The better you understand the four environments that affect HSPs, the more you empower yourself to create positive change in your life.
First of all, Happy New Year! This comes with my heartfelt wishes for a wonderful 2024. Thank you for reading. You give me a reason to write!
It’s natural to be thoughtful as one year ends and a new one begins. I’d like to offer you food for thought: specifically, a framework you can use to evaluate your self-care. This concerns a central aspect of the highly sensitive trait called variable susceptibility, though I prefer to use the term environmental susceptibility. I think it more vividly evokes the reality that highly sensitive people (HSPs) are affected more than non-HSPs by our environment.
As you’ll see, there are four environments that affect HSPs. When I hear the term “environment,” I first think of my physical surroundings. Certainly, our physical environment affects us greatly, so we’ll start with that one.
Your external physical environment
Most HSPs are keenly aware of the effects on us of excessive heat or cold, loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, or tactile stimuli like rough fabrics and scratchy tags. Let’s refer to these influences collectively as your external physical environment, which reflects our sensory sensitivity.
In some cases, your external physical environment is the easiest of the four environments to change or control. You can turn the heat up or down. You can dim the lights, or cut out a tag. There’s a big catch, though. Your external environment often contains people and events over which you have no control.
You can as a colleague not to wear strong-smelling aftershave, but you can’t force him not to. You can’t stop the honking of cars in New York City, or make the subway shriek less loudly. You can’t make that maddening cousin behave better at holiday gatherings.
Sometimes the only way to deal with a stressful external physical environment is to leave it. But what if we can’t? Then we have to turn inwards to cope. We have to find some way of coming to terms with the reality of what is happening.
Take a moment to consider the external physical environments in which you spend your time. Are they reasonably comfortable for you? If not, why not? If changes would help and are within your ability to control, what steps would you need to take? Finally, if you can’t change the situation and can’t leave it, what would it take for you to accept the way things are?
Your external emotional environment
Next, there’s your external emotional environment. Your external emotional environment includes your workplace or home office; your living space; and your whole sense of yourself in relation to the world and to other people.
HSPs are (or can be) keenly tuned in to others’ moods. In a group, we are quick to “read the room.” Your body may alert you to unspoken tension before your mind consciously realizes what is happening. You feel your stomach tense or your cheeks flush.
Depending on the kind of childhood you had, you may suffer from some level of chronic vigilance. This happens when your HSP ability to notice subtle changes gets co-opted to sense danger. A number of studies have shown that highly sensitive children suffer more in a difficult childhood environment than non-HSP children.*
For example, Dr. Zhi Li, an Assistant Professor at Peking University, China, found that HSP children are more affected by childhood environmental instability:
We found that unpredictability of the environment was predictive of greater increases in child externalizing problems. Furthermore, children with greater sensory processing sensitivity were more affected by an unstable context, showing greater increases and decreases in externalizing problems when raised under highly unpredictable versus stable context, respectively.
As with your external physical environment, your external emotional environment is not always under your control. Take a moment to consider the external emotional environments in which you spend your time. When are you at ease? When are you not at ease? If you are not at ease, what is the source of your discomfort? If changes would help, what steps would you need to take? If you can’t change the situation and can’t leave it, what would it take for you to accept the way things are?
Your internal physical environment
HSPs tend to be acutely aware of our internal physical environment—that is, our bodies. In fact, my most-read article online is about the experience many HSPs have had of becoming hyperaware of our physical sensations to a degree that is anxiety-producing.
You are likely already familiar with the list of substances by which HSPs are particularly affected, including caffeine, alcohol, prescription drugs, and recreational drugs. In addition, many HSPs have food sensitivities or asthma. These body reactions can cause you to break out in hives, or to be unable to sleep, or to feel lousy. You simply can’t ignore them. In that regard, they are low-hanging fruit, easy to spot.
Chronic nervous system dysregulation, on the other hand, can be tricky to notice. Sadly, we can become accustomed to feeling stressed. I’m sure I’m not alone in having discovered my food and substance sensitivities long before I discovered how dysregulated I was.
Self-regulation skills are key for HSPs so we can rapidly restore our nervous systems to equilibrium whenever we need to. Meditation practice, especially when it is done with the intent of connecting you to your spiritual source, is highly regulating. Breath ractices like coherent breathing can permanently lower your level of arousal.
There’s another aspect of your internal physical environment, less commonly recognized, that greatly affects your physical and emotional well-being: your posture. I recently wrote a post for the Gokhale Method newsletter in which I’ve shared pictures of the way my posture has changed over time, along with descriptions of the positive ways this has affected my well-being.
Your internal emotional environment
Last but not least, you live in the unique environment of your own mind. Your internal environment has a massive effect on your sense of well-being. Many HSPs suffer from anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and overwhelm. No wonder. We can be hard on ourselves, and when an inner critic dominates your internal landscape, you live in a fog of anxiety and shame.
Unfortunately, you cannot escape your internal environment. Like a turtle carries its shell, you carry your inner world with you wherever you go. On the other hand, because your mind is always with you, even the smallest improvement you make in your inner relationship can make a big difference.
You have a great deal of control over your state of mind. Cultivating a better inner relationship with yourself and with your spiritual source can transform your inner world from dark to light.
Take a moment to think about your internal emotional environment. How would you describe it? Are you kind to yourself, or harsh, or inconsistent? Are you generally peaceful, or chronically stressed? What factors contribute to the variations in your emotional and mental state?
Empower yourself with awareness
As you become more aware of the four environments that affect HSPs and the specific ways they effect you, you will perceive more clearly how intertwined they are. For example, if you know how to regulate your nervous system, for example, you are less likely to get anxious…and if you have a good inner relationship, your nervous system is less likely to get dysregulated.
To put this another way, the quality of each of your four environments synergizes with the others. By increasing your awareness and taking action, you can transform that synergy from negative to positive, resulting in major changes over time.
Photo: ©2024 Emily Agnew
*If you are interested in staying up-to-date on the latest research about high sensitivity, I recommend you subscribe to sensitivityresearch.com.