Life as a highly sensitive person

Julie Staub ’93 details her life living with Sensory Processing Sensitivity.


Courtesy of Julie Staub

Highly sensitive people often have a visceral connection to nature and the arts.

You walk into your classroom, your peers chatting amongst themselves. You notice the subtle inflections in their voices: an undertone of frustration in one, admiration in the other. As you open your notebook to begin your work, the noise in the room and the emotions of your peers are the only thing you can seem to focus on. Your senses are hyper-focused, making you overwhelmed. You have Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity is characterized by a particularly strong awareness of environmental and social stimuli, such as lights, smells, noises and emotions. People who have the trait, known as highly sensitive people, may often be labeled as overreacting to situations. However, there is a biological basis for it. Compared to non-highly-sensitive individuals, people with SPS were found to have stronger activation in areas of the brain that deal with awareness and empathy.

The condition overall affects roughly 20% of people. Substitute teacher Julie Staub ’93 is one of them. Ever since she found out that she was an HSP, she has been educating others on the trait.

Throughout much of her life, Staub felt different and out of place.

“That’s what I always never understood as a young person, like how come people aren’t seeing this? What, I don’t get it?” Staub said. “Their nervous system isn’t designed to take in as much information and that’s a huge difference with an HSP and a non-HSP.”

This ability to notice things no one else did contributed to Staub’s negative self-view. She was easily influenced by outside stimuli which made her internal decision-making difficult and damaged her sense of self.

“That feeling of feeling like something is wrong with me really impacted my self-esteem in my younger years because we’re so influenced by our peers,” Staub said. “I lived all those decades not knowing I was a highly sensitive person and I just felt broken … ‘Why can’t I keep up? Why do I feel so deeply about things?’”

After dealing with the psychological and emotional effects for such a long time, the physical effects of being an HSP caught up to Staub. Because HSPs process so much and don’t always have the right people or spaces to process sensory information, it accumulates and builds up in the nervous system, wearing it out. This can suppress the immune system and lead to chronic illness and pain.

Staub had not dealt with health problems until she turned 40. All of a sudden, everything changed. She developed “mystery symptoms” such as inflammation that doctors couldn’t fit into a diagnosis. However, Staub knew that there was something going on.

“I think my nervous system was like ‘You’ve been in fight or flight for decades’ because that’s a state that HSPs are often in because of being overstimulated and overwhelmed constantly, not knowing that we need to reset our nervous system,” Staub said. “We need a lot more rest. We need time away from people; we need quiet time.”

That feeling of feeling like something is wrong with me really impacted my self-esteem in my younger years. I lived all those decades not knowing I was a highly sensitive person and I just felt broken.

— Julie Staub, HSP Educator

After decades of feeling stuck, Staub found out about the trait, as well as the fact she had it, in 2018. At the time, she was 43. One of the friends she was coaching as a holistic wellness coach showed Staub the documentary “Sensitive” by Elaine Aron, which detailed the life of someone with the trait.

“It was life-changing because basically all my life I felt that there was something wrong with me. I was having an internal experience that didn’t really match with my external experience.” Staub said. “I watched this movie and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s nothing wrong with me.’”

Staub recalls seeing Alanis Morissette, a fellow HSP, in the film. It helped change Staub’s perception of herself.

“It was nice to see someone that I recognized and owned that trait,” Staub said. “At first, you might feel like ‘Oh, it’s such a setback,’ but it’s not a diagnosis. It’s not a disorder.”

Since learning about Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Staub has made conscious changes to her lifestyle to accommodate the trait.

“Instead of forcing yourself and then having two days of recuperation where you get nothing done and you feel worthless, balancing that like ‘Hey, I need to pull back,’” Staub said. “The next day always seems to be like a breath of fresh air. But if you continually just push yourself, and I did that as a young person, that would then turn me into this roller coaster of up and down. I can do better if I’m sleeping well, if I’m getting the rest I need, taking care of my nervous system, meditating, grounding in nature. All of that is really helpful.”

