Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: February 2009
By school troubles I mean grades and studying. The good news is that being an HS teen, you are gifted. I use that term a little loosely because, officially, “gifted” means in the top 3%, and HSPs are 15-20% of the population. But you are probably creative, intuitive, curious, careful about details, eager to please others (such as teachers) and aware of how to do it, conscientious, adaptable, humorous, able to sense what is going on in a situation, unusually appreciative of the arts and music, just plain smart, and concerned about social justice and the world’s problems. Or at least you are some of these, and even having half of them should qualify you as gifted.
Given the above, you are probably doing well in school. But maybe not. And whether you are or not, the bad news is that your sensitivity, helpful as it is, can also make you more vulnerable to certain problems. These can make it hard or impossible for you to display your talent in a school setting. You may be too bored, overstimulated, overworked and nervous about how you will do, uncomfortable socially, generally upset or depressed, worried about the problems in the world or at home, struggling with low self-esteem, distressed that school is so much about competition (often with cheaters), or choosing to play dumb rather than be called a nerd. Highly sensitive teens are prone to all of these.
Let’s look at the first three problems, since the others have been mostly covered in the other parts of this series. Those three are boredom, overstimulation, and overworking due to being nervous that you will make a mistake.
Let’s face it. School is largely a form of babysitting, a way to keep teenagers occupied while they grow up. That is one reason why so much in a classroom is about controlling the troublemakers. They are bored, and making trouble livens things up. That is probably not your response to boredom, but you may still suffer from it, more quietly.
Being sensitive, you probably can guess what teachers will say before they say it. You grasp a subject without needing to read all those words. The problem is that every lesson or textbook has to go slowly so that even the most easily confused will understand it. (If you are in gifted classes, of course, all of this is another story.) Boredom can be the worst part of school for a sensitive person.
One solution to boredom in ordinary classrooms is to ask if you can take a subject like geometry or psychology on your own, reading the book and passing the exam. See if your school is up to the challenge of being that flexible.
You also might be able to study and, at sixteen, pass one of the exams for a high school diploma. Search the web for “high school equivalency exam” to learn about this. But if you want to go to college, you have to check to see whether the schools that interest you will accept this form of high school exam and which exam they prefer–there are several.
You can be home schooled, and if your parents are too busy to be involved, you can plan your own curriculum and let people who would know decide if it will prepare you well enough for the SATs — the next hurdle you have to jump through if you want to go to college.
Again, you have to research these last two options carefully. Do not take my word for it being okay for your future.
Otherwise, if you are bored you will probably have to tolerate the classroom, but your mind needs feeding in other ways. My own view of it is that education is now too much about training people to fit the needs of society, to fit the cogs in the machine. Besides not being the best thing for society in the end, it’s bad for students. They care less about learning and more about passing. Students have come to fear that they must choose a standard career and a high paying one at that, and do it fast, if they are going to be assured of a job. But a sensitive, creative mind deserves more time to explore all that is out there to learn and do. That may mean learning more on your own.
The internet is your classroom, library, and internship combined. Curious about something? Read about it (at a reliable website such as those provided by universities to their students). Or go to the library and browse through the nonfiction. Pick a book that calls out to you and read it, on your own. If you choose well, reading it will not be work, but play. Not wasted play either–the book will probably eventually help with some future school assignment as well.
Your future career should also feel mostly like play, not work. Far more than non-sensitive people, to be happy you need to work at your “calling.” You have to make a living of course. Many sensitive people would like to work in one of the arts, but don’t expect enough money to live on. For every 1 artistic job, 7 people are trying to get it, so they accept low pay and must deal with stiff competition. You will be happiest and most successful if you can find a career in which your own greatest joy intersects the world’s greatest needs. Or close to that. For example, if you like music, use your creativity to figure out what people need or want concerning music that they do not have yet? If you like the out-of-doors, what do people need there that no one else is providing?
Some person who liked dogs came up with a brand new profession: dog walking. You can probably think of something like that too. Sensitive people are often especially happy self-employed, by the way.
But mostly put aside career choice at this time of your life and simply aim to learn something new every day. Look into things you know nothing about. Every bit of it will be useful eventually. My son and I are both writers. After one of us had gone through something dreadful, such as his working for a collection agency, we came to say “Well, no experience is wasted on a writer.” And after that experience, he wrote a play set in a collection agency.
