Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, M.D. discusses why a highly sensitive person’s brain may make decisions differently.
Decision-making can be difficult for anyone, but for people with a high level of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), or highly sensitive people (HSPs), there can be an added layer of stress.
Because HSPs’ brains are wired differently, the way they process information and come to a decision is different from people who don’t have high SPS.
They take more time making decisions, and can feel overwhelmed when asked to make a particularly tough one.
Ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have experienced an increase in difficulty when it comes to making decisions, even those small, seemingly trivial day-to-day ones.
Decision fatigue has hence become more prominent in people’s lives, and HSPs are feeling that fatigue at an even higher level.
Making Decisions as an HSP
About 20% of the population are HSPs. HSPs tend to think about everything very deeply and have higher levels of SPS, making them more sensitive to stimuli both around and inside them.
SPS varies by individual and measures the sensitivity of the central nervous system. It affects how someone responds to physical, social, and emotional stimuli.
Due to their high SPS levels, HSPs’ brains process information differently.
Research was done to study how HSPs make decisions and how it differs from the rest of the population. The results show that HSPs like to think thoroughly about a situation before coming up with a solution or decision.
Participants in the study were asked to solve ethical problems by either thinking through the situation thoroughly (deliberation method) or coming up with a practical solution to the problem (implementation method).
HSPs performed better when they were able to make decisions using the deliberation method, where they could use their natural thought process to think through the problem and come to an ethical decision.
People with low SPS performed better with the implementation method, where they came up with practical, concrete solutions to the problem.
Lori L. Cangilla, PhD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in helping HSPs live and grow mindfully, explains HSPs’ natural thought process when making decisions.
“HSPs naturally use their depth of processing to take in large amounts of information from the environment and relate it to their internal experiences. This decision-making process tends to be slow, methodical, and in many cases, connected to the HSP’s intuition.
“As a result, HSPs who are making decisions this way are likely to make better decisions for themselves than if they are pushed to make decisions quickly or with little information,” she says.
The HSPs who participated in the study were able to use their empathy with the deliberative method by considering others’ feelings and perspectives while questioning their own judgment.
They struggled with the implementation method because they were not able to make decisions based on how they thought the consequences would affect others.
Why Making Decisions Can Be Difficult for HSPs
Anyone can have difficulty with making decisions, but HSPs have a higher chance of struggling. HSPs not only react intensely to external stimuli, but to internal stimuli as well.
They tend to bring their own emotions and perceptions into every situation, and making decisions can take more time and effort.
Zishan Khan, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says that HSPs tend to put more weight on decisions than others do.
“Because HSPs process various stimuli in much greater detail than others, any decision, regardless of whether it is big or small, ultimately becomes more heightened in importance due to the impact such choices have on the HSP’s overall state of being,” he says.
As a result of using more energy to make decisions, flooding can occur in HSPs, where they feel overwhelmed by certain things others may not be bothered by.
Flooding is very similar to sensory overload, when one or more of the five senses get overstimulated.
Flooding can be emotional or mental, and overwhelming stimuli can include strong scents, loud noises, bright lights, intense emotions, and important or tough decisions.
When dealing with a particularly difficult decision, an HSP can experience flooding and it can feel like their brain is “shutting down.”
Processing information can become difficult, and an HSP might withdraw mentally. Their brain seems to go into overdrive, and it can be hard for them to focus on a specific situation or access their decision-making abilities.
Cangilla calls that feeling of shutting down “analysis paralysis,” and notes how overstimulation can interfere with making any decision.
“Noticing subtleties can be helpful when making a decision, but if the HSP isn’t able to filter out some stimuli, they may struggle to make sense of the sheer volume of information and emotion they’re encountering.”
COVID-19 Affected Decision-Making
Decision-making is about assessing the balance between risk and reward. Our brains consider consequences, rewards, and any potential risks.
We usually think through these elements quickly, but when it comes to an HSP’s brain, things may take a bit more time.
On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic made that balance between risk and reward harder to determine. Things that weren’t considered “risky” before the pandemic suddenly are, and the stakes are higher.
According to the American Psychological Association, 55% of people said that they experienced more difficulty making daily decisions since the start of the pandemic, and 54% said they experienced more difficulty with major decisions.
“It’s hard to know how to weigh the various aspects of a decision when so much is new and unknown. In the pandemic, we’ve also been swamped with information, opinions, and emotions. This flood of stimulation can overwhelm anyone, but HSPs may be especially vulnerable,” Cangilla says.
With the added stressors of a pandemic, decisions have new consequences for people to consider. Is your health at risk? Are others’ health at risk? How do we go about making daily decisions with limitations?
Tips For Making Decisions As An HSP
Take your time
Thinking slowly and carefully about a decision can be helpful for an HSP. A decision made in haste may lead to more regret.
Take the time to write up a list of the possible consequences, the pros and cons of a decision, or any risks involved.
If a decision has to be made in a limited amount of time, try not to pressure or rush yourself, because the stress of a deadline may make it even more difficult to come to a decision.
You can even try asking for some extra time to think on a decision.
“Requesting time to deliberate before announcing a decision can help HSPs feel less pressured and promote calm thinking,” Cangilla says.
Know your needs and values
An HSP often thinks about how their decisions will affect others’ emotions and lives. Though empathy is a strength, it is also important to remember that you are making decisions for yourself too.
Self-compassion is important for HSPs, and it can be helpful to talk to yourself like you would talk to a close friend.
Cangilla says that knowing what matters most to you and putting yourself first can help make that decision-making process easier on your nervous system.
“Having a strong sense of your values, boundaries, and resources can help HSPs through the decision-making process. For example, knowing that you will only buy organic products can greatly reduce decision fatigue at the grocery store.”
Sacrificing your own needs can lead to unhappiness, and balancing your needs with others’ needs is key. Try not to feel guilty for your decisions, and trust that you have thought them through and are willing to commit to them.
Remember that it’s not all-or-nothing
For an HSP, making a decision can sometimes feel like a be-all and end-all situation. The good thing is, for the most part, that isn’t true.
HSPs should try to remind themselves of that fact, advises Khan.
“HSPs must remind themselves, or have someone they trust available to remind them, that they are not making a life or death decision in most instances, and the results of their choices do not actually alter the world or their own lives in the ways HSPs tend to believe they will.”
If you’re stuck between two choices, you can try to think of a compromise between choices or come up with a backup plan to put yourself at ease.
Keep in mind that most decisions aren’t forever, and you have the strength to deal with any consequences that come with a decision.
Talk it out
Carrying the burden of making a tough decision can be heavy and tiring. HSPs can overthink things, so it can be helpful to get another perspective.
Approach someone you trust and talk about what is making it difficult to decide on something. Talking about it with someone may help you see it from a different point of view, and it can also help you come to a decision by just discussing it out loud.
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