High Environmental Sensitivity: Signs and Characteristics

High Environmental Sensitivity: Signs and Characteristics
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 February, 2022

Sounds or strong smells, bright lights, crowds of people… These are examples of things that people with high environmental sensitivity might struggle with. High environmental sensitivity characterizes people who experience high-stress levels as a result of certain social, physical, and emotional stimuli present in their immediate surroundings. Far from being something “just in your head”, this condition can affect both productivity and psychological stability.

John Dewey, a well-known American teacher and psychologist, said that our wellbeing depends on how well adjusted we are to social situations. Any changes, small irregularities, or friction create an immediate psychological and physiological instability.

“We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves to exist in this new environment.”

-Norbert Wiener-

For example, being in a very hot room is uncomfortable, so we’ll try to adjust the temperature to our needs. Another example: if you’re walking alone at night on a dark, empty street and hear steps behind you, you’ll feel threatened. This stimulus tells our brain to respond: run, call for help, or turn around and face the attacker.

High environmental sensitivity refers to more severe reactions to your environment. Consider a scenario where a group of people (in a work environment, for example) all feel comfortable together, except for one person. This one person has a lower threshold for sounds. This person is more sensitive to conversations, to the office lights, to the smells from the kitchenette or break room. It’s more difficult for this person to be comfortable socially or physically in a workplace environment that may be perfectly comfortable for everyone else.

High environmental sensitivity: Why do we suffer?

High environmental sensitivity is not a new issue. Curious as it may be, ecological psychologists have spent decades studying how we relate to our immediate environment. They consider the effects of our environment on our bodies, our minds, and our culture.

Authors such as Lazarus, Folkman, and Cohen developed a theoretical model where they explained that this sensitivity is based on a series of very specific conditions. Everyone has tolerance thresholds when presented with certain stimuli. These stimuli are particularly those we can’t control and those we haven’t developed personal strategies to deal with their impact.

Introversion and environmental sensitivity

However, there are also approaches that take into account personality. Consequently, and as an example, Harvard University was able to demonstrate that brains of introverted people show a high environmental sensitivity. On average, an introverted personality type leads to greater attention to daily details. This attention often generates an overload when there is excessive stimulation in an environment.

Accordingly, this excess of stimuli, be it auditory, visual, tactile, etc., causes a higher level of stress and exhaustion in these people. Not t0 mention this other relevant fact: people with high environmental sensitivity also tend to have higher sensitivity to the emotions of others, as well as to anxiety, worries, or fear. These people are able to pick up on these emotions in the atmosphere and are unable to filter them out. This emotional contagion frequently occurs in people with high environmental sensitivity.

What are some characteristics of high environmental sensitivity?

One important thing to remember about this condition is that sufferers can fall within a spectrum. There will be people with greater sensitivity than others. Some sufferers have a threshold that is a little more resistant to the psychosocial stimuli of their environment. Let’s take a look at some of the most common characteristics:

  • Uncomfortable when it comes to bright lights, loud sounds, and certain smells.
  • Startled easily by sudden sounds, like a car braking, a door closing, or a glass breaking.
  • Uncomfortable in situations with large numbers of people. They may also feel high-stress levels in places where many things are happening at once (TV on, conversations happening, children playing, a telephone ringing…)
  • Highly sensitive people are often very affected when they see or listen to bad news.
  • It’s also common for these people to feel angry, sad, or disappointed when they see or read about situations where humanity is unfair of violent.
  • All these emotions can be accompanied by physical problems such as headaches, fatigue, or skin problems.
High environmental sensitivity can cause headaches.

Ways of dealing with high environmental sensitivity

We already know what environmental sensitivity is. Now, how do we deal with it? The best way to respond to this condition is not by avoiding what causes us stress. We can’t control everything in our environments. We can’t, for example, turn down the volume of traffic, or ask people to stop talking or leave the area we’re in. It’s impossible for us to create ideal environments to avoid problems with sensitivity. Nowadays, most environments are characterized by hyperstimulation and unpredictability.

Rather than looking to solve the external factors, we should instead work on what is happening internally within us. There are ways to minimize the impact that these stimuli have on our minds and bodies. The best way to handle hypersensitivity is to work on our emotional and sensory defenses against stimuli.

Techniques to manage environmental sensitivity

  • Identify what your stressors are. Consider how to defend yourself against them. (If it’s light, put on sunglasses. If it’s sound, consider some noise canceling headphones).
  • Work on relaxation techniques or try to focus your attention elsewhere. For example, if you get overstimulated by large groups of people, train yourself to look at a fixed object when you start to feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s a ceiling, a window, a painting, or an advertisement on the street, focus just on that object. While you’re focusing, work on your breathing and try to relax.
  • Give yourself set times throughout the day to take a break. Sometimes you might only need 5 minutes every hour to relax your mind. Get up and walk around a little. Go somewhere quiet or even give yourself a few minutes to meditate.
  • Finally, to avoid emotional contagion, it’s necessary to stop focusing so much on other people. Instead, start to become more aware of what’s going on emotionally inside yourself. Focus more on your own emotions and work to protect yourself against the influence of other people’s emotions. Don’t let other people’s emotions change how you feel. Work on remaining calm regardless of what’s happening around you and focus on your own mental state.

In conclusion, everyone is sensitive to their environment in one way or another. However, the goal is for these external stimuli to affect us as little as possible. By finding ways to filter out the stimuli and protect ourselves against social contagion, we can prevent high environmental sensitivity from affecting our productivity, efficiency, and emotional state. It’s all about finding the techniques that work for you.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.