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.
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.