There are tremendous advantages to being an HSP! So many of us crave a deeper connection to ourselves and HSPs are often gifted with an internal predilection for developing self-awareness. We can have a rich inner life, finding deep meaning in situations others might skim over. This means that we can often experience great adventure, inspiration or fulfillment in situations that others might perceive as mundane. For example, I took a walk the other day, and felt truly alive; peaceful and inspired in absorbing the majesty of the crisp fall air and the gentle sounds of the breeze rustling through the technicolor trees.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Elannah Cramer. With a degree from Mount Holyoke College and a background in Business Development and Executive Recruiting within the finance, technology, and real estate industries, Elannah Cramer’s focus is now on healing from the debilitating effects of traumatic brain injuries. Armed with a vision of sharing her arsenal of resources and insights, and deep gratitude for the progress she has made, Cramer coaches others struggling with chronic illness and injury. A current resident of Portland, Oregon originally from sunny Southern California, she loves to sit amongst the pine trees or by the banks of a river, play with her fur babies and tinker alongside her husband in the kitchen.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
If you dove into my resume you would learn that I graduated from a Seven Sister College, headed up business development for an investment bank, and as an Executive Recruiter worked with global companies and candidates to create optimal teams. My resume, however, won’t tell you much about who I am, as in choosing a career I wasn’t aware of how much more of myself I could have accessed had I picked roles that harnessed my sensitivities. The non-stop phone calls and emails, instability of long sales cycles, extensive travel, after-hours networking, and inherent multi-tasking was out of alignment with my natural inclinations. I consistently fought against them; the cost of excelling being a pervasive state of overwhelm, depletion, and struggle to find balance.
Due to a debilitating resurgence of symptoms related to past traumatic brain injuries, I was forced to leave work to focus on healing. What has ensued has been a painful, scary, frustrating, and expensive quest for answers within a medical system that still has so much to learn about the human brain and extensive ripple effects of TBIs to other parts of the body. Yet this journey is also full of beautiful insights as it’s pushed me into a deeper connection with me. I am a wiser me, and in so being I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to create a new career at the end of this healing chapter. A career in which I can support warriors of chronic illness or injury to connect to their own power and passions. A career in which my role centers on optimizing my unique approaches to productivity and fulfillment. A career in which I can support others in accessing the very best parts of themselves.
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I understand how hard this is. Can you help define for our readers what is meant by a Highly Sensitive Person? Does it simply mean that feelings are easily hurt or offended?
Many people hear the word “sensitive” and imagine this pertains solely to our emotional responses, yet we’re also more sensitive to physical and environmental stimuli. Dr. Elaine Aron pioneered this field of scientific study and coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). She and her team of researchers have discovered that HSPs make up about 20% of the population and that we’re genetically programmed to have heightened sensitivities across a wide spectrum.
In her book “The Highly Sensitive person” she explains, “The fundamental characteristic of a highly sensitive person is that they experience a low threshold of excitability in the amygdala. In other words, their central nervous system is more perceptive to their environment and as a result, it is more easily stimulated and overwhelmed with sensory information…”.
This translates to having more dynamic reactions to every aspect of life. This could mean a stronger physiological response to being hungry or cold, being more quickly overwhelmed by large crowds or loud music, and we may experience life transitions and interactions with others with more depth of joy or sadness.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have a higher degree of empathy towards others? Is a Highly Sensitive Person offended by hurtful remarks made about other people?
The science has shown that HSPs do have increased empathy. A study conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Monmouth University found “…that areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, particularly those areas connected with empathetic feelings, in the highly sensitive people showed substantially greater blood flow to relevant brain areas than was seen in individuals with low sensitivity…”
The simplistic answer to your question about whether HSPs are offended by hurtful comments is that HSPs are more likely to process all interactions more acutely. Yet nuance is important here. Just like every other person on earth, HSPs are individuals with unique triggers and sensitivities, so what may feel hurtful or positive to one HSP may not affect another in the same way.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have greater difficulty with certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news, that depict emotional or physical pain? Can you explain or give a story?
