Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

“It’s OK, I guess.” – Official Book Review

I do lots of reading in my active recovery from complex post traumatic stress disorder. This morning, I noticed a book on my shelf that I hadn’t read in its entirety the first time round, titled The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, by Ted Zeff. The book is a guide for highly sensitive people (HSPs) whose nervous systems are easily flooded by external and internal stimulation, such that daily life can become unmanageable. As a sufferer of C-PTSD, I can totally relate.

For the longest time, I couldn’t comprehend why the thought of attending a nightclub, with its subwoofers and flashing lights and mixed drinks, seemed like an endurance trial rather than a fun night out. Or why a work colleague’s perfume – while probably aromatic to others – smelled overpowering and nauseating to me. Or why, when under the glare of fluorescent lights, I sweat like a 90 year-old European man in speedos sunbaking on St Kilda Beach. The ‘What’s wrong with me?’ tune starts to play, ya know? Surely I shouldn’t be like this.

"Sweat moisturises the skin. It's science, baby."
“Sweat moisturises the skin. It’s science, baby.”

The book itself is OK – not good, not bad. So-so. I thought that a lot of the suggestions provided were intuitive. If, for instance, you are sensitive to bright lights, avoid them, or wear sunglasses. Or if you’re sensitive to loud noises, wear headphones…Or avoid them. So the advice in the book goes.

To be fair, some of the advice is useful. But looking over the pages this morning, I remember why I wasn’t impressed the first time I picked up the book. I am glad, though, that such a book exists. It comes as a relief to me and those like me who’ve always struggled with loud noises and bright lights and strong feelings. Not wrong, or bad. Just different. It’s officially a thing, being a highly sensitive person. And that’s OK.

In our “Type-A”-driven society, with deadlines, multi-tasking, making money and meeting KPIs, it’s good to sit back and reflect that it’s OK for me not to be like ‘them’ – the sensation-seekers or, as the book affectionately dubs them, the “non-HSPs”.

Indeed, in my own recovery, sensation-seeking has correlated highly with numbing out or avoiding my pain rather than just sitting with it and processing what’s happening. It’s a bit of a fine balance, as you can imagine. On the one hand, numbing out is counter-productive to recovery from C-PTSD. On the other hand, being a highly sensitive person means oftentimes I just have to avoid the overpowering stimuli to remain sane.

Recovery thus is a nuanced process that takes patience and time and intuition. But maybe you already knew that, too? If you think something is amiss as you wonder the brightly lit city streets, or feel positively frazzled by the seemingly impossible deadline your boss has given you at work, perhaps Ted Zeff’s book is for you.

And perhaps you, too, are a highly sensitive soul just trying to find your way in the this crazy-complex maze of a world. And that’s OK – don’t fret, and take courage! You’re not alone. There’s literature out there to help you make sense of it. And probably support groups, too, filled with similarly-souled individuals eager to bitch about those inconsiderate souls who breathe too loudly, or who wear Brut cologne like it’s 1937. Others may not notice these things, but as highly sensitive people, we do. And that’s alright.


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