Dabble in music theory, geology, nanotechnology, Mali politics, the history of Holland, or the asteroids most likely to strike Earth. As you broaden your mind, everything you do will be more interesting and creative. And when you are bored in class, you will have a brain full of interesting things to think about.
Even if you are often bored in school, you probably also suffer from overstimulation when you are there. Stimulation is everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, plus all of your thoughts and emotions, plus whatever you are feeling in your body at the time–hunger, pain, cold, heat, or sore muscles. Stimulation can be too much by being too intense, such as loud noise or a stone in your shoe, or too complex, such as reading chemistry, or too new, such as the first day of school, or even too small or subtle, as when you have to strain to hear or see something.
No one does well when overstimulated. They do not feel good or perform well at anything, from chatting with a stranger to scoring in a tight game. Overstimulation makes you feel nervous, and that feeling then really can make you nervous, because you sense you are not at your best. The problem for you is that, being highly sensitive, you begin to feel overstimulated sooner than others because you are always processing things that others may not have even noticed.
Overstimulation is something you may hardly notice. Fortunately, at your age you can handle stimulation better than you could as a child or will in your thirties and older. There’s just something about the brain at your age that makes it that way. Further, you are trying to fit in with people who are not as bothered, so you try not to notice being overstimulated, even though you know you are growing up at a time when there has never been more stimulation.
But if you do have trouble that might be caused by overstimulation, at least it is perfectly normal. Being aware of subtleties, of course you are easily overwhelmed when things are not subtle. It is absolutely normal for you to reach a state of overstimulation sooner than others. But we all perform best and feel best at our optimal level of stimulation, and it can be frustrating that what bothers you will give some of the non-HSPs in your class only a twinge of excitement. They thrive under pressure, on stage in front of an audience, or during a big test.
Signs of Overstimulation
Here are some of the signs that you might be overstimulated:
- When you go to do something like performing before an audience, speaking in class, taking a test, or competing in a game, you do worse than you did by yourself practicing or studying.
- When there is a lot going on, you feel some place inside that you are swirling in noise and confusion.
- You can feel anxious for no reason (again, anxiety and overstimulation feel similar). Maybe you’re shaky or have a churning stomach, too.
- Sometimes you want to just turn it all off. You feel spacey, irritated, or hopeless. Maybe you think, “I can’t take any more of this.”
- At times you’re so speeded up that you feel you’ll never settle down, and then you crash later. (Someone may think you’re “bipolar,” but this does not happen to you when you are not overstimulated.)
- After a stimulating day, you have more trouble than others falling asleep that night, and the busier your day was, the more trouble you have.
- When your school is noisy and chaotic, you dread going there or try to find a quiet place to hang out, such as the library or outdoors somewhere.
- Sometimes you have a headache or feel sick to your stomach, but you know you aren’t exactly sick. You know it might be stress-related, but you aren’t aware of any specific stress.
- To cope with overstimulation, you feel like you have to take something– anything from caffeine and sugar to alcohol, marijuana, or pills you’ve been prescribed.
What can you do? First, recognize it for what it is. You aren’t afraid. You are just overstimulated. This is good to know. A study was done in which shy women students each individually met the same handsome man while both were supposedly being tested for the effects of very loud noises. When the shy women were told the loud noise would make them feel as if they were nervous, they were confident with the man. They did not think of themselves as shy. They had another way of understanding their pounding heart, damp palms, and churning stomach. Under these conditions, too, the good-looking guy could not tell the difference between the shy and other non-shy women he met in the same situation. When asked afterwards, these women said they would even like to repeat the experiment. But when another group of shy women in the same situation were not told that the loud noises caused any physical sensations, they were, as was usual for them, very shy with the young man.
The point is that certain feelings in your body are typical of overstimulation and it helps to remember they are just that, not signs that you are feeling shy, afraid, nervous, expecting to fail or anything like that. Knowing that, you can begin to think of ways to handle overstimulation.
A bad way to handle overstimulation (or any other problem) is to use anything you take into your body, like sweet foods or alcohol, that makes you feel better fast. Anything you take in that changes your mental state within a few minutes or hours will become addictive. That is, you will need more and more to get the effect, it will help less and less, and you feel terrible without it. Anyone who smokes or drinks coffee will tell you that. But the greater problem is that your brain is still developing, and if it develops while adapted to some chemical, you may need it all your life.
