The Link Between Bipolar Disorder and Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)

Photo by Iswanto Arif on Unsplash

Are you sensitive to temperature, textures, or noises? Are you easily frightened, especially when people come up behind you? Do you absorb the emotions of everyone else in the room and find it difficult to regulate your own in the face of all the chaos?

Then, like me, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP).

In her 1997 book, The Highly Sensitive Person, psychologist Elaine Aron coined the term HSP to describe the 15-20% of people whose brains are markedly different from others. Highly sensitive people have something called “the sensory sensitivity processing trait,” which basically means their brains let in more information from their environment and they process things faster and more deeply, even subconsciously.

People with this trait often live their lives being bothered by experiences that others don’t even notice. Things like the pressure of sitting on a chair that’s not too hard for anyone else, shivering in a room said to be temperate for others, or deeply feeling someone else’s anger or distress.

And research has proven that being an HSP is a genetic trait, like eye color or hair. You feel things more deeply because your brain is wired differently.

Who else feels things more deeply because their brains are wired differently? Why, people with bipolar disorder, of course.

The Link Between HSPs and Bipolar Disorder

Not all HSPs have bipolar disorder and not all people with bipolar disorder are HSPs. Being highly sensitive is not a mental illness like bipolar disorder is, and cannot be treated by any current class of medication. Nor does being an HSP cause mental illness.

But if you are a highly sensitive person, overstimulation from your environment can trigger a bipolar mood episode.

Because their brains let in more information, both people with bipolar disorder and HSPs are extremely vulnerable to stress. The brains of both types of people–and especially if you are a HSP with bipolar disorder–have difficulties filtering out stimuli. Researchers call this “leaky sensory gating,” which means that HSPs and people with bipolar disorder can easily become overwhelmed by loud noises, temperature, or other people’s emotions.

This is a huge source of stress, which is a known trigger for depression, mania, and anxiety.

I should know. Being an empathic HSP with bipolar disorder, I frequently suck up the emotions of other people in the room and have difficulty separating my own feelings from everyone else’s.

For example, when my son is upset, I experience the distress with him in not only emotional symptoms, but physical. My chest constricts, my throat closes, and my shoulders and back with pain. And I feel an intense amount of pain and anxiety in my brain. I can’t concentrate on anything else, and I spiral down deep into negative thoughts.

And these symptoms last for hours. Once, my son and I got into a fight. He grew upset with me, and I was upset with him but also upset because he was upset. We talked out the problem, solved it, and ten minutes later, he had forgiven me and came back to show me a meme that he had laughed at.

But I was still upset–not because of my own anger, but because of his–for four hours afterwards. It wasn’t until I’d done some self-care that I was able to calm down and separate myself from his emotions.

Due to thinning gray matter in certain brain regions, people with bipolar disorder have difficulty regulating their emotions and inhibitions. An HSP with bipolar disorder who absorbs emotion and has difficulty separating other people’s feelings from mine own, I have found it very difficult to calm down after conflicts.

According to the International Bipolar Foundation, people with bipolar disorder also have more difficulty recovering from events and situations that cause stress. So as a person with bipolar disorder, is it any surprise that my fight with my son bothered me so much?

Experiencing other people’s emotions in this way has caused untold amounts of anxiety for me, and I have only just identified this as a trigger for my depressive and manic episodes. Realizing there was a link between bipolar disorder and highly sensitive people was a lightbulb moment.

Highly sensitive people tend to be called to helping professions, and I am no different. In August of 2022, I plan to earn a graduate degree in counseling with the aim of becoming a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). I am hoping that my professors will be able to train me to manage my own emotions separate from other people’s.

And it’s not just others’ emotions that hurt me. As an HSP with bipolar disorder, I also find myself distressed by physical experiences that others have no problem with. For example, I feel freezing cold at temperatures like 65 degrees F (18 degrees C) and sweat at 75 degrees F (28 degrees C). My husband thinks I’m too sensitive–which, surprise! I am!

3 Tips to Help You Handle Being an HSP with Bipolar Disorder

Do you believe you are a HSP with bipolar disorder? Then read on for three tips on how to handle the stress of being one.

1. Take Responsibility

If you are an HSP with bipolar disorder, you may think that your emotions are out of control and the world around you must help you manage them.

Don’t think that. While your friends and family might be willing to accommodate your sensitivities if you communicate effectively with them, the only person who can manage your emotions is you.

You need to take responsibility for your own wellbeing. You make your own happiness. While you may feel more deeply than everyone else, you are also capable of managing those feelings through a regime of self-care and self-love. Think about including talk therapy and/or medication in your regime as well, as those are things you can do to take care of yourself that only you can do.

Owning my own feelings will be difficult, but I believe that with the help of my therapist and my practicing self-care, I will be able to finally separate myself from others and manage my brain. Identifying where the problems are is half the battle, so I’m well on my way!

I hope that this tip empowers you rather than daunts you. I don’t mean to say that your overstimulation is in any way your fault. But you have a quirk of the brain that other people just do not have, and you are capable of managing it.

2. Learn Your Triggers

Learning what bothers you or sends you into a self-destructive spiral will help you avoid or manage those triggers. Whether it’s a TV that’s on too loudly or negative self-talk, figure out what bothers you the most and try to fix the problem or distract yourself from it.

