How to Stay Sane When the World Overwhelms You

Are you sensory sensitive? Oftentimes creators are. I am. For a long time, I was ashamed and thought I had to “fix” myself somehow.

But we’re not the only ones who find the lights too bright, the sounds too loud, or the party overwhelming.

About 20 percent of the population is born with a highly sensitive nervous system.


Take the Highly Sensitive Person self-test

To see the whole list of traits and find out if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, take the self-test here.

I say a vehement YES to almost everything on the list.

If you’ve struggled with these traits, you’re not alone.

  • When I was growing up, my mother treated me like I was weird when I wanted to sit in a corner with a book rather than make small-talk with my relatives — a bunch of strangers!
  • American culture expects us all to be loud, highly social people (can you say open-plan office?).
  • One of my exes called me neurotic for wanting the sheets tucked in at the end of the bed.

I thought I had to “get over” these “abnormal” traits of mine. This happens often to HSPs.

About five years ago, I read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Aron is a clinical psychologist who began studying this trait in 1991.

She points out in her book that, in the context of evolution, HSPs are just as necessary to the survival of the species as non-HSPs. She claims that there are two “classes” of people. HSPs form the “priest-advisor” class: the folks who “pause-to-check,” the ones who see the lion in the grass first, assess the situation, and help the “warrior class” figure out when to rush in and kill the thing (instead of doing it without thinking, as they may be wont to do)— the thinkers, paired with the doers, for ultimate species survival. What’s more, animals appear to have both priest-advisor and warrior classes as well, just as humans do.

THIS IS GREAT NEWS. There’s a name for what we are; it’s real; we were born with it.

It’s not abnormal, and we don’t have to “get over it.”

We can learn how to deal with it.


Do what makes you comfortable

Give yourself permission to take care of you.

  • On the subway (oh the fluorescence!), I wear my sunglasses and, when I need them, ear plugs, without shame. At work, I asked for several of the light bulbs (more fluorescence) above my desk to be removed; the freelancer who worked next to me got a desk lamp.
  • When I need a break from my friends on a long trip away from home, I ask for it. I reassure them that it is the right thing for me, that it is not a matter of being sick of them — I just need some quiet time to myself.
  • I consume only art that has a positive sense of life — if a movie gives me anxiety in the first ten minutes, I don’t watch it. A movie about deep evil like The Green Mile can leave me with a pit in my stomach for months, if not years, afterward. The Blair Witch Project, with its shaky camera work and creepy night scenes in the woods, made me nauseated — I had to leave the theater before it was over. I used to let other people influence me into watching stuff like that. Not anymore.
  • I don’t take cold medications; they give me terrible anxiety and depression and in many cases also make me hallucinate — even on half the recommended dose for an adult. I went to the hospital once with an ongoing case of dizziness and lightheadedness, only to realize afterward that it was caused by the Aleve I’d been taking for a strained rib muscle.

Sometimes I have to insist, even with people who care about me a great deal, on what is right for me.

Listen carefully to your inner world, take good care of it, and stand up for it when others challenge it, instead of denying that you have these needs.

how to stay sane

Recognize the upside

What a pain in the arse, I used to think. I am not made for the world. All these difficulties!

But …

  • When a group of friends met at an apartment with lights I couldn’t stand, and I insisted on softening the lighting, everyone ended up more comfortable — and grateful.
  • I may be bad at small talk and take four days to text you back, but I will do deep talk with you for hours, when you need it.
  • I’m a conscientious, hard-working employee.
  • I know how to bring the right people together for the right things at the right time so that it seems like magic.
  • I always have great music to share and a sense of who will like what.
  • Most importantly, my calling in life is writing — and who better to tell stories than one who notices all the nuances of the environment, of human behavior, of whatever is going on around her? Those details are exactly the things that make a story come alive. That sensitivity makes it possible for me to be more aware of which concrete details produce which abstract emotional responses (what details of a facial expression convey anger or bitterness, what flicker of movement expresses annoyance or contained joy, what kind of lighting will effect what kind of mood) and how to make characters move and think and talk in ways that real people will identify with and want to read about. There could be no better asset for a writer than a sensitivity to detail.

Related: The One Book Every Creator Should Be Reading Right Now

And so, despite the struggles it causes, I am grateful for this weirdness of mine.

For more information about being a Highly Sensitive Person or being in a relationship with one, visit Dr. Aron’s site or buy her book The Highly Sensitive Person here.



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