At its core, being a healthy Introvert HSP is really about understanding your nervous system and how it works, so you can take good care of yourself.
Usually, it’s also about learning to rethink your understanding of sensitivity, and what it means to be sensitive in the world.
The Ultimate Introvert HSP Starter Guide
This article is meant as a basic guide of “what to know” and “where to start” to understand yourself as an HSP.
It’s basic, but it is in-depth.
So, it’s not an article to read through, necessarily, all in one shot. I’ve included quite a few links to resources so that it’s as comprehensive as possible.
I’ve also “chunked” it down into 4 different sections, so you can more easily go through according to the sections that most interest you.
I hope it’s helpful on your path to discovering and understanding yourself (and staying healthy) as an Introvert HSP, or, as we call ourselves, Highly Sensitive Introverts.
This article includes:
What is HSP or a Highly Sensitive Person?
Elaine Aron, PhD developed the term Highly Sensitive Person based on her research. She wrote a book by the same name.
In it, Dr. Aron writes:
HSPs differ mainly in their sensitive processing of subtle stimuli. This is your most basic quality. That is a positive and accurate way to understand your trait (Kindle Edition, p.35).
This book normalizes sensitivity as a trait. It’s not something you choose. Just like you don’t choose the color of your skin, your sex, the color of your eyes or hair. It’s how you’re born.
There is growing research to suggest that there are biological markers that describe this sensitivity as a physiological trait.
In 2014, Dr. Aron co-authored a research study that demonstrated a “strong association” between the HSP trait and “identifiable behaviors, genes, physiological reactions, and patterns of brain activation.”
Brain research published in the Journal of Neuroscience (2015) identified a specific genetic variation called ADRA2b that’s linked to “an emotionally enhanced vividness.”
It allows carriers to draw upon “an additional network in their brains important for calculating the emotional relevance of things in the world.”
In other words, sensitivity is a thing. It’s not just in your head. Or, actually, that’s the point. It IS in your head! It’s in your body.
Image Credit: Kim Siever
What You Believe About Your Sensitivity And Your HSP Frame
Many of us grew up with the mental “frame” or belief: sensitivity is weakness.
Any “frame” sets up a way to think about and perceive the world from a set of values.
Within this “frame” of “sensitivity is weakness,” being HSP is “a curse.”
It sets a value for HSP as bad.
Negative. Not something to be desired.
Something to be criticized, demeaned, bulldozed.
And, honestly, sometimes it can feel like it.
Feeling exhausted, drained, overwhelmed, feeling such emotional and mental chaos inside that it’s difficult to experience peace from within (or without).
There’s nothing bright and cheery about these moments.
But “sensitivity” as “a curse” is really just another variation of “sensitivity is weakness.”
Like anything, sensitivity is a two sided coin. It’s not all good and it’s not all bad.
It comes from this question: how do you keep refining your ability to live from your strengths without dismissing the reality of how hard it is to be a sensitive soul?
I’m not about pretending that sensitivity is the greatest, most wonderful experience from sunup to sundown.
But I’m also not about rehashing and staying in how hard and awful it is, and how terrible and insensitive the world can be.
Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Sensitivity is a wonderful thing. And the depth of pain that can come from it can be paralyzing. You can feel downright broken at times.
Like there’s something wrong with you.
Whether you agree with me or not (and I welcome you to let me know either way), I think it’s important to recognize how you think about your sensitivity.
How you “frame” your sensitivity for yourself will be one of the most important ways of determining your health. It’s not just as simple as “is sensitivity bad or good?”
It’s more subtle (the world in which we live!).
It’s recognizing that when someone says to you “you’re just gonna have to deal with the noise,” they’re asking you to join them in the “sensitivity is weakness” frame.
It may be wrong (and it is). It may be dismissive (and it is). And, it may be hurtful and angering (and it is).
And, when you and I are unable to stay in our frame of “sensitivity is strength” (or whatever it might be), we will either feel disempowered or fight.
