London is a wonderfully vibrant, varied and exciting city; and if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) you'll already know that it can also be quite a challenging place to live or work.
How are highly sensitive people defined? Well, according to Dr Elaine Aron, who researches the trait, HSPs tend to show the following characteristics:
• They process thoughts and feelings more deeply, and for longer, than others might
• They can easily become overstimulated
• They’re empathetic and highly responsive to emotions
• They’re very sensitive to subtleties
The trait of high sensitivity is not a disorder, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with you. It’s thought that it’s an inbuilt biologically-based characteristic carried by around 15-20% of the human population. It’s neither good nor bad; at different times it may feel like a gift or like a burden.
As an HSP you are extra sensitive to stimuli. This means your nervous system can quickly flip from feeling excited and interested by all that city life has to offer, over to feeling overwhelmed by the endless stimulation, pressures and activity. Whether you're sitting nose-to-tail in traffic on the North Circular, changing tube at Oxford Circus, trying to cross Euston Road on foot, or being jostled through Liverpool Street's crowded concourse at rush hour, simply getting from one place to another can place enormous demands on your sensitive stress responses.
Tip: When you're sitting or standing on public transport, turn your attention to your feet, just noticing any nuances and sensations without judging or trying to change anything. This is a mini mindfulness exercise that can have a positive grounding effect.
Shops and adverts scream messages at you. "Buy this! Do this! Go to this thing! Don't miss out!" As an HSP you process things in depth. So even something as ordinary as your morning tube journey can quickly make you feel full to the brim with complicated options to weigh up and consider.
Tip: See if you can find a time in the middle of the day where you can just be quiet and still, even if it's only for 10 minutes. Switch off your phone, lean against a tree (or gaze at a pot-plant if you're stuck indoors) and breathe. Make your out-breaths longer, slower and deeper, gently pursing your lips as if you're blowing out through a straw. This helps stimulate the ventral branch of your vagus nerve, helping you feel more calm and connected.
Your beautiful HSP capacity for empathy can sometimes feel more like a burden than a gift. You're so aware of those around you in the city who are suffering and struggling in life, but you know that you don't always have the resources (whether that's time, energy, emotional strength, or money) to give. And with your inbuilt HSP sensitivity to subtleties, you are constantly picking up on cues from everyone and everything around you: what they may be feeling, what they're hoping for, what they want from you, and so on. Like all HSP traits, this can be a great asset at times. However it equally can leave you feeling emotionally flooded, not sure of who you are or where your 'inner compass' is pointing.
Tip: Remember that you don’t have to agree to whatever someone asks you to do for them. It’s okay to give a simple ‘sorry, but I’ll have to decline’ or 'Thank you - I'll think about it and get back to you later'. Setting boundaries is a really important aspect of self-care and helps conserve your energy so you can use it wisely on things that matter most.
Highly sensitive people, when they’ve been feeling stressed and overwhelmed, tend to respond very well to therapy with the right therapist. HSPs need a therapist who is warm, attuned and empathic, and who holds stable boundaries to provide a sense of containment and safe connection. Finding a therapist who really understands the trait of high sensitivity can be invaluable. He or she can help you recognise the strengths in your sensitive nature, and allow you to blossom and flourish without expecting you to turn into someone you’re not (because guess what - if you’re highly sensitive, you always will be; that’s just part of who you are).
Online therapy can work very well for HSPs. You can have your sessions from the comfort of your home (or even from work if you can arrange for privacy), so there’s no extra journey time to factor in. And if your work requires you to travel, online therapy can be a godsend, allowing you to attend your session no matter where you are.
If you’re a highly sensitive person living or working in London, I hope this article has been helpful. Do reach out for help from a welldoing.org therapist if the pressures of city living or commuting feel overwhelming. And remember: even if it seems like you’re the only one who feels so easily drained and stressed, there are lots of other HSPs out there who probably feel much the same way at one time or another! Connecting with like-minded others can really help ease the feeling of being different and/or isolated.