Living in alignment with one’s values and achieving inner peace and wellness can be tough for anyone in fast-paced, competitive, capitalistic societies. It’s often hard to stay on top of everything while remembering to practise appropriate self-care. Moreover, Westernised, modern cultures often dictate that we adopt (or at least, portray) certain behaviours and characteristics to survive – let alone thrive or excel.
But what about if you are, by temperament, both an introvert and a highly sensitive person (HSP)? How might you sustain peace of mind while residing in cultural contexts that prize extroversion, social ease, and high energy (and, dare I say it, appearance over substance)?
A 2020 paper titled “A Qualitative Exploration of Individual Differences in Wellbeing for Highly Sensitive Individuals” dives into these topics.
Published in Palgrave Communications, the piece details how the dominant well-being narratives in Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) cultures usually emphasise the importance of “social outgoingness and high-arousal positive emotions, with introversion and negative emotion looked down upon or even pathologized.”
If you feel your personality traits are positively reinforced by the social norms of wider society, you are likely to experience greater wellness, higher self-esteem, and less social stigma. Typically, in WEIRD societies, there isn’t much understanding of, or value placed on, being at the higher end of the sensitivity scale. And extroversion is regarded and praised more highly than introversion or shyness.
Considering these realities, introverts with biologically based sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) need to discover their own means to achieve personal health. But don’t worry. It’s entirely possible to live a content, fulfilled life.
Around 20% of the general population is highly sensitive, so you are not alone. We can draw on the wisdom of others to learn how best to cope, and even flourish, in contexts that don’t necessarily celebrate this trait. (Especially when combined with introversion).
If you’re unsure whether you have sensory processing sensitivity, you may first like to check out the site of HSP researcher and psychologist Dr Elaine Aron. Back in 1996, she published The Highly Sensitive Person. And you can find self-tests here.
A 2019 article describes SPS as “a common, heritable and evolutionary conserved trait describing inter-individual differences in sensitivity to both negative and positive environments.” Because contemporary cultures can certainly be negative toward anyone falling outside the dominant norms, the highly sensitive may suffer more than others.
But as researcher Dr Aron has written, increased sensitivity is neither positive nor negative – it is just a trait like any other. It’s also useful to remember that about 30% of the highly sensitive are extroverts. Interestingly, due to the trait’s genetic underpinnings, researchers have observed different levels of sensitivity in non-human species.
In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss helpful strategies to find peace, health, and comfort in cultural environments that can be hectic, insensitive, and invalidating to those who are introverted HSPs. I’ll base these suggestions on some of the HSP well-being enablers that the authors list in their research.
Live by your values, find your meaning (spiritual well-being)
Spiritual health is of central importance if you want genuine fulfilment and joy. In fact, it may even be the most vital contributor to overall well-being. As described by the study’s participants, health encompasses all aspects of one’s life. It includes “emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual, and social/relational dimensions.”
Whether we consider ourselves agnostic, religious, spiritual, or atheist, a bond with something more profound than our mundane, tedious daily tasks and worries appear to be a universal need. Humans in diverse cultures spanning the globe, and throughout recorded history (and beyond), have developed complex belief systems and practices to pay reverence to life.
Thankfully, you get to choose your meaning (and it can change!). Our specific beliefs or practices matter less than the feeling of purpose. The feeling that we are living in alignment with our values.
For the religious, these qualities may be achieved via worship, meditation, rituals, and community. Interestingly, studies illustrate that greater spirituality and religiosity are often associated with improved mental health. And academics have linked positive psychology with the psychology of religion. Moreover, several HSP study participants recognised their faith as helping them find connection and harmony.
But you don’t need to consider yourself religious or spiritual. Any behaviour or belief that strengthens your personal purpose or bond to life, the world, other people, or yourself can improve your spiritual health. Examples are:
- Personal ethics and values (living in accordance with your core values is incredibly important!)
- Fascinating hobby, passion, or interest
- A close, safe, and supportive relationship
- Emotionally fulfilling and rewarding occupation (aligned with your values)
- Larger social cause (such as helping marginalised people)
- Spiritual community and ideology
- Contemplation and meditation practice
By living in alignment with your core values, and with an enriched sense of meaning, you can better cope as an HSP in sometimes overwhelming and stress-inducing environments or situations.
Practise self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and self-acceptance
When in the grip of stress, frustration, insecurity, or any other mental state, self-criticism can run amok. It’s a common struggle for HSPs, particularly those with long-term mental illnesses. During these intense emotions, it can feel impossible to just detach and observe what is happening; painful thoughts and emotions are at the forefront.
Left unchecked, repeated self-criticism and self-blame intensify feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. It becomes a downward spiral. And if you reside in cultural contexts that don’t celebrate your unique strengths, then the negative interpersonal feedback adds to your habitual self-criticism and self-stigma.
How to go about reversing these tendencies? Every HSP interviewee mentioned self-compassion as a wellness enabler. Self-compassion involves self-kindness, self-forgiveness, common humanity, and mindfulness. In essence, the aim is to treat yourself with understanding, kindness, and leniency.
We know it can be tough to stop habitual negative self-talk altogether. But you can strengthen your self-compassion muscle through mindful awareness. As with every skill, you get better at it through repetition.
