By Andrea Runyan
While college can be an exciting and fruitful experience, it can also be a challenging time for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).
As the first time when many students are living away from home, college presents many potential challenges for the HSP, such as eating dining hall food; living in a dormitory; having roommates; being around loud parties; and not knowing people at first.
College is a crucial time in life and doing well, both in classes and in general life, can have large ramifications for the rest of one’s life. Yet it can be hard to succeed when overly stressed, distracted, unable to sleep well, or emotionally distraught due to issues related to being a Highly Sensitive Person.
Here are some tips to make the experience easier.
Most important thing to keep in mind:
0) Your needs are valid. You are not at college to spend your time and energy learning to adapt to the lifestyles of others. You are there to do well in school and to grow in relationships, activities, self-knowledge, and other forms of development.
You might find that friends and activities you enjoy will comfortably draw you out of some aspects of your sensitivity. For instance, you might find that you don’t mind putting up with something if it means that you can enjoy something else you find that you like.
However, if any issue related to sensitivity is impairing your school performance or your ability to make the most of college, tell people about it and do something to address it!
1) State clearly and boldly in your roommate application that the main (and perhaps only) thing you care about in a roommate is that their lifestyle will not cause undue problems given your sensitivity.
2) Depending on your needs, you might want to request a roommate who goes to bed early, doesn’t play loud music, is not a party person, etc.
3) If you know who your roommate is before school starts, email him or her in advance to ask about things that might be an issue for you given your sensitivities. In my own case, I needed the lights to be out and for there to be no laptop typing when I was sleeping.
4) If you have the option of being in a dorm with older students, such as graduate students, or living off-campus or in family housing, consider these options. Freshman dorms tend to be noisy. Ask around or look online to see how noisy different living options are and request to live somewhere that is not noisy.
5) Apply for special housing through the Disability Accommodation services. You might need a note from your doctor explaining your sensitivity issues (perhaps citing a diagnosis such as anxiety response, etc.). You might ask to live in a quiet graduate dormitory, family housing, or off-campus in a quiet location.
6) Discuss your HSP traits with your RA or residence dean in advance and ask for their advice about what to do if you encounter problems. My own RA had the idea of setting the hall lights on a darker setting at night to give people the signal to be quiet in the hall at night.
7) Wherever you live, find somewhere safe to go if there is too much noise or stimulation. I used to go into the basement tunnels where the laundry machines were. There might be a quiet park, a library, or some other quiet location near where you live which you can go to if the noise in your room becomes too loud.
8) Buy a fan or a white noise maker to drown out noises you don’t like.
9) Consider signing up to see a campus psychologist on a regular basis to help with the transition to college. This person might be a helpful advocate or source of information regarding ways to deal with any problems that arise.
10) Find out if there are any help hotlines. Stanford had a 24-hour peer counseling hotline which I used to call when I was having trouble with noise in my dorm. Some schools have drop-in peer counseling.
11) Have a few self-care activities that you do on a regular basis, such as taking baths, taking a long walk outside, watching movies, listening to music, and being in nature.
12) If you know that there will be a party in the place where you live, make arrangements for a back-up location for sleeping, for example with a friend, in case you are unable to sleep in your normal environment.
13) If you want to enjoy a party but can’t take the noise in the main room, try hanging out in the entryway or nearby rooms where other people might be hanging out.
14) Consult HSP literature for ideas about how to enjoy parties.
15) If the noise and crowds at peak mealtimes are too much for you, consider eating slightly earlier or later.
16) Find friends to eat with for moral support and company.
17) If there are many different cafeterias to choose from, find those that meet your needs, such as being quiet, having the food you like and not having smells or music you don’t like, etc.
18) It is imperative to find a location that meets your needs for studying. Determine your needs (the level of quiet, the type of chairs, the lighting, etc.) and make it a point to study in locations that fulfill those criteria. Don’t waste time studying in places that will not be comfortable or conducive to concentration.
19) You might need to look into alternative options besides the usual study places. Think about open classrooms not currently in use, libraries that don’t get much use, other rooms in libraries, etc.
20) Always carry whatever you need to make a borderline study situation more tolerable, such as earplugs, a water bottle, gum, sunglasses, relaxing music on an iPod, etc.
21) You will likely find that your college professors treat you differently from your high school teachers. Recognize that in college, grading might be harsher, professors might be more critical, and the people running your education might not be as concerned about you as an individual. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you; it is just a different set-up of education.
22) Seek out mentors, whether professors, academic advisers, resident deans, graduate students, or university staff. Find people with whom you can have a supportive relationship.
23) Even while challenging yourself, try to find at least one thing that you can do well.
24) Find other HSPs. With an estimated 15-20% of the population experiencing some form of heightened sensitivity, there are certain to be other people who share some of your traits and preferences. Seeing that other people feel similarly can help you to see that your needs are valid.
25) Join clubs or activities where you can meet other people with similar interests and where you can see the same people regularly so they will get to know you. When people can see what you are like overall, they will see the real you, in contrast to just seeing you when you are asking them to turn down their music, etc.
26) If your school supports students starting their own clubs, think about starting a Highly Sensitive Person club! Other HSPs might thank you.
Andrea Runyan is a writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.
[Lower photo from MSU Counseling Center.]