When I was 13, I used to muck out barn stalls in exchange for horseback riding lessons. I can still remember my fascination one day as my instructor described a young friend who was on the autism spectrum. He could spontaneously play almost any musical instrument (except the violin, which made him laugh too much from the vibrations), and when he drove the stable’s golf cart, he had to turn his face and drive straight by looking sideways.
“Why couldn’t he look straight when driving?” I was confused.
My instructor explained that the sensory input was too intense; looking sideways was a way for him to block out some of the movement and motion. For him, driving with his peripheral vision was a necessary adjustment to help him get from point A to point B. His unique brain functioning meant that he experienced sensory input at intense levels that we would never be able to comprehend.
Highly Sensitive People: Not a Disorder
A growing body of research on highly sensitive people has identified an underlying brain pattern called SPS (sensory processing sensitivity) which is responsible for the stronger reactions we experience in relation to sensory input. However, even though this post started out with a comparison to the autism spectrum, SPS and high sensitivity is not listed in the DSM-5 as a mental disorder. Studies show that 15-30% of the population ranks as highly sensitive – a figure far too large for it to be considered a disorder. Sensory processing sensitivity is different from sensory processing disorder, a neurological condition that relates to incorrect processing of external stimuli. When I first started discovering the studies about highly sensitive people, I had to lecture my husband to make sure he did not use the term “hypersensitive,” which suggests there is something wrong or off-center about people who have this sensory processing sensitivity switched on in the brain.
Sensitivity to Light
There are a number of areas in which sensory processing sensitivity can manifest itself (if you’ve never taken the test, I recommend you head over and take the highly sensitive person test here). Startling easily, sensitivity to loud noises and bright lights, tiring easily from novel or new situations, and noticing the subtleties in the environment that everyone else misses are some of the signs that suggest a high level of SPS. Sensitivity to light is something I’ve dealt with as an HSP, and I think it’s worth discussing.
Photophobia, or extreme sensitivity to light, can cause the following symptoms:
• Pain in the eyes
• Intolerance to light, especially fluorescent light
• Dry eyes
• Eye strain and squinting
• Excessive blinking
In a 2014 study, researchers conducted a survey in which they attempted to correlate photophobia with ADHD. What they discovered was that not only was photophobia reported commonly by individuals with ADHD, it was also self-reported by 28% of respondents who did not have ADHD symptoms. This is interesting, considering that other studies have suggested 15-30% of the population is highly sensitive, an altogether different condition than ADHD.
The pain caused by light sensitivity doesn’t actually occur in the eyes themselves, but is rather an issue involving the eye-brain communication pathway. A 2017 study analyzed the effects of light on migraine sufferers who already reported light sensitivity. By using different colors of light, researchers were able to induce negative emotional states such as irritability, anxiety, depression, or anger. Patients who were exposed to light also reported feeling chest tightness, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea. Individuals with photophobia reported wearing sunglasses more often than non-sensitive respondents, even wearing their sunglasses indoors.
Highly Sensitive People and Lights
Personally, as a highly sensitive person, I am really thankful that I don’t experience light sensitivity to the painful extent of some others. However, I have always been noticeably more sensitive to light than others around me. I squint and comment on the brightness of the sun when no one else is bothered by it, and I can feel flustered if I have to carry out activities while having the sun in my eyes. When I drive at night, I tend to have a very difficult time with the brightness of oncoming traffic and the distracting nature of flashing advertisements. When spending extended time in the sun, I often feel fatigued and sometimes contract a headache.
Oh, and those fluorescent lights – surely I’m not the only HSP who called maintenance to fix a popping, blinking light, only to be told that it’s not broken. 😧
Highly sensitive people do tend to have less tolerance for bright lights, but it doesn’t mean you should build your own hobbit house or walk around with sunglasses all day. Avoiding light can actually make it more difficult for you to handle it in normal amounts. While it may be a good idea to avoid fluorescent lights or unnecessary flashing, sunlight in the eyes is linked to better moods and sunlight in general is important for obtaining vitamin D in healthy doses.
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with light sensitivity without creating an unhealthy dependence on dark spaces.
- Surround yourself with gentle indoor lighting. You might not be able to control those annoying fluorescent lights in your public university or metro, but you can choose the kind of lights you have in your home and maybe in your office. Use warm rather than cool lightbulbs and try to match your ambient lighting to the time of day. For example, in our flat we have a lot of windows, so I work by natural daylight until late afternoon, and then I switch on some soft, warm accent lamps rather than a harsh overhead light. An added benefit is that this also helps support a healthy circadian rhythm by following the natural light patterns of the day.
- Avoid chaotic lights. My husband and I live in a less developed country than our native USA and Germany, and we are always getting a chuckle out of some of the strategies used to grab the attention of drivers on the roads. On main highways, digital billboards are sometimes at a setting so bright that it becomes a safety hazard. Some small shops on the roadside have strobe lights on their awnings. In short, even for a non-sensitive person, driving at night can be an overwhelming experience. This might make me sound like an old cat lady, but I usually don’t go out at night unless someone else is driving, that way I can shut my eyes when necessary. Do you have specific places where you encounter chaotic or flashing lights, like discos, arcades, casinos, or laser and light shows? Do you work in an industry that requires you to be constantly exposed to flashing lights? Avoid what you can to help cope with your light sensitivity.
- Communicate about your light sensitivity to your loved ones. Does your family want you to join them on an all-day excursion to Universal Studios in Florida in July? Tell them that you are happy to go with them, but the movement, noise, and bright sunlight will probably wear you out more quickly than them. Warn them that you may get cranky and tired and you might develop a headache. If you have supportive friends and family around you, they’ll help you create a strategy to have enough down time in a relaxing atmosphere where you can recoup your energy. The more we learn about the effects of high sensitivity, the more my husband is able to understand my needs and help me avoid overstimulation – and when overstimulation is inevitable, he’s able to shrug off my emotional responses because he understands where it’s coming from.
- Get some awesome shades. 😎 I don’t know why I never used sunglasses as a child or teenager. It might have been because I grew up under the shadow of my parent’s bankruptcy and worked odd jobs to buy my own clothes since about the age of 13 – there simply wasn’t enough money left over for accessories. As a highly sensitive person, however, sunglasses should probably be viewed as more than an accessory – they can be a line of defense against overstimulation. I first discovered the benefits of a good pair of sunglasses when I borrowed my friend’s classic Ray-Bans. I ended up giving them back because the weight on the bridge of my nose was distracting, but I bought a more lightweight pair of aviator style sunglasses, which are my go-to for any outdoor activity. (Note: outdoor activities. Do not get into the habit of wearing them inside!)
- Know when it’s a medical issue. Sensitivity to light is one of the features of a highly sensitive person, but there are multiple factors that suggest a bigger underlying health condition. Don’t dismiss your photophobia if you feel that there may be something more serious causing it. Know the symptoms that demand immediate care – especially if you’re a man, it’s important to seek help at the right time. Statistics show that men are less likely to seek medical care – in one study, the consultation rate was 32% lower for men than for women, suggesting that men often wait until they are experiencing very serious symptoms before visiting the doctor. If your light sensitivity is causing blurred vision, fever, confusion, severe pain, or numbness, don’t wait. See a doctor about your photophobia.
Sensitivity to light is one of the features that comes with being a highly sensitive person. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with chucking your fluorescent lights or wearing sunglasses. You do what works for you. I wish you the very best in your journey to finding better ways of coping with the vulnerabilities and channeling the superpowers of being a highly sensitive person. ✌️