The highly sensitive participants also believed that some other “self-hyphen” concepts helped them out. Learning about and understanding yourself (self-awareness) and accepting who you are (self-acceptance) complement emotional health. As the positivity psychologist Dr Kristin Neff has said, self-compassion is the key prerequisite for self-acceptance.
Lastly, as mentioned in the paper, yet another “self-hyphen” term supports your health as a sensitive individual: emotional self-regulation. For example, reflecting on how to respond to a negative circumstance (instead of reacting through stress) was believed to generate feelings of empowerment. Nevertheless, it’s often easier said than done! An effective means to regulate your feelings is … observing the present moment.
Observe the present moment without judgement
Intentional observation and acceptance of the present, free of judgement, has been “empirically and theoretically associated with psychological well-being.” Nowadays, most of us know what I’m talking about. The big M. Possibly, it’s become so much of a mental-health buzzword that many of us don’t dive much deeper (let alone explore the practice’s history).
Related to mindfulness is the psychoanalytic concept of the “observing ego”: our self that observes our experiences rather than experiencing them. This piece describes how “its attainment is considered one of the hallmarks of mental health.” The contrast is between the experiencing ego and the observing ego. That’s basically mindfulness simplified.
These days, diverse settings such as hospitals, schools, and workplaces integrate secular mindfulness practices. But if you’re like me, after a few attempts at starting at it, you fall back into your habitual tendencies. Not much of a surprise.
Here’s where self-forgiveness can help us. Human consciousness, in its typical and untrained state, gets preoccupied, distracted, and stressed. It reacts with criticisms and judgements. It leaps from past to future to imaginary scenarios.
That’s why intentional, detached observation is a practice that you… practise. You (gently) redirect your focus and attention back when your “monkey mind” takes over.
The authors of the paper cited mindfulness and meditation as wellness enablers. Living in pressured, fast-paced, high-energy societies can naturally overwhelm those with sensory processing sensitivity. But you don’t need to over-identify with whatever thoughts or feelings pop up.
Here’s a good time to discuss another(!) “self-hyphen” concept: self-complexity. Essentially, those with high self-complexity recognise that their identity is composed of multiple – and sometimes contradictory – roles and elements.
The APA Dictionary of Psychology states that people low in self-complexity “have few distinct facets of the self-concept, so they react more extremely to positive and negative events related to one of those aspects.” If our entire self-concept revolves around only a few aspects, all of our identity-related feelings, such as self-esteem, rely on them.
So, instead of over-identifying with a certain trait or role, it’s beneficial to view yourself more holistically. (And as a side note, intersectionality explores how our overlapping identities, attributes, and roles can lead to different forms of disadvantage.)
Spend time with nature
Half the interviewees believed that time in nature enriched their lives. A few mentioned enjoying time spent around trees, specifically. The authors thus listed connectedness with nature as a behavioural enabler of wellness for HSPs.
In addition, “low-intensity positive emotions” (such as contentment, relief, and serenity) also contribute to their overall health. These feelings may come from immersion in peaceful, aesthetic, natural scenery.
Nature therapy (eco therapy, green therapy) is based on the understanding that humans are affected by their surroundings, and that time in the living world can alleviate mental illness symptoms. These environments have been documented to lower feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, depression, and anger.
Even just viewing nature images can have the same effects. (I’ve experienced these feelings from watching realistic video-game water!)
In any case, no species evolved in concrete jungles but in what we now label “nature”. As of 2023, around 55% of the global population resides in cities. However, urban stress – along with numerous other social ills – is probably contributing to the rising levels of mental health problems. The WHO states that, globally, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-to-29-year-olds, and psychosocial conditions account for 20% of years lived with disability.
Research has also indicated that coastal and rural regions seem to strengthen people’s bond with the natural world the most. But while it’s not always possible to escape far from our concrete jungle homes, an urban garden or park can still lift your mood.
For example, a study by Mind (a mental health organisation) found that nature walks improved depressive symptoms in 71% of people, compared to 45% who visited a shopping centre. Also, adding a bit of plant life to our workspaces can offer similar comforts.
Evidently, nature immersion reinforces your link to life, thus improving your spiritual health. Nevertheless, the sceptical part of me needs to point out that we can occasionally have a tendency to romanticise nature, too. But the documented mental health benefits are promising.
Around 20% of the population has sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). It is a biologically based trait that has been observed in non-human species. And the majority of highly sensitive humans are also introverted.
However, in contemporary, Westernised cultural contexts, extroversion, high energy, and “high-intensity positive emotion” are regarded as social norms signifying personal well-being. And for introverted HSPs, these dominant narratives can contribute to feelings of stress and inadequacy.
Hopefully, in this piece, you’ve found some solace. Suggestions to improve your health include (among others):
- Strengthening your personal values, purpose, and meaning in life
- Mindfulness and contemplative practices
- Self-compassion, self-awareness, and self-acceptance
- Connecting with nature
While I definitely haven’t covered every HSP wellness enabler, I hope you’ve got a few helpful ideas from this article. If you’re interested to learn more, I’d recommend checking out the full paper on Springer Nature’s site. It can be a jungle out there. Take care always.
Monique Moate is a writer, editor, wife, cat mum, and night owl who enjoys writing about a wide range of topics. She cares about mental health awareness and destigmatisation.