Neither of these options is particularly healthy for HSPs. They’re both lose-lose scenarios. Even if we win the battle, we’ve still been in a war.
And wars are for warriors of a different kind of strength.
What Dr. Elaine Aron highlighted is that sensitivity predisposes us to be agents of change in the world (Kindle, p. 16).
As teachers, artists, therapists, researchers, philosophers, parents, and conscientious people, we stop the world from rushing ahead.
We invite reflection and a thinking through of consequences.
But we cannot serve this purpose (or be terribly healthy), if we engage the world from a place within us that does not value our strengths.
We cannot serve our individual and unique purpose if we don’t feel good.
The most difficult part?
The most difficult part is recognizing when your own thinking and language reflect a “sensitivity is weakness” frame. It’s so hard to notice!
It’s likely that the community and the family in which you grew up probably laid down a foundation for your beliefs (and your framing) around sensitivity.
Usually, there’s shame involved. And, who wants to talk about shame?
“Don’t be so sensitive!” “Just let it roll off your back.” “Why can’t you just brush it off and move on?” “It’s not a big deal. Just ask for what you need.”
And when you can’t?
You might find yourself saying that you’re “not good enough,” “too sensitive,” “can never get it right,” or some variation of “not enough” or “too much.”
And if it’s around sensitivity, there’s probably a belief or a “frame” that says “sensitivity is weakness” and therefore, without realizing it, you’re reinforcing a value to yourself that “you are bad.”
Not everyone deals with shame – so I don’t want to suggest that if you are HSP, you must be experiencing shame.
I do think, though, that there is an epidemic of shame that goes on and that it does plague sensitives.
How could it not with a world geared toward not-sensitive-is-normal beliefs?
It’s not usually a subject that anyone wants to discuss because it’s so incredibly painful.
So, it stays invisible. And insidious. Like a dormant virus. A shame virus.
I mention it here only because paying attention to your own language (“too much”/”not enough”) and emotional state (feeling hopeless, terrible, sad, removed) can be a helpful start to recognize that it may be an issue for you.
The research on shame shows a direct association with anger.
Anger and shame also show a relationship with higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers that are associated with chronic pain and poor auto-immune functioning.
Some of the more recent thinking associates “treatment resistant” major depression and suicidal ideation and/or behavior with shame.
So, yes, if you experience shame, it’s likely affecting your health and mental health.
Again, the key thing to think about is how you frame for yourself what it means to be sensitive.
Image Credit: Hernán Piñera
HSP Strengths and Challenges
Essentially, as an HSP, you’re highly attuned to sensations, feelings, thoughts, events, situations, people and environments that surround you.
That’s a lot!
But when an HSP is at his or her best, being able to “track” these various sources of “information” and overlay them, makes some serious power and wisdom available!
Here are (only) 10 HSP strengths that include having the ability, capacity, or potential for:
- Conscious and subconscious (and according to Carl Jung, also unconscious) awareness and perception of incredible sensory detail that invites creativity and imagination
- An awareness of subtle nuances or shifts in meaning and intention
- An almost 6th sense (intuition) about situations and people
- “Holding space” for other people so they can feel and express their feelings fully
- Encouraging depth and meaning, genuine and authentic connections
- The kind of reflection that’s necessary for effective problem solving in work, business, and relationships
- Internal reflection to develop awareness (to observe the body, emotional and cognitive experiences) that’s necessary for personal growth and change
- Observe subtle shifts in the body in response to emotional and cognitive experiences
- Passion and caring, empathy and being deeply moved by another’s experience
- Protecting and advocating for vulnerable people, environmental, social or economic justice movements
By the same token, the challenges of being sensitive can be pretty debilitating and hard.
