Have you ever been told you’re “too sensitive”? Do you need to recover after a day of being out in the world? Do you notice subtleties that no one else seems to notice? Are you easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation? You may be highly sensitive. This is an innate personality trait seen in 15-20% of the population in which your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply than others. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are often misunderstood and may have a difficult time navigating a world that does not cater to the highly sensitive. Understanding the condition and recognizing that you have it can be life changing. You may consider seeing a therapist who specializes in HSPs or is familiar with the trait, or you can bring your findings on the trait into your current therapy to enhance the work you’re doing. I highly, highly recommend reading Elaine Aron’s book on the subject.
Eating, something we all do multiple times each day, can present with many difficulties for a HSP, so below are 7 things to consider when nourishing yourself as a highly sensitive person:
1. Be Selective
Preferring certain foods over others is totally normal. We all have food preferences, and sometimes we eat foods we don’t really like, or we push certain food items to the side of our plates. However, when you’re highly sensitive, you may not be able to tolerate certain textures, smells, colors, or tastes. Seeing the food might make you lose your appetite, or having the food in your mouth might make you nauseous or cause pain or other discomfort. If you really can’t tolerate something, go ahead and be selective. You don’t need to force yourself to like certain foods. By recognizing your preferences and continuing to honor them, you are taking care of yourself and allowing yourself to nourish your body with other foods that do not bother your increased sensitivities.
2. Avoid Food Triggers
Similar to the sensitivities to food characteristics that bring up various feelings, some sensitivities can actually make you physically ill. Of course, these foods are important to avoid, or work with a trained therapist in exposure therapy if you desire. Some of the common substances you may be more sensitive to include sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. There may also be other food triggers, but these triggers are individualized. There is absolutely no need to eliminate foods which do not bother you based on other peoples’ experiences.
3. Remember to Eat
As just stated, there is no reason to start eliminating all the foods you ever heard were “bad” from your diet. Not all people who are highly sensitive react to the same substances or situations in the same way. However, it is very important for all HSPs (and people in general) to eat consistently. As a HSP, you are more sensitive to hormone fluctuations that occur when you haven’t eaten in a few hours. You are also more sensitive to reproductive and thyroid hormones. Keep all of your hormones in balance as best as you can by consuming small, frequent meals that mostly include a mixture of proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates. Of course, you may also need to consult a physician to address specific hormonal imbalances.
4. Recognize the Need to Recover
All of us can feel overwhelmed after a long day and potentially turn to food (or other substances) for comfort. But when we are highly sensitive, every day can be overwhelming and we may become emotional eaters. In order to not get stuck in the cycle of overeating after over-stimulation, remember that you will need a period of recovery after being out in the world. This may include taking a walk after work, listening to your favorite soundtrack in the car, watching your favorite show at night, taking a nap after dealing with a stressful situation, or taking a bath at the end of a long week. After your nervous system has had a chance to calm down, then you can think about what you want to eat, and chances are, you’re not going to over eat or binge after you’ve had that chance to recover.
5. Get Help for Disordered Eating
I actually laughed out loud when I came upon this quote in Aron’s book: “If you are an HSP with an eating disorder, you are certain to be headed for serious trouble until you solve it.” It’s so straightforward and it’s so true (and could have saved me some trouble). Disordered eating and eating disorders are ways to manage our emotions, and yet we end up completely altering our biochemistry and our emotions are anything but managed. Continue to see your treatment team of therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, and physician or assemble a team ASAP. Seek out higher levels of care, as needed. And be sure to bring your awareness of your sensitivity to the attention of your healthcare providers (although we’re pretty aware of the sensitivities of our clients, but it’s still always good to bring up for the less intuitive professional).
6. Consider Alternative Diets
HSPs often pick up on the suffering of those around them. Often, this can include the suffering of animals. Many people who are not highly sensitive are uncomfortable with the way animals used for food are treated, but they may be able to put it out of mind. However, it is perfectly normal to not be able to put the image or thought of suffering out of your mind when you’re highly sensitive. A vegetarian or vegan diet is not difficult to follow, with so many yummy alternatives, and perfectly healthy (or healthier) when properly planned. It is also very important to keep in mind that there is no “perfect” way to eat that does not harm anyone. You can only do the best you can.
7. Make Meals Relaxing
As a HSP, you absorb the energy around you. If meal times are loud and chaotic, you may experience discomfort after eating, lose your appetite, or eat too much in attempt to quiet the outside world. Whenever possible, eat meals at a table with no other distractions and make the people around you aware of your sensitivities and needs.