My husband (who is not an HSP) and I represent the perfect juxtaposition on this. He chooses to be unaffected by things beyond his control, easily and consciously compartmentalizing what happens “out there”. As such, he enjoys ingesting a continuous stream of news, and movies replete with conflict, violence, and gore. I, on the other hand, tend to have strong physiological reactions to not only the content being depicted on a screen, but also to the auditory levels, brightness, and pace of movement. Thus, a movie depicting a loud car chase may overstimulate me emotionally, auditorily, and visually. At times, just hearing loud music or yelling from television can cause my body to have a strong negative reaction, which can manifest as an elevated heart rate, a sense of irritation or overwhelm, fatigue or anxiety. I can absorb some intense stimuli in bite-sized pieces. Thus, I avoid news sources that interweave important info with hyper sensationalism or conflict.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
I had a boss once that for lack of a kinder term was a bully. She thrived on intimidating, embarrassing, harassing, and belittling her team, and in sensing my emotional vulnerability, I became her favorite to pick on. Some of my peers ignored her and simply focused on their work, not giving her a passing thought. Others became more competitive, improving their performance to prove her wrong. There was a group that stood up to her, and then there was me. I found myself in a constant state of internal conflict. As an HSP, I had great empathy for this person that was so clearly miserable; hyperconscious that her egregious, unprofessional behavior stemmed from her own inner pain. Simultaneously, her sharp words, harsh judgments, and micromanaging shook me to the core, resulting in deep anxiety, poor work performance, and even negative effects to my health. Generally a strong-minded, confident, outspoken person, I crumbled under the weight of her toxicity. I was exhaustive in my analysis and attempts to shift the dynamic. In hindsight, the solution of course is crystal clear… I could have simply communicated my grievances to HR and quit working for a company that permitted this behavior. Instead, I was so emotionally and physically consumed, that I simply didn’t recognize my own power to leave.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
As I mentioned earlier research indicates that there is a biological component related to becoming an HSP, and of course, life circumstances, modeled behavior, and childhood trauma or instability can also alter brain functioning to make people more physiologically sensitive. My predilection for sensitivity has been with me from birth; my mother is an HSP and aside from the biological factor inherent in this, my worldview developed through her sensitive eyes. I also experienced instability throughout childhood with an absentee father and a chronically ill mother that struggled to survive financially. In addition, I have survived three traumatic brain injuries, resulting in severe damage to the parts of my brain that control physiological and emotional responses to stimuli. It’s only because of my conscious cultivation of tools and living environment that I am not even more sensitive.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
There are tremendous advantages to being an HSP! A few areas that I’ve personally benefited from are:
Increased Self- Awareness.
So many of us crave a deeper connection to ourselves and HSPs are often gifted with an internal predilection for developing self-awareness. We can have a rich inner life, finding deep meaning in situations others might skim over. This means that we can often experience great adventure, inspiration or fulfillment in situations that others might perceive as mundane. For example, I took a walk the other day, and felt truly alive; peaceful and inspired in absorbing the majesty of the crisp fall air and the gentle sounds of the breeze rustling through the technicolor trees.
We’re pretty easy to figure out:
Those in relationships with us might imagine the need to walk on eggshells or do a lot of hand-holding, yet in some ways the opposite is true. We are naturally inclined to develop the tools to listen to and create what we need. As such, we can be wonderfully self-reliant, and those in relationships with us won’t have to guess how we’re feeling, what may be bothering us or what role we may wish them to play. Simply, once we’ve learned to listen to ourselves, we can just tell you! And if we can’t express why we’re suddenly grumpy, tired, sad or unfocused, it can be assumed that we are simply overstimulated. Help us to get food in our bellies or take us away from loud noises and there’s a near guarantee we will be more pleasant to be around!
We all have an inner sense of knowing. HSPs however, tend to intuit and trust our intuitions more easily. Just like anybody else, it can take practice to have a fluid relationship with intuition, yet once we develop this skill our sense of internal calm and decision-making abilities will improve considerably. I always rely on my gut.
An example comes to mind; my husband who owns a ketogenic cookie company was conducting interviews to hire a Sales Manager. One applicant stood out to him as her resume reflected ideal experience, she interviewed well and seemed to be a good personality fit for his brand. After his thorough interview process was complete he asked me, an Executive Recruiter at the time, to interview her before he made a final decision. In doing so, I saw everything in her that he did; but I could also sense that she was stronger at selling herself than she would be at selling his cookies to retail buyers. I deducted that she possessed strong prospecting and pitching skills, but lacked follow-through. In combining the tangible information she and her resume provided with the nuance in her vocal intonation, coupled with my ability to determine when she was thinking of a response rather than speaking from a place of passion or natural flow and wrapping all that up with a gut feeling, I just knew. I didn’t have words or anything tangible to prove the validity of my assessment. Simply, I knew. My husband did hire her, and very quickly it became clear that my perceptions had been accurate; she successfully solicited many new retail accounts, but her close rate and management of those accounts needed improvement.
As HSPs deeply process and carefully weigh every nuance of a decision, we can be slow to act. Thus if we’re forced to make a quick decision we may get flustered, feel stressed, and doubt ourselves. Yet the effects of weighing every tangible, practical, intuitive, and emotional aspect ensures that big picture we overarchingly make better choices.