Here are (only) 10 HSP challenges:
- Easily overstimulated and overwhelmed (over-arousal)
- Bright light, sounds that are loud, repetitive or sudden, the background noise in restaurants or bars is over-stimulating, physical sensations of clothing, or texture of food
- Affected deeply by other people’s emotions, communication, and behavior
- Need a great deal of space to “charge” and recharge after becoming overwhelmed
- Difficulty finding the “right” words when overwhelmed
- Sleep and food (easy to become over-tired or not eat the “right” food at the “right” time)
- Violent or “negative” images or events in the media
- Pressure to move quickly
- Perfectionism and the need to get things “right” (shame and feelings of failure that can go with these expectations)
- Feeling like an alien – like you don’t belong in a world that prefers superficial connection
Image Credit: Sebastian Dooris
Sensitivity And The Nervous System
I think distinguishing sensitivity as a physiological process (something that happens inside your body) is probably one of the most important concepts related to your health as an Introvert HSP.
As you begin to explore what it means to be an HSI, understanding your sensitivity in terms of your nervous system can help you tap into the wisdom within you to best care for yourself.
Your wisdom and guidance is built right into your body.
There is also another really important reason why it’s critical to understand your sensitivity as a physiological process. It has to do with “framing.”
Sensitivity is no longer a weakness, it’s a physiological process just like hunger, or fatigue.
Like hunger or the need to sleep, sensitivity is an experience that offers you information–about yourself and your needs, other people, and your environment.
There’s (usually) no shame in getting hungry or needing sleep. If we think about and talk about sensitivity as a physiological process, there’s no shame in being sensitive, either.
Ok. Off my do-gooding soapbox. Back to your nervous system and sensitivity.
Let’s say you hear a sudden, loud noise.
When it “stimulates” your sensitivity, it “arouses” your nervous system. This is a fancy way of saying that this stimulation “activates” your body and mind so they can defend you.
If this noise is loud enough, occurs for long enough, happens often enough, or if you associate it with something worrisome, you might jump (startle) and your heart might pump faster.
This is your nervous system kicking into gear to protect you.
And you didn’t even have to think about it! That’s the beauty of it, and it’s the hard part of it.
If you had to take the time to think about whether or not to be scared, something dangerous would be more likely to actually harm you. HSPs were the ultimate early ancestors.
We’re the ones who kept the tribe from getting eaten! I should add that to the strengths 😉
By comparison, a non-HSP might hear the loud noise, turn their head to investigate what caused it, and then return to a conversation with no real change in their physiology.
But they also might miss a subtle change (that an HSP would’ve noticed), and get eaten.
The hard part is that, in general, the same kind of threats to our lives do not exist as they did thousands of years ago. But your body’s defenses respond as if they do.
And they respond without thinking.
So, you’re vigilant, overwhelmed, stressed out, and don’t feel good because your primitive brain (some call it “lizard brain”) is keeping you safe.
It’s faster and more efficient, but it makes it harder to change.
As a result, what was a really good defense system designed to deal with actual dangers in the world isn’t any longer suited to the current world in which we live.
Now, this system (especially for HSPs) usually means high levels of stress, vigilance, and inflammation in the body in response to “normal” daily “triggers.”
So, understanding how your nervous system works can help you be able to understand what your body needs and know what to do to recover more quickly.
There are three ways your nervous system can respond to danger or threat (or the perception of it): fight, flight, freeze.
Dr. Stephen Porges did fascinating research and developed the Polyvagal Theory.
He explains the fight, flight (sympathetic nervous system), and freeze (parasympathetic nervous system) defenses in terms of the Vagus Nerve (there are two branches of it: New and Old).
Here’s the part that may be a little confusing. But it’s important.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System
Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for responding to danger (or what your body perceives to be dangerous, even if it’s not) and enacting your fight or flight defenses.
Your sympathetic nervous system is also responsible for giving you the energy and the motivation for engaging with others, being curious, taking action, and playing.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for responding to life threatening (or what your body perceives to be life threatening, even if it’s not), and enacting your freeze defense.
But, it’s also responsible for rest, relaxation, feelings of peace, the ability to digest nutrients, and eliminate waste (many HSPs have difficulty with these body systems).
Here’s an interesting interview with Dr. Porges that describes Polyvagal Theory.