Your Inner Gas Tank
HSPs tend to be low on serotonin, a chemical in the brain you may have heard of because of “serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (which by the way do not change you suddenly and are not addictive). Although it may seem that being low in serotonin is simply a bad thing, a flaw–it isn’t. Science is beginning to discover why, but I will not bother you with that here. What matters for you to know is that stimulation of any type uses up serotonin. I will call it the gas in your tank. And once it is empty, you feel bad, perform poorly, and find almost anything more to be way overstimulating.
The good news is that you probably start each day with as much gas as the next person, but you notice more and feel more. You stop at every stop, you might say, and so you don’t miss anything. But it takes more gas. You need a full tank in order to manage everything a school day demands of you. Fortunately, when you are resting or asleep, the tank refills. So here are some ways to keep it full during your day, or at least not empty it:
- Cut out unnecessary stimulation. For example, close your eyes when you can. Listen with your eyes closed if you will not fall asleep. 80% of the day’s stimulation comes in through our eyes, and the world is constantly asking us to look at something, especially advertisements and instructions. Don’t read them if you don’t need to. Save gas for when you need it.
- Take short breaks often. Slip out and take a look at the sky, go for a short walk, call home and say hi, or do whatever relaxes you. Drink some water, eat a snack.
- Take down time everyday. Turn off your cell phone. Turn off the music. Turn off the computer. Don’t plan every minute. Say no to what’s not important to you. HSPs need more time than others just to digest experiences. You can’t do it all during sleep, as others do. When you take down time, you don’t have to think about what’s happened. Just veg out, or do mindless chores like putting away the dishes, washing the car, or folding laundry. Exercise works, such as swimming or walking, if it does not require concentration. Learn to meditate.
- Take care of your body. Hungry? Sleepy? Headache? Been sitting too long? Fix it before it begins to drain you. Be rested. Eat breakfast. Go to school with a full tank.
- Be near a friend— social support can reduce the effects of overstimulation.
- Plan some rest time after anything that is highly stimulating, even if it was fun.
- Divide your supply into thirds: Gas for the morning, afternoon, and evening. If you run out early, take a break.
- Complain, nicely, when you are tired and need to recover. Others can’t guess.
Overwork and Nervousness about Performing Well
For many reasons having to do with your sensitivity, you may overwork yourself. That means your life is out of balance. You do not spend enough time relaxing, being with friends and your family, sleeping, exercising, and being out of doors.
If studying is what you like best–or being the best is what you like best–then balance will be difficult. But you can see the need for it. You simply have to use your will power and trust that you will more likely gain the results you want by keeping that balance. It’s true. Sensitive people often arrive at their greatest insights while relaxing or doing something else. Further, you have to see a subject within the big picture of life to understand it fully.
Is the problem that you have to be the best? Why do you have to, really? Who told you that? Who do you think would not like you if you took more breaks and did less well?
If it’s not being prepared that makes you nervous, then it is more difficult to get that balance because you are being driven by fear. As I have already said, overstimulation is usually the cause of your not being able to do as well as you know you can. After that happens once, you are anxious that it will happen again. Often if you reduce overstimulation, you will be less likely to fail and your anxiety will start to fade.
What else can you do about anxiety? First, consider your strengths–what you do well. That keeps your particular challenge in perspective. It helps with that common thought, “I can’t do anything.” Sure you can. Maybe you can’t be the best at everything or as good at something as someone else, but there are certain things you do very well.
Also consider who sees you as successful or simply likes you. That helps you avoid thinking “I’m no good.” These thoughts always appear when we are nervous, and probably you can’t shut them down entirely, but even a little less of them will help.
Second, try to be realistic. Will you really fail? Maybe you know you do not have much to worry about, but you are still nervous. Try asking yourself if you would be willing to bet a million dollars on either failing or succeeding. If you have to bet that you would succeed, stop studying so much.
Sometimes we displace our fears. You could be worried about your father’s health and not be thinking about that, but find you are unusually worried about your grades right now. If something like this is going for you, at least worry about the right thing.
If you still think that you are going to fail at something, try to avoid doing this particular thing. HSPs are more affected by failure because we learn so well from mistakes–sometimes too well. Perhaps you can do a smaller step, such as taking a class that is not so difficult. Others may tell you that you ought to try, but again, for a sensitive person it’s better to be fairly sure of success.
Sometimes you can reduce your anxiety by just telling the person or people who make you feel anxious. If I’m anxious when I stand up before an audience, I tell them. Others will tell you that you should never do this. But I also tell them that I know I will improve once the overstimulation from the novelty wears off. And I do improve, partly because I took the pressure off. So if you tell a teacher ahead of time that you are sure you know the material but always do badly on tests, he or she may see a solution. Even if the answer is that you have to learn to take tests, at least this teacher will understand better if you do not do well.
If you must do what you fear failing, try to scale down how much it matters to you. Try a little “so what,” if you can do it honestly. Whether you say it to yourself or to others, it doesn’t work unless you really can see that in the Big Picture of Things, this really doesn’t matter that much. So ask yourself if a year or five years from now you will care how you did. Maybe you are thinking that if you fail a test you will fail the class, and if you fail this class you will fail others, or have a low GPA, and then you will not get into college, and so on.
Actually, many, many people have never completed high school and went on to great success, including William Faulkner, President Andrew Jackson, anchorman Peter Jennings, a former New Zealand prime minister, several famous scientists, and many, many actors, including Lucille Ball, Julie Andrews, and Whoopi Goldberg (smart women). Google “famous people flunked high school.” Maybe that can calm you down.
The same is true with SATs. It’s easier with good scores, but if you want an education in order to do something you feel passionate about, you will get it, on your own if necessary.
What if “so what” is not true? It does matter, to you or others, or it will greatly affect your future? Then face that fact, and that your fear and the overstimulation that is the cause or result may mean you will do worse than you actually can when not under pressure. That may just have to be how it is. I knew an athlete who broke Olympic records at small meets but failed at the crucial large ones–too overstimulated. At least some people know how great she was.
But you know more now about overstimulation than she did; you can fight back. A good way to conquer it, paradoxically, is temporary overwork. You can over-prepare by learning the material, the speech, or the movements required until you can do it in your sleep and then some more. It will be boring, because you already can do it when not under pressure. But if this will save you from failure, it will be worth it. Gradually reduce this over-preparation when you feel sure of yourself. In the future you may actually work less because with each success you’ll be more confident that you already knew what you needed to know.
To become a clinical psychologist, I had to pass an oral exam. I memorized answers to every possible question until I hated every word of them. My husband and I would go for a walk or a drive and he’d ask me those questions. I was terrified during the exam, but I passed: Somebody with my name was saying those stupid memorized words.
Remember that overstimulation is what forces you to fear failure and therefore have to overwork. So another strategy is to reduce the rest of the stimulation in the situation in which you will be tested or asked to perform. Make it familiar. Practice taking timed tests. Time yourself at first, then have someone test you and become increasingly strict-sounding. If you can, get access to the room in which you will have to take the test, or a room like it. Take a timed test there.
I took a course to help me with my oral exam, and at the end there was a mock exam in a hotel room like the one where the real test would be. If you have to give a speech or fear speaking up in class, do it first in an empty classroom. If you will perform on a stage, insist on a dress rehearsal on the same stage.
Another form of novelty, and therefore overstimulation, is simply having an audience. If it’s hard to give a speech in class, give it to a group of friends or family first. If that makes you anxious, good. Better to get over it there.
Study your fears of the event itself in detail. Are you afraid of the reactions of certain people? Afraid of what your friends will think? Afraid of panicking during the test or while speaking? What would you do? You could apologize, say this sort of thing is still new to you, and sit down, or maybe find you can go on.
For years I believed I could never do the required dissertation defense for my doctorate. After I knew I was an HSP, I did pass. But one thing I did that helped me was imagine the worst possible thing and what I would do. I took it to the ridiculous: What if someone heard me talking and vomited in disgust! I also counted on three big problems arising that day, and they did, and I just said, “There’s one.” Then, “there’s two.” Finally, “good, the third.”
Another approach is to notice and work with your anxiety while you are studying for an exam, taking a practice test at home, or preparing a speech. Notice the anxious voice in your head. Stop and write down its fear and a good, rational response to it. When you have calmed the voice down, go on until you hear it again. Some part of you thinks you truly are in danger. It deserves an answer rather than being shoved down where it will go on mumbling and influencing you.
HSPs see things differently. We can see the long-term effects of something. We can sense what will work, and what will not. We think things over before we do them or recommend them. We consider how something will affect others, including those far away. The world needs our view of things, but it does not always respect it. The more you learn, and perhaps earn advanced degrees, the more you will gain that respect.