Within a few weeks of meeting, my husband just knew I was his person. Whereas he based his decision on emotions, intuition, and the limited information he knew about me, I needed to know the full spectrum of our compatibility; did our humor match up, how do we communicate and handle conflict, finances, and new situations? Do we match up spiritually, intellectually, and are our goals in sync? What about current family dynamics and vision for raising our own family? Early on my emotions matched his, yet it took me several years of growing together through numerous curve balls that life threw our way for me to know that this was 100% right. Once I had ALL of this information and MUCH more, I was able to confidently commit to getting married. Had he pressured me to take a leap before I was ready, there would have inevitably been much more conflict between us as well as within myself. I deeply appreciate that he respected my process, as nearly a decade into our relationship I often refer to him as the best decision I’ve ever made.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
As HSPs feel and process so deeply, we are able to experience life in every color of the rainbow. This story I’m about to share may sound boring to people whose goal is to visit every possible attraction while traveling, but for me, just sitting and observing in a new place can be exhilarating.
On a trip to Amsterdam with friends some years ago, while several of them ran all over town snapping selfies and seeing every imaginable site, I chose to sit by the bank of the Amstel river, and simply take in the goings-on. And I’m so glad I did! I smelled wonderful scents, heard unique sounds, saw a myriad of dynamics playing out between those coming and going, met several lovely people that I keep in touch with still, learned some local history as I overheard several tour guides pass by, and felt wholly at peace in just being; fully present, soaking in this wonderful place. When I close my eyes today, I can still hear the boats gliding by, the wheels of bicycles bumping up and down on the cobblestone streets, and the aroma of stroopwafel wafting through the air. My memories of that day are in technicolor.
Traveling can be a challenge as an HSP, and I consciously structured the trip in harmony with my unique ability to process new information and the need for downtime in between adventures. In choosing this activity over joining my friend, I ensured that I wasn’t depleted once we reconvened. I was open and excited about the next adventure of the day rather than overwhelmed and exhausted. I was able to see those sights later on at a pace that worked best for me, and my friends greatly appreciated that I took responsibility for taking care of myself, as no one wants a grumpy travel buddy!
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Whereas HSPs are wired to be more empathetic than non-HSPs, Empaths actually have the ability to feel the emotions experienced by others; absorbing the joy, pain, stress, confusion, sadness, and excitement of the world around them like sponges. There is scientific research that distinguishes between HSPs and Empaths, though there’s yet more research to be done. We do know that all empaths are HSPs, but not all HSPs are empaths. Whereas HSPs make up about 20% of the total population, empaths make up 25% of the HSP population, and 5% of the total population.
Social Media can often be casually callous. How does Social Media affect a Highly Sensitive Person? How can a Highly Sensitive Person utilize the benefits of social media without being pulled down by it?
Do you remember back in the day when people shared what they were having for lunch and brag about their awesome vacation that you weren’t on? I remember complaining in those days about having to see people’s scrambled eggs; what I wouldn’t give to see my neighbors watermelon salad again! For all of us, and for HSPs especially, social media can be a toxic invasion. Between the violence in the world, political vitriol, false and sensationalized news, and the effects of a global pandemic, news feeds very rarely provide a sense of joy, inspiration, or calm. I am deeply affected by exposure to this, as some posts have actually shaken the foundation of some of my belief in humanity, as otherwise kind, rational people have displayed the worst of themselves.
Yet with a bit of curating, social media can be an invaluable tool for bringing more insight, connection, and joy into our lives. After struggling with how much I was affected by the darkness inherent in social media, I made a conscious choice to engage, follow, and view only people and groups that feel enriching. As a traumatic brain injury survivor, currently managing Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, dysautonomia, and fibromyalgia, I’ve found a beautiful community of people that “get me” on social media. Through conscious choices, I’m able to leverage this tool to improve my life and contribute to improving others’, without taking in the toxicity.
How would you respond if something you hear or see bothers or affects you, but others comment that you are being petty or that it is minor?
At this point in my relationship with myself, I fully recognize and accept that I feel things more acutely than roughly 80% of the population does. As such, should I have a stronger reaction to something than those I’m with, I can confidently and calmly communicate that I may see and feel things differently. As I don’t judge myself, and I approach my unique sensitivity levels as simply part of who I am rather than a deficiency, those that choose to spend time with me are likely to adopt my outlook. The key here is educating people from a place of self-ownership. All of that said, my responses to stimuli are my business and my business alone. Those I’m with only need to know the depth of my feelings or reactions if I choose to share them, so I’m conscious not to make my experiences someone else’s responsibility.
