sleep if you can or at least try harder to make sleep a priority. Sleeping and dreaming can help process experiences that our conscious minds can't process or aren't processing. This is healing in and of itself.
9. Get out in nature: Taking a walk in nature or even sitting in your back yard and looking at the trees, the sky, hearing the birds, feeling the wind and sun is wondrously healing and helps our beings process our feelings without even working at it. If you don't have access to nature outdoors right now, hopefully you have some plants in your house that you can sit near, look at, and be in the company of. Plants are your friends.
10. Be creative: Make things with your hands. Paint, draw, make collages, take selfies, look through design magazines, sew masks for healthcare workers. Do whatever you can to be in a creative flow and an imaginative headspace. This is nourishing and helps our psyches become more fluid, free, and spacious amidst the chaos.
11. Distract yourself: Watch funny movies or read that novel you've been putting off. Seek out distractions that are engrossing so that you get a break from this reality, allowing for that critical identity shift to catch up.
12. Maintain routines: For some, it's especially helpful to maintain routines; for others, not so much. If this is helpful to you, go to bed and wake up at the same time even if you're newly working from home. Eat meals at set times. Keep as many things in your life on a normal schedule when everything else feels chaotic.
If you start practicing many of the above and begin finding yourself able to catch up more with yourself as these days, weeks, and months unfold, you may discover exciting new perspectives on the world as we've known it. You may find that you have greater emotional and psychic elasticity and resiliency. You may even wish to use this time to dream of bigger changes in your life that are calling you.
This virus and its world-changing effects invokes new possibilities for us all as individuals and as a global community. What systemic changes are you being called to undertake to best care for your fellow humans, animals, and the planet? What new and radical ways of relating, being, and expressing are you being called to embody? What are your deepest values and priorities in life and how can you live more closely aligned with them? How is the enormous personal and global transition the seed of a kind of revolution that could change our world for the better—internally, in relationship, and in the planetary community? As your nervous system allows and your being is moved to, I invite you to ponder these questions as your identity makes perhaps one of the biggest transitions it's ever faced in service of you and our world.
THERAPY UNDER FIVE - EXTENDED VERSION: HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE & TRANSITIONS
 I created this video on March 20th. After viewing it again a week later to write this blog post around the video, I became more aware of the privileges I have that led me to generate the example of the "luxurious vacation." I also became painfully aware that even using this example could marginalize other's experiences and lives. This hurt my heart so much that I felt strongly that I should not offer this video and post at all. I thought, "It's too imperfect and it could hurt too many people I care about." But, then I thought and felt again and decided to offer it in its imperfection and offer my sincere apologies to any of you who feel injured by it. Know that the essential message in the post comes from my heart.