Taking small steps every day to ground herself has helped Staub minimize getting to that feeling of being completely overwhelmed. She has created a routine to help work self care into her daily life. For example, she prioritizes starting the day with meditation, having two hours of alone time and getting eight to 10 hours of sleep each night.

“It’s really important to get my head right before I start my day, because I’m so easily influenced by my outer environment and other people’s energy,” Staub said. “It’s just a lot of taking care of myself and approaching my lifestyle in a really creative way because we can’t do the typical nine to five. We don’t have that hustle culture. A lot of us take that on and burn out.”

Staub has taken on a variety of different types of work and lifestyles, from a barista to photography and art. She finally feels like she’s found a good balance.

“I’m much better self employed, because I can manage my energy. Managing my energy is my number one priority because I’m not on a time clock, I’m on an energy clock. My energy is influenced by my chronic health issues, my level of sleep, my amount of alone time, processing time,” Staub said. “If I’m not getting my needs met, it makes me not very useful for the world. And that’s why I always preach. We have to slow down, and actually slowing down allows for inspired action.”

As a current substitute teacher for West, Staub weighs her challenges with SPS and love for education.

“It is an extremely overstimulating environment, but because I feel passionate about being in the schools, it’s kind of like this bridge. It gives me hope because I can build those relationships that eventually will get me to where I want to go and what I want to do in the school,” Staub said.

No one wants to be labeled sensitive. It’s not a badge of honor. But if you can start to see your sensitivity as a superpower, meaning you start to take care of yourself differently, then [it] allows you to show up and use your sensitivity as a strength instead of a weakness.

— Julie Staub, HSP Educator

Specifically, she wants to educate students, staff and people in general about Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Staub believes that education on the subject is essential for the emotional and physical well-being of HSPs.

“The more you learn about the trait, the more self-accepting you become. Then you’re more empowered, you’re more confident and you’re able to also articulate. Having the language to tell people about this was really important,” Staub said.

Additionally, teaching about the scientific basis of the trait is important to show that it is in fact real and can have real-world impacts on the people that have it.

“I didn’t want it to be vague or woo-woo or something that was just from a personal experience,” Staub said. “There is scientific research. This has been studied since the mid 90s, which is not a long time, and this is why there’s not a lot of awareness of it, because it’s relatively new in that scientific research world.”

Because of these reasons, she’s dedicated her life to teaching people about Sensory Processing Sensitivity. For example, she recently donated copies of The Highly Sensitive Person to the West Library. The book, written by HSP researcher Elaine Aron, contains information about the trait as well as how those with it and those around them can cope with it.

Some ideas Staub has for advocacy include sponsoring an HSP club at West, leading a training program for teachers and doing a summer program for kids with Sensory Processing Sensitivity. It is important for HSPs to do meaningful and purposeful work, and working on various projects surrounding Sensory Processing Sensitivity education has helped her achieve this.

“I’m a visionary, and I have a lot of ideas. I just don’t have everyone around me trying to help. So it’s really just trying to plant the seeds with the right people and keep speaking up. I just feel really strongly about speaking up. That’s a gift that I have and I just continue to do that,” Staub said.

One topic that Staub advocates for is how to best help and take care of people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

“It’s really important that if you love a highly sensitive person, give them the space to process their feelings and emotions,” Staub said. “You want to honor everything that the sensitive person tells you, so don’t dismiss their experience. 80% of people won’t get it. It’s not that they can’t understand it, but that’s not their experience, so it’s really hard for them to understand that.”

She wants people on the HSP spectrum to know that having the trait is not their fault.

“There’s nothing wrong with you. You have an innate biological trait that you’re born with. That’s what that means. You’re born with it so you didn’t get traumatized and then become a highly sensitive person. You didn’t create it yourself. It is something you’re born with,” Staub said.

Additionally, Staub views her trait as a benefit rather than a hindrance.

“No one wants to be labeled sensitive. It’s not a badge of honor,” Staub said. “But if you can start to see your sensitivity as a superpower, meaning you start to take care of yourself differently, then [it] allows you to show up and use your sensitivity as a strength instead of a weakness.”

To learn more about Sensory Processing Sensitivity, take the self-test above.