Tips For The Urban HSP

Tips For Urban HSPs
Source: Colin Mutchler – Flickr

As an HSP, I sometimes think I must be truly nuts to be living in New York City, a place that seems like the very embodiment of the word “overstimulation.”

Crowded, loud, bright and always on, it can be a nightmare for the senses.

If you let it.

I’ve lived here for nearly 15 years now, and I’ve found ways to make it work. (I have a bit of a dream writing job, and this is one of the only places I can really do it, which is why I don’t leave, in case you’re wondering. Also, nearly everyone I love is here, which adds weight to the case for sticking around.)

 Attitude For An Urban HSP

I think the lessons I’ve learned as a Big Apple HSP can be helpful for all, particularly those who might be living in other, smaller urban environments. I think you have to start by just seeing city life slightly differently than many. Here, I think there’s often a default attitude of, “Only in New York! Gotta love it!” when, for example, you’re on a crowded train at 9 a.m. and all of a sudden theres’s a mariachi band furiously playing, mere inches away from your face.


You actually don’t have to love it. (I suspect very few people love it, but I applaud their generally optimistic ability to pretend that they do.)

So here are a few of the survival tips I’ve come up with to make being an NYC urban HSP work for me.

Protect Your Hearing

1) Get good headphones, and don’t be afraid to use them.
I’ve always been shocked that so many people are willing to put up with the crappy white headphones that come with an Apple product. They make my ears sore after only a few minutes of listening, and they don’t fit well enough to filter out ambient noise (nor do they stop everyone around you from hearing your music, one of my big pet peeves about public transportation these days: if you’re not wearing headphones yourself, you are more often than not subjected to the contents of someone else’s).

No, I’m talking about getting some of those little rubbery ear buds, or, if you’re loaded, a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones (they’re on my wish list). A little of your own curated music can radically change a walk through a chaotic city street, a subway car filled with yammering people and blaring conductor announcements, or a store where four overly cheerful salespeople come up to you within the span of a minute and say, “How ARE you today? Can I help you find anything?” Just point sheepishly to your headphones, as if they are surgically implanted in your head and totally beyond your control, and move away.

2) If you’ve got a smartphone, get a white noise app.
Music is good in many situations, but I find that when I need to really concentrate on reading or writing something, it’s too distracting. My white noise app is the best thing about my iPhone by far. Mine lets me create my own mixes of soothing sounds: beach waves crashing and light rain! Tree frogs and oscillating fan! Or just plain old white noise. Actually, brown noise, which is softer than white noise. Check it out, you’ll see what I mean. Any of these will instantly reduce my HSP stress by half. It’s also genius for hotel rooms while traveling (more on this in my upcoming sleep tips post).

Protect Your Boundaries

3) Make subway rides work for you. As Elaine Aron might put it, use your boundaries. Don’t worry about everyone else’s feelings so much. My instinct is generally to try to make other people feel good, so I’m not all that comfortable saying no or shutting things down even when I really need a break from human beings (which is pretty often).

But I’ve found that in order to stay sane, you have to just power through that instinct and be a little protective of yourself. For example: when riding on the train, someone sits down next to me eating an egg sandwich. She seems perfectly nice otherwise and part of me doesn’t want her to feel like a leper if I get up and move. But you know what? An egg sandwich smells disgusting, and it’s ruining the precious half-hour of down time I have in the morning. So I’m gone.

Ditto someone who’s having a loud, laughing cell phone conversation next to me. Or twitching just slightly oddly in a way that suggests they might be a bit off. Or wearing pungent perfume. Just get up and move. You’ll feel so much better when you do.

Similarly, when I’m leaving work and someone tries to catch me and take the train with me, I generally come up with a reason to split off (“I have to make a call first,” or “I have to run an errand”). I find that when my subway ride gets diverted into chitchat or small talk, I tend to reach my destination feeling depleted and annoyed, which reduces my ability to be present for whatever my next activity was. So I just find non-mean ways of getting out of the shared subway ride.

It’s best for everyone.

The Challenge Of Smelly Air

4) Get an air filter
One of my least favorite things about New York is the smells. And I’m not even talking about the stereotypical pee and garbage aromas, which tend, in my experience, to be a bit overstated. No, it’s the cooking smells that really do me in.

Apartment building living just inevitably comes with having to share the air with other people who like different food than you, and if you’re an HSP, those odors can feel like a punch in the face. Someone down the hall from me must, I think, own a deep fryer, because nearly every night it smells like Popeye’s in the hallway. This is not OK. This smell makes me deeply sad. But I can deal with it, because I have a pretty decent air filter going in my apartment’s entryway. It also just offers some psychological support, knowing I have a little mechanical sentry between me and the olfactory chaos going on outside my door. (In a pinch, I find that a Yankee Candle also works pretty well. Who knew? But it’s nothing compared to an air filter.)

Bottom line, just because you live surrounded by other people doesn’t mean you have to feel violated by their ill-advised culinary choices.