What strategies do you use to overcome the perception that others may have of you as overly sensitive without changing your caring and empathetic nature?
Rumi beautifully stated, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” I learned a long time ago that it’s not my job to change the perception others hold of me, and investing energy in attempting to do so is depleting and counterproductive. With that, if someone is important to me, I of course want our interactions to feel joyful and nurturing for both of us. Thus, when an applicable situation arises, I simply communicate my needs in a straightforward way. For example, if a friend suggests taking a walk, I can say, “I love that idea! I tend to get overstimulated pretty easily, so if we walk in nature instead of in a busy neighborhood I’ll be able to be more present during our time together”. Or, if someone says something to me that feels hurtful, in recognizing my sensitivity to vocal intonation and words, rather than making assumptions about their meaning I might simply ask for clarification on what they intended to convey.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
As a society, we tend to view sensitive people as weak, delicate, and fragile. Yet, the first definition I found for the word sensitive is “quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences.” Being highly sensitive simply makes us more aware and responsive to ourselves, those around us, and our environments; it does not make us neurotic or broken. We can’t “toughen up” or hope our sensitivity away, as this is an innate part of how we were built. And once we learn to work with ourselves, this part of us can become a real gift.
As you know, one of the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person is the harmful, and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that it just doesn’t work that way?
Let’s begin with the belief that most people are well-meaning. With that as our premise, we can imagine that in “advising” an HSP to “toughen up”, the deliverer is really saying that they want us to have a happier, less tumultuous experience in life. Yes, their delivery may be terrible, riddled with their own exasperated judgments. But, let’s bypass the delivery for a moment, and recognize that behind a curt demand to toughen up, the deliverer most likely has our best interest in mind; hoping to help rather than hurt us. You see, when people have limited knowledge of something, their brains automatically fill in the blanks. The neural network of the human brain requires tremendous amounts of energy to run effectively. To optimize efficiency and save energy, the brain combines each limited piece of information we may have on a topic and creates an assumption. The deliverer may have only two pieces of information on sensitivity. The first being that society views sensitive people negatively and the second being that you spend more time upset than you would if you were less sensitive. Thus, their brains naturally conclude that by being less sensitive, you would be happier and better adjusted to comfortably live in society.
Thus, we have an opportunity to shift the dynamic by offering some simple education. We’re blessed to live in a time in which scientific data can explain our sensitivity. We can simply share an article, book, or Ted Talk on HSP to help them understand how we operate and teach them that we aren’t physically capable of “toughening up”. Education is powerful, and once their judgment is replaced with knowledge, you just might be able to create a new dynamic. With that, some people aren’t open to reprogramming their perceptions of sensitive people. If someone is more attached to their beliefs about sensitivity than they are to ensuring a healthy discourse with you, then you may choose to limit your interactions with them.
Ok, here is the main question for our discussion. Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
1 . Being sensitive is not a deficiency. If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this; You are not broken! Being sensitive isn’t something you should feel bad about, try to change, wish away, or judge yourself for. Just like your eye color and height, this is the way you were built. Your sensitivity gives you beautiful qualities that less sensitive people don’t possess, and you can learn to live in partnership with your sensitivity, creating a beautiful technicolor life.
2 . HSPs exist for an important evolutionary reason. Your sensitivity is simply part of how the human species evolved. According to Dr. Aron,
“Sensory processing sensitivity is thought to be one of two strategies that evolved for promoting survival of the species. By being more responsive to their environments, these more sensitive organisms have an enhanced awareness of opportunities (e.g., food, mates, and alliances) and threats (e.g., predators, loss of status, competitors), and thus may be more ready to respond to emerging situations.”
3 . There is tremendous freedom in understanding how your unique brain works Learning about the nuances of how HSPs are built will give you a much better understanding of yourself. Leading researchers in the fields of psychology and neurology have proven that sensitive brains function differently than non-sensitive brains. They’ve discovered that sensitivity is directly connected to the activity levels of the brain regions responsible for the integration of sensory information, awareness, action planning, and empathy. So what does this mean for our everyday life experience? As we’ve been discussing, sensitivity can materialize in many nuanced ways, though the acronym D.O.E.S represents four common areas.
D — Depth of Processing
The insula is the part of the brain that processes enhanced self-awareness and perception, and this part of the HSP brain is more active than the insulas in non-HSP brains. So if you’re slower to the action than those around you, it’s simply because your brain is built to make calculated decisions after thorough analysis.
O — Overstimulation
Have you ever noticed that you pick up on details your friends may miss? As we’re programmed to absorb so much information simultaneously, we can be easily fatigued, overstimulated, and emotionally affected. It’s not because we’re weak or can’t handle stimulating environments, but because we’re absorbing so many nuances at once.
E — Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy
Brain scans have taught us quite a bit about why HSPs tend to be more emotionally responsive and empathetic than non-HSPs. As the insula that we talked about earlier in reference to depth of processing is more active in our brains, and as mirror neurons that allow us to relate to the emotions and experiences of others are more active, we can have a higher degree of empathy.
S — Sensory Sensitivity
HSPs are programmed to be aware and more deeply affected by subtleties within our environments as well as within ourselves. We might notice that the placement of an object has been slightly changed or pick up on the non-verbal cues others may not even be aware they’re expressing. We can be highly attuned to sounds, visual stimulation, smells, fatigue, hunger, and physical sensations; even acutely aware of a sock around our ankle or a slight change in temperature. As such, an overstimulated HSP may struggle to process any new information until we’ve recharged.
4. Cultivate your environment — Working In Harmony With Sensitivity. Try this idea on…You wake up rested and cheerful, followed by a day in which you feel invigorated, productive, fulfilled, accomplished, and joyful. Ok, so environment alone isn’t a magic wand, but in carefully cultivating our space, we have a far better likelihood of achieving the above scenario. Because we’re so sensitive to all stimuli, creating an optimal environment will not only diminish the things that might overwhelm us, but it will allow us to more easily recharge from the things that do.
An optimal environment begins within our bodies. If we are physically depleted, we’re pretty much guaranteed that all of our senses will be as well. So take care of your temple: carry protein-rich snacks to prevent a blood sugar crash, leave your house prepared for a change in weather, and develop a consistent bedtime routine to ensure optimal sleep.
Have you ever found yourself fatigued and felt confused as to why? I used to say, “why am I so tired, I’ve barely done anything today.” Once I learned that HSPs can be depleted by stimuli that we aren’t consciously aware of, my whole relationship to fatigue, irritability, anxiety and instant onset lack of motivation made sense. Thus, making simple environmental changes can have a huge impact on our ability to be productive. Spending time in nature is essential for HSPs! Take inventory of your home, car, workspace, etc., and ensure that the stimuli to your senses are limited: is the room temperature optimal? What about your exposure to jarring blue light from computer screens, televisions, cell phones, and lightbulbs? What about background noise? Are your clothes itchy or too tight? Pay attention to all of your senses and make adjustments accordingly.
Cultivating an optimal environment of course includes choosing to have people in our lives that nurture rather than deplete us. We can’t simply expect people to know what we need, so it’s our job to teach them about how we operate. Share the DOES acronym with family and friends and practice setting boundaries in regards to energy output.
5. Developing new tools — Working In Harmony With Sensitivity. Of course, we can’t always control our environments, and inevitably do find ourselves in situations that are inherently overwhelming to our senses, resulting in a physiological response that may feel like anxiety, irritation, exhaustion, sadness, or even artificially heightened excitement, joy, or inspiration; A birthday party, new job, sightseeing, or being stuck in traffic can all trigger us, as can simply living in a home with other people or pets. There are tools we can develop to regulate our physiological and emotional responses to more comfortably and productively navigate through life.
Every HSP will respond differently to emotional regulation tools, so try different methods until you find what works best for you. Things like Transcendental Meditation, breathing exercises, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy can help us to develop increased bandwidth, a deeper sense of calm, adjust our thought patterns and navigate through strong emotions. There are a host of tools out there so try a few on and see what resonates with you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Millions of people suffer from chronic illness and injury. Some of us are deeply blessed to have family support, access to medical care, and advancements in medicine that lead to healing and hope. Yet others find themselves struggling alone without community or optimism, acutely aware of:
… How violating medical appointments can feel; being poked and prodded, having to repeat our histories and symptoms for the thousandth time to doctors that lead with their egos, charge a fortune, and more often than to not offer new solutions.
… How isolating it can feel when friends and family don’t understand. On the outside, so many of us show no physical sign of the debilitation happening on the inside. Thus we often find ourselves needing to explain, teach, justify, and defend our truth.
… How terrifying it is to feel out of control and betrayed by our bodies, not understanding what’s happening, why, or how to change it.
… How deep the sacrifice may need to be for our families, careers and life goals.
… How expensive good medical care is, with insurance companies often not covering the modalities that we really need.
… How exhausting the endless research to find the right doctors and scientific advances is.
… How nearly impossible it is to be one’s own advocate while experiencing inevitable setbacks from new protocols designed to heal.
I will someday start this movement; to support the chronically ill and injured with resources and hope, allowing them to feel whole again.
Thank you for the time you spent doing this interview.