For any of you who also geek out on this stuff:
There are two parts to the Vagus nerve: the “Old Vagus” (freeze) and the “New Vagus” (fight or flight).
The New Vagus (ventral) is connected to the muscles of your face (eyes, mouth, and middle ear),your heart, and lungs.
It’s part of what Dr. Porges calls the “social engagement system.”
(My mental health plug: this is why early attachments are sooooo important!)
When you get the social engagement you need, the movements you make with your face then help “down regulate” or calm your nervous system.
It’s the process of moving from “over-aroused” to “aroused.”
In the process, your nervous system moves from sympathetic “fight or flight” defense response to sympathetic arousal that’s ready for social engagement, curiosity, and play.
Ever heard of “resting bitch face?” Or RBF, as it’s coming to be called (I’m not particularly fond of the expression).
But Polyvagal Theory explains it.
If you’re nervous, afraid, unsure of yourself, your “New Vagus” and fight or flight defense is activated.
Your New Vagus Nerve is connected to your “social engagement system,” the muscles of your face, heart, and lungs. These muscles tense and become less able to express appropriate expressions.
I can still remember being in my early 20’s and having to get up in front of a room of people to give a training on communication. I was so nervous!
I had practiced what I was going to say to introduce myself and get started. My words were warm and inviting. Even my tone of voice was warm.
And, yet, the feedback I got was that my face didn’t match (and even contradicted) my words and tone of voice. My fear and anxiety left me unable to express the warmth I’d intended.
This was a sympathetic nervous system response from my New Vagus.
As long as you’re in fight or flight, your face can be “frozen” And other people might see you as stuck-up, arrogant, uncaring, or cold. The feedback I got was that I seemed “cold.”
Not exactly what I’d intended.
The interesting thing is that even if you don’t get what you need from others through social engagement, you can still calm the nervous system through breathing.
Pranayama (the practice of controlling your breath) calms the New Vagus Nerve.
And, of course, that’s usually the first thing you stop doing when you’re “over-aroused,” scared, or feel under pressure. You stop breathing!
Your Old Vagus freeze defense is your oldest and most basic defense. But it’s also complex.
When I think about the Old Vagus, I think about how my brother and I used to catch blue bellied lizards as kids.
The best part of it at the time (now I cringe thinking about it!) was to “rub their bellies” and watch them “go to sleep.”
Of course, they didn’t go to sleep. It was their “freeze” mechanism, their “Old Vagus” at work. They “played dead” because they perceived a threat to their lives.
We let them go afterward, so they didn’t die. Still. Poor things!
The Old Vagus freeze defense can work similarly in humans.
You literally freeze, you stop breathing (not the greatest evolutionarily speaking since humans need much more oxygen than reptiles).
You might feel like you can see everything going on around you, but you’re not in your body.
Your limbs might feel beyond heavy. Doing anything at all takes incredible effort, or feels impossible.
When you avoid, isolate, and withdraw.
When you can’t be comforted or soothed by anyone else or by yourself. When you feel so alone and like no one is there for you.
When you’re angry at the world. And you’re angry at yourself. There’s nothing right with you.
This is the Old Vagus and the freeze defense trying to keep you safe.
It is a response to a life threat, but it can “triggered” by reminders of life threat, too (that may not be obvious). Even when the original life threat is no longer actually threatening.
For any of you who’ve ever experienced severe depression, you might be nodding along. The freeze defense can literally “depress” your physiology.
You don’t have access to the healthy, normal functioning of the sympathetic nervous system that gets you up and gives the “pep” you need to feel good (or even just get out of bed).
Not to harp on the shame topic, but it’s related. I’ll include the link again here for a video of Dr. Allan Schore discussing the role of shame in depression and suicide.
Your nervous system is complex and was really well designed for a different kind of life than most people lead in the 21st century.
Still, the more you understand about how your nervous system works, the better you can learn the skills you need to care for yourself as an Introvert HSP.
This care is essential to feeling good and being able to live from the natural strengths that HSPs possess.
Image Credit: eLife – the journal
Image Credit: Arches National Park