Create Your Own Lifestyle

5) Get a dog
In a way, this might seem odd advice, because a dog does come with its own set of stressors: they cost money, they require lots of attention, they may wake you up barking at absolutely nothing in the middle of the night. But if you get a good one, they can also offer a brilliantly convenient excuse for getting out of things and living a lower-key life than you might otherwise be expected to do as a city-dweller.

Everyone in your office going out for happy hour, and you’re sort of expected to go, even though the thought of being stuck in a noisy bar making small talk makes you want to bang your head against a wall? Don’t sweat it, you have to go home and walk the dog. Sorry! Additionally, your dog will ensure that you must go on multiple rambles around the neighborhood daily, which is a practice that’s highly beneficial for soothing the HSP’s system. Which brings me to my next tip.

6) Live near a park
It doesn’t have to be Central Park (or your city’s version of Central Park). But if you have someplace you can get to reasonably easily where you can be among trees instead of human beings, that’s going to increase your quality of life a whole lot. (As well as your dog’s.) Go regularly. Go every day. Take deep breaths and always know, when you’re in the midst of the urban circus, that this will always be here waiting for you. Don’t live near a park? Make it a habit to walk through one on your way to work, if you can. Get off the train a few stops early and incorporate a park walk into your commute.

7) Get plants
Plants! It’s like having a mini park in your apartment.

8) When all else fails, Xanax.
Just kidding. (Not really.)


  1. says


    I laughed right out loud when I read your words, “Or twitching just slightly oddly in a way that suggests they might be a bit off.” I relate so well to this.

    I enjoy your style of writing and look forward to reading more.


  2. says

    Great article. I often wonder how people can live in a city such as NY. But my sister lived there for over ten years and I loved to visit! I kept saying, I could’t live there.. it wasn’t for me. Well, I also disliked the city I lived in and recently moved out of the city, after living there for almost eight years- entirely too long in my book. But what I enjoyed about your article is that, the way I understand and took it, it doesn’t matter where you live. It matters that you are authentic to yourself, that you set and stand strong to you, that you create boundaries that you find suitable and healthy. I wish I had read this article before moving because maybe I would have thought twice… Thank you for such an inspiring post!

  3. says

    As an HSP who lives right on the border with Cambridge, MA, I completely know what you are talking about! Living in a city is inherently more stimulating than living in the country, but it can be managed. I actually really enjoy living where I do (most of the time) — but I cannot overstate the importance of living near a park, nor of protecting boundaries on the subway.

    • says

      Hi Joanna,

      I grew up in Watertown, and know Cambridge well, since I went through it everyday travelling to Tufts. I always thought that the greater Boston area was OK as cities go. I would have a much ore difficult time in NYC. I live in Maryland near DC, and it is similar to Boston. I need nature for sure, but I find that low rise buildings helps a lot since you get mosre light and sunshine.

      Thanks for your comments.


  4. says

    Hah! I like the “Xanax” “just kidding/not really”. I totally get that. :)

    I lived just outside NYC for a few years and I did find that the craziness got to me after a while. But what a great article!!

    I’ve never had a dog before but I can see how having one might actually reduce stress. (But the idea of adding responsibility to my life is daunting!)

    I do take issue with saying you only have Bose headphones if you are “loaded.” They are like $200-300 right? If you use them all the time, that’s not a lot!

    • says

      Hi Kelly,

      I lived near Boston growing up which is not as crazy as NYC, unless you are driving. I find I do better outside a city or in a small city. I have had dogs or cats my whole life and they have helped me enormously just because they do not have all of the human baggage. I suspect that headphones are a very personal choice, but can see where making the investment in great ones can be very helpful for us sensitives.

      Thanks for stopping by,

    • says

      Hi Abdul,

      There is not a permanent solution because it is not a problem in the traditional sense. Being highly sensitive means that you have certain lifestyle needs in order to come into your own and manifest your unique gifts. Because the world’s economic system is highly aggressive and competitive many HSPs are discovering that if they can develop the skills to start their own business and manage their schedule in a way that suits them, they are able to live more effectively. Living differently is what helps us the most.

      I hope this helps.

      Thanks for stopping by,

  5. Nancy says

    As a lifelong New Yorker and HSP, I appreciate this post not just for the tips but also for the assurance that I’m not alone in facing these particular challenges. I really relate to Sara’s discussion of her need for subway boundaries. I too am exhausted by having to chitchat with anyone during my ride and much prefer being alone so I can put my earbuds in and immerse myself in music or a podcast.

    Speaking of earbuds, those Bose noise-canceling headphones are on my wishlist too. I’ve been (barely) living with construction noise from my neighbor’s renovations for months, and now the new neighbor on the other side is about to start his own renovations! Friends who’ve lived through similar prolonged sensory assaults have recommended the Bose headphones as a way to save what’s left of my sanity.

    • says

      Thanks, Nancy for your comments. I live near DC which is plenty stressful but I imagine that New York is more difficult. I appreciate your sharing your insight on ear protection.

      Good luck through the neighbor renovations.

      All the best,

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