One of my triggers is loud noises. As a result, I constantly wear noise-cancelling headphones streaming music of my choice from my phone. Research shows that music lights up the reward centers of the brains of HSPs in extreme ways, so as long as I have my soothing music on, I can ride the high.

3. Communicate Your Needs

Speaking up about your needs is one of the best ways to cope with stress as an HSP. If you ask your friends and family to stop doing that one thing that irritates you, and they do, that’s one less thing to stress out your already-overwhelmed brain.

I plan to ask my son not to wear headphones when he’s watching YouTube videos. The distraction is so great that I can’t focus on anything else. I hope that he will be willing to accommodate me, and I believe that the request is reasonable enough that he will.

Conclusion

If you are an HSP with bipolar disorder, you must take care of yourself. I am only just learning how to deal with the stress of being one of the 20% of people in the world who are highly sensitive.

Start by taking responsibility for your own care. Be proactive about managing your triggers. And communicate your needs effectively.

The more you recognize what stresses you out and why and take steps to solve those problems, the healthier you will be.

I wish you well.

Related Posts:

10 Signs That You Are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

Are you a highly sensitive person (HSP)? Highly sensitive people are more deeply affected by emotions, physical sensations, and stress than non-sensitive people, because the HSPs are born with nervous systems that are more acutely attuned. About 15 to 20% of people across all ethnicities, races, and genders are HSPs. They can be introverts, extroverts, or something in between.

And they’re often misunderstood. Because only 20% of people are highly sensitive, those who aren’t just don’t get how the HSP wants to, for example, crawl in a corner and hide

sensitive by flickr.com user Kamilla Oliveria
A black and white photo of a woman holding a camera in front of her face. Credit to flickr.com user Kamilla Oliveria Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

after absorbing the negative emotions of someone else’s fight. Contrary to popular belief, high sensitivity isn’t overreacting to emotions. It is experiencing these emotions on a deeper, more jarring level.

But is high sensitivity bad? No, of course not. Experiencing deeper emotions and physical sensations helps the HSP be more aware of his or her surroundings and respond to other people with empathy. High sensitivity isn’t a mental illness, though those with the trait often suffer depression. The HSP is often emotionally intelligent and make great therapists, counselors, or clergy members.

So are you a highly sensitive person? Here are 10 signs to help you determine that for yourself:

1. You often suffer from emotional exhaustion due to your natural empathy for others.

As soon as an HSP walks into a room, he or she is able to pick up on personal details such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice that others may miss. Highly sensitive people aren’t necessarily empaths, but HSPs often absorb the emotions and moods from other people like an empath would. Sensitive people have high levels of empathy for other people, and are often emotionally exhausted from feeling what other people feel.

2. You startle easily.

People who are highly sensitive hate being startled, because they so often are. Their nervous systems are dialed up to 11, so if someone sneaks up on them, they jump–which is, unfortunately, the intended effect. Loud noises really get to them, too.

3. You’re picky about your clothes.

I don’t mean that HSPs are into fashion, though they easily could be. What I mean is, HSPs usually cannot stand coarse fabrics, seams in socks, or tags. These may bother other people as well, but an HSP will structure his or her wardrobe in a manner that completely avoids these irritants.

4. You’re sensitive to blood sugar drops.

Changes in blood sugars really throw HSPs for a loop. If they haven’t eaten in a while, they could end up hangry (hungry + angry) more easily than other people. One way an HSPs can take care of themselves is to pack a snack when they are out and about.

5. Stimulants/depressants aren’t good things.

With a nervous system that’s so finely-tuned, some HSPs are deeply affected by caffeine, and only need a little to feel completely ratcheted up. Similarly, some HSPs are sensitive to alcohol.

6. You abhor violence and conflict.

Conflict can be physically painful to an HSP, as can violence. Even watching animal cruelty on television is enough to make some HSPs sick to their stomachs. Highly sensitive people sometimes come down with stress headaches when confronting someone, even if the HSPs are in the right.

7. Beauty moves you.

Highly sensitive people are deeply moved by beautiful things, such as gorgeous (non-violent) movies, fine art, and stirring music. The HSP may be moved to tears when tasting a delicious, favored food, or beholding a breathtaking vista.

8. You obsess over mistakes.

Highly sensitive people tend to be conscientious. They have highly-tuned consciences and beat themselves up over mistakes, or even perceived failures. The HSP may obsess over a misspoken or cruel word he or she has said to someone else years ago. HSPs turn these problems over and over in their minds, sometimes losing sleep at night.

9. You don’t perform as well when being watched.

When an HSP performs in front of other people, he or she tends to make more mistakes than if he or she were performing alone. Pressure may cause the HSP to mess up.

10. You hide your emotions.

Some emotions are just too big or too negative to share. So goes the thinking of many an HSP. So the highly sensitive person, when dealing with overwhelming feelings, positive or negative, tends to bottle them up and try to ignore them. Most HSPs have been told that they need to “toughen up” or that they’re “too” sensitive. Non-sensitive people, especially in American society, usually aren’t comfortable expressing their emotions or having emotions be expressed. Especially the deep, staggering feelings of an HSP.

Final Thoughts

If you see yourself in this list, like I did, you are not alone, and you are not too sensitive. You are unique and may be helpful to other people due to your natural empathy. You may be overwhelmed by your emotions or day-to-day conflicts of life at times, but high sensitivity is a “normal” trait, which means the trait is not a disease or disorder. You’re just wired differently.

I wish you well.