Do you get overwhelmed in environments with loud noises, bright lights or in crowds? Do you require a lot of time to reflect and process ? Do you cry often? Do you feel others’ emotions as if they are your own?
If so, you may be a highly sensitive person.
Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) are those scoring highly on the scale of the scientific term Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
The terms were coined by Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person which was first published in 1996. Since then research has suggested as many as 20% of the population identify as a HSP and the gender distribution is equal. Also, though one might expect a HSP to be an introvert there is only a slight bias towards an introverted preference – around one third of HSPs are extroverts.
The ‘sensitivity’ of a HSP can be emotional or sensory in nature – for example being easily overwhelmed by busy places, being very aware of the ambient temperature or the texture of a fabric, above average sensitivity to pain or even to caffeine! Emotionally, being extremely attuned to the emotions of others, experiencing intense emotion, being moved to tears easily, being deeply affected by art and music and ruminating on how you affect others often are traits. The trait has been found in over 100 animal species too – it is proposed to have some evolutionary advantage as these animals will observe more than usual before acting which could protect them from danger.
You can take the test to see if you are highly sensitive here.
Being a HSP has a neurological basis: having a hypersensitive nervous system. For example HSPs have been found to have a genetic variation causing lower levels of serotonin. Though this may predispose them to depression as serotonin levels naturally decrease during stress and HSPs have less of the neurotransmitter to begin with, the variation was found both in humans and ‘HSP rhesus monkeys’ to improve memory and overall cognitive performance and the ability to learn from positive experiences. It also seems that HSPs’ upbringing affects their adult dispositions more so than other children, with either very positive or negative outcome in terms of life outlook, self esteem, relationships etc.
Some cultures are more accepting of the HSP trait than others. If a child is raised for example, being belittled for crying easily or not wanting to join in loud games with peers, they may develop a belief that there is something wrong with them rather than recognising the abilities that accompany being a HSP.
As a HSP myself, most of the time I don’t actively think about my sensitivity as I have organised my lifestyle to accommodate the preference. Nonetheless, in the busy world we live in we inevitably we come face to face with situations that highlight the challenges of being a HSP. Although knowledge of what it means to be a HSP is becoming more widespread some HSPS without that knowledge go through life perceiving themselves as somehow flawed and don’t learn to harness their unique potential and cultivate a lifestyle that suits them. Since HSPs are in the minority the best thing we can do if we identify as a HSP is to understand ourselves better in order to be able to educate others and to speak our minds when a situation goes against our needs. If you are not a HSP, since chances are you have a HSP loved one this guide could be useful to you too. Without further ado, here are the three top problems I have personally faced as a HSP and how to overcome them:
Reacting badly to criticism
Watch how you word your critiques to a HSP. It is easy to wound them deeply with harsh statements and they tend to feel guilt and shame more intensely than others. For example if someone had accused me of being selfish I would have found it very hard to forgive myself – even if the action I was berated for was born of good intentions and I had spent hours analysing the situation before deciding on that choice. Thoughts that may pop up for the HSP when critiqued include:
‘Why didn’t I see it from that angle?’
‘Am I a bad person?’
‘Does this person hate me?’
‘Have I failed them? Have I failed myself?’
Reading the statements it is obvious they are irrational. HSPs may know that nobody is perfect but their sympathetic nervous system is activated more strongly to the stress of the criticism, leading to a potential loss of rationality.
If you are a HSP subject to criticism try to remove yourself from the situation mentally and separate the action or work that is being analysed from your identity as a whole. For example, if your tutor hands back your essay and says your argument in paragraph three isn’t relevant they are not telling you you’re undeniably stupid; if your wife is annoyed you forgot to put out the rubbish yesterday that doesn’t mean she thinks you are an awful husband… You catch my drift. HSPs can take the criticism beyond what is being said at face value, perhaps because they would tend not to dole out criticism easily themselves but it’s important for the wellbeing of the HSP not to project their normal behaviour onto the behaviour of others. People do not always have the same motivations of intentions as we do – perhaps the person was just trying to give useful advice! We can all benefit from taking a step back and seeing the issues being raised as an opportunity for self development but also to distance ourselves from others’ opinions. Is what this person said fair? Is it true? Is it constructive? Opinions are not an objective truth and what others say to us is a reflection of their relationship with themselves – nothing more and nothing less. Some HSPs may be easily influenced as they want to keep the peace but if we want to improve we must filter these opinions through the lens of our own truth and choose guidance wisely.
If there there is a consistent source of criticism that is weighing you down take that person aside and calmly request that they approach the situation with more tact and sensitivity – they may not even realise you were upset! Some people are naturally more blunt and direct in their communication and since this is the way they themselves prefer to receive information they may presume you are fine with it too. Be clear about your boundaries but also strive to take negative feedback as rationally as you can in future – this is something for both parties to work on. Of course, HSP or not, any repeatedly toxic people are best kept at a distance, which leads nicely onto the next topic:
Strong empathy and emotional awareness
In some circumstances this can be a great thing: It can be flattering that friends often approach you for advice and support because you’re a good listener; You can feel proud that because you are so emotionally attuned you rarely hurt others out of insensitivity; You’re able to experience incredible joy from positive experiences. On the other hand you can be deeply affected by negative events -even violent or sad movies/books/songs/films can really shake some HSPs so much that they actively avoid these.
Herein lies the problem: not only is the HSP highly in tune with their own feelings but also the feelings of others: They cry, the HSP starts crying… They get mad… HSP feels physically sick. Because HSPs tend to feel deeply for others’ pain they tend to dedicate a lot of energy to helping others and can find themselves totally drained in the process. Apart from avoiding watching blood and guts and sombre screenplays the solution here is to surround yourself by positivity. Let go of the toxic influences and people in your life that sap your energy. Where this isn’t possible (for example a genuine friend who is depressed at the moment and needs your support) exploring this mantra may be useful:
I cannot take care of others effectively unless I first care for myself.
As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup. The more emotionally stable you are, the more you have to offer others. Accept that your help has a limit before your own resources become depleted. It’s great to help others but remember – you are responsible for your own feelings – no-one else’s. If someone else is unreasonable in their expectations of you, trying to make you responsible for their wellbeing, be responsible for your own wellbeing by explaining that giving any more would be damaging to your wellbeing and asserting your boundaries kindly but firmly. If the idea of doing this brings about a feeling of guilt remember by doing this you are also teaching the other person to take greater responsibility for themselves which will eventually be a liberating experience for the both of you.
Easily becoming anxious, stressed, upset or irritable when busy/ overstimulated
This is the most difficult aspect of being a HSP for me personally. I am also a Myers-Briggs Judging type which means I like to plan and schedule things beforehand but if there is a long list of tasks before me I can find myself exhibiting signs of sympathetic nervous system activation system such as increased heartbeat, anxiety, irritation, insomnia and changes in appetite.
At times like these HSPs like myself can benefit from scheduling in time specifically to relax – to do an activity that is totally free from planning, obligation and expectation. Solitary or quiet hobbies such as reading, watching a film, going for a run or painting may be ideal. Since HSPs tend to be drawn to creative pursuits and professions anyway this may hit two birds with one stone – having an outlet to express feelings as well as to unwind and get the nervous system back into into the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Other than organising your lifestyle to the level of stimulation that you are comfortable, some ways that have been scientifically proven to help regulate the central nervous system include:
- regular exercise appropriate for your fitness level – overexercising has the opposite effect.
- practicing mindfulness
- deep breathing exercises
- being in nature
HSPs (and non HSPs!) struggling with insomnia may also