Are you secretly relieved to be locked down, loving staying at home? Introvert HSPs in particular may be enjoying the lower stimulation levels, though for too many people, they come at a high cost. 

My friend Kim, a fellow highly sensitive person (HSP) is enjoying leading a simpler life during the COVID-19 pandemic. She wrote,

 “I love staying home.  I am not scared to go out—it’s not an agoraphobia thing—I just love being home and living a simpler life.  I have been reflecting on why this is so.  For sure, some of it is that I have less stimulation and less requirement for planning when I stay home all day.  I think that is an HSP thing. But I am realizing that I also have some trouble navigating transitions.  Leaving the house and especially coming back home from being out are particular big transition times for me.  I feel discombobulated and have trouble switching gears.  Is this a typical HSP thing?”

Thanks for this highly pertinent question, Kim. The short answer is, “Yes, having trouble with transitions is an HSP thing.”  In her helpful blog post about time and transitions, Dr. Elaine Aron explains how the four characteristics shared by all HSPs—depth of processing, overarousal, empathy, and sensitivity to subtlety—contribute to our difficulty with transitions.

And our days involve so many of them. Like the watery trail of the ladybug I spotted on my window, our course through the day involves dozens of changes of direction. No wonder some introvert HSPs like Kim find transitions stressful, and are secretly enjoying the “simple life” imposed on many of us during this COVID-19 pandemic—assuming they are among the fortunate ones who aren’t forced to cope with daunting financial or personal stress because of the lock-down.

My partner, also introvert HSP, has quietly admitted to me that he loves having this simpler time at home. He is savoring the chance to read and think about things. His greatest joy is to work on scanning his thousands of slides into the computer. He wouldn’t normally have time to do that, let alone this much freedom to choose what to do, when.

For the 30% of HSPs who are extroverts, on the other hand, the relative monotony imposed by the lockdown is harder, particularly if they are living alone. Extrovert HSPs need solitude and down time to process, just like introvert HSPs, but they also crave company and stimulation, which includes transitions. My extrovert HSP survey is too small to be representative, but I get the impression they are less thrilled about leading a “simpler life.”

What trouble with transitions looks like

As I finished that last sentence, my writing timer went off. I was supposed to stand up, drink water, stretch, and take a five-minute break. But I watched how hard it was for me to do that. And not for the first time. I do this again and again. I’ll be in the middle some great idea, and I don’t want to stop. 15 minutes later, I’m still writing.

I was relieved to learn Dr. Aron too has trouble getting herself to take breaks during her writing sessions—to a point of wishing she had an ejection seat. Until I read her article, I hadn’t thought of this as a transition problem. I thought of it as a “lack of discipline” problem. But in truth, the first challenge of transitions is recognizing them.

Who knew that the change from writing an email to editing an article requires a transition? I didn’t. But I do now, and I see that I can’t handle my transitions better unless I realize they are happening. Kim, for example, recognizes that something happens after she finishes a task:

The coming home thing [after grocery shopping, for instance] has something to do with moving from one activity to another.  So, the transition discombobulation / disorientation doesn’t happen till after I have put the groceries away.

Though she hasn’t figured out what to do about it yet, Kim has at least recognized she is dealing with a transition issue.

It’s challenging to honor your sensitive needs, without judgment

Recognizing transitions, I learned, can be trickier than you might think. For example, my self-judgment prevented me for years from realizing I was having a transition problem around taking my partner to the airport for his international trips. What’s the big deal about an airport trip? Any loving partner would want to take their beloved to the airport and see them off on a month-long trip, right?

Of course. And so did I. However, there was a catch. My partner’s flights typically departed before 6 A.M. This meant waking up at 4 A.M., pulling on sweat pants and a coat, and staggering out into the dark morning, feeling shaky. I’d come home and try to go back to sleep.  But no matter what I did, I’d feel wretched for the rest of the day.

Several years passed before I allowed myself to see the truth. I wasn’t a horrible partner. My body simply could not handle the abrupt transition from deep sleep to the highly stimulating activity of driving 65 miles an hour. It destroyed my entire day. As soon as I accepted this reality, I saw the solution. I asked my partner if he’d be willing to get himself to the airport. He said yes.

I still feel guilty when I hear him scheduling an Uber the night before a trip. But I remind myself how awful I felt on those days when I was forcing myself to take him. The lesson? It’s not always easy to honor your sensitive needs for transition time in our culture. We are supposed to “just do it” and be up for anything, anytime.

The stress of living at the wrong pace for your sensitive body

The fact is, quite a few people are up for anything, anytime. They even seem to enjoy being “shot out of a cannon” in the morning, as Kim describes it. I remember hearing my Honolulu roommate Peter’s alarm go off at 7 A.M. I’d watch in amazement as he pulled out the driveway 25 minutes later, showered and dressed. He was a highly extroverted person who loved to be “on the go,” out for beers or playing soccer with his mates pretty much every evening.

I, on the other hand, still suffer from subtle trauma related to years and years of living on a school schedule. I experienced that “shot out of a cannon” feeling five mornings a week, nine months a year. I’d rush to shower before the hot water ran out (in competition with three siblings). I’d eat breakfast quickly, help with the lunch-making assembly line, then scramble out the door to catch the bus.

Once I got to school, I experienced an onslaught of rushed transitions. There was barely time to get to the bathroom between classes. I had to change quickly for gym, shower quickly, eat my lunch quickly. I was an excellent student and I loved the learning aspects of school. But this much stimulation with no break overwhelmed me. I’d arrive home after that final interminable bus ride and collapse in relief, slamming the door behind me.

At the time, I just thought this was how life was. But my subconscious tried to tell me something wasn’t right. Every year, a month or so into the fall semester, I’d begin dream every night of my grandparents’ summer place, a rustic cottage on a lake in Canada. I had spent weeks there every summer since I was born. We ran around without shoes. We had no schedule except for meals and swimming. I felt like an entirely different person there: expanded, relaxed, joyful. I’d feel that way in these dreams, then cry heartbroken tears as I woke and realized I had to get up soon and go to school, cooped up inside with the smell of erasers and cafeteria food.

Finding the right pace

Years later, I finally realized that only part of the well-being I felt at the cottage was the beautiful location and the freedom. The other part was the absence of constant overstimulation. I discovered I could create that good feeling even on busy work days at home. My sixth sense would “ping” me when I was about to overschedule myself, and I learned to listen to it.

Over time, I created routines that suited the pace of my sensitive body. That’s how I ended up with a spacious early-morning routine, a long lunch hour, and a client schedule that includes 15 minutes between sessions. That’s the third key element of handling transitions well: concrete action on behalf of your own well-being.

Once you know all the ways transitions can look, and learn to recognize them when they are happening, the final step is to set up your days to work for you. Your work and family situations may limit your control. But anything you do will help. As Dr. Aron emphasizes, ample time is the key to smooth transitions.

In addition, if you have residual “transition trauma” from school or other life experiences, you can get relief from learning to be with these parts of you in a compassionate way. Focusing, combined with the elements of loving action and spiritual intuition, is a powerful way to heal this old pain.

Image: 2020 Emily Agnew