Have you heard of the term “highly sensitive person” (HSP)? It is a term, coined by Dr. Elaine Aron, is used primarily in the mental health field and by other physicians to describe people who have a “sensitive system.” This doesn’t mean that they are emotionally sensitive, although it could be a trait in them. HSPs, making up roughly 20% of the human population, tend to notice subtleties in things like scents, textures, temperature changes, and even feel other stimulants such as alcohol and medications more than non-HSPs.
What does this have to do with Catholicism? Nothing and everything. As Catholics, we live out our faith steeped in many beautifully, rich traditions. Just take a look at our Masses and you’ll see what I mean. However, because of our systems prone to being overwhelmed by “excessive” stimulation to our systems, it can be a little rough for us. So, how’s a Catholic HSP to cope? Here are 5 tips for those who suspect they have this trait.
You love the “smells and bells” but they don’t love you back
One of the most common stimulants that will overwhelm an HSP is a strong scent. Now, I love the smell of incense but it can get so intense that I end up feeling lightheaded and brain foggy. Even those who don’t have any respiratory issues may find themselves feeling like they can’t catch their breath. If you find yourself in this situation and don’t want to leave the Mass for one in which incense won’t be used, sit near a window or door. Try to sit as far from the direct path of the thurible as you can. And if you need to take a breath of fresh air, there’s no shame in that.
Similarly, if you find the music a little too loud, sitting at a distance from where the speakers and/or musicians are will help. If you attend the Latin Mass, going to a low Mass can also help if the music from the High Masses will be a bit much for you on that particular day. As for screaming babies… say a prayer for their guardian angel to help soothe them if they’re feeling uncomfortable or sick.
Know your “small” triggers and work with them
Speaking of babies, I love little kids. Unfortunately, this means I’m often distracted by their cuteness during the Mass and not because I want to be. Because we HSPs tend to be unconsciously hyper-aware of changes in our surroundings, we will get easily distracted when the little ones are letting their natural wiggle loose.
As a woman, I’ve found that wearing a chapel veil (mantilla) helps me block some of those distractions by “forcing” me to keep my eyes on the altar. Wearing a veil also helps not let me eyes wander in the direction of sudden noises and other little triggers that can distract us during the Mass.
Can’t or would rather not wear a veil? Try sitting closer to the front. The further back you are, the more of the parishioners’ activities you will see and the more easily distracted you will be. Likewise, sitting on the outer edges can help a lot.
Work with what God gave you
Being an HSP is a gift, but one that can seem like a small cross at times. This when we should both offer things up and also work with what we’ve been given. Does being amongst a lot of people overstimulate your senses? Look for Masses that are less crowded and/or keep the socializing to a minimum. That doesn’t mean you should be anti-social but knowing your limits will help keep you from feeling burnt out. Similarly, if there are other triggers during the Mass that will set your system into hyper-arousal, finding a Mass that won’t have as many stimulants will help.
Create your sacred space to help you grow in your faith with limited distractions
If you live in a noisy neighborhood or are in a season of life where noise and chaos are just par for the course, find ways to create a sacred space in which you can pray. It doesn’t have to be a physical location, though it can be. Having a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones and sacrificing a little sleep to get up earlier than everyone else to have that quiet you need to concentrate have been instrumental to my own spiritual and prayer life.
If you are blessed to be able to have a physical location where you can go to pray, add little touches that will help you. Sacred art to help you meditate on the Rosary mysteries, lighting natural beeswax candles (that are unscented), and little personal touches like a white-noise app or machine (if necessary) can be very helpful as well.
There’s no shame in being a Catholic who is also a highly sensitive person. This is trait we are born with, not one that develops or is even a mental health issue. It is a gift from God that makes us more aware of the beauty he has created. While it can seem overwhelming at times, we can definitely take steps to make sure that the things that can overstimulate us—especially at Mass or when we are praying—won’t keep us from either attending Mass or doing anything that will help our spiritual growth.
Any other fellow HSPs have other tips we could use? Feel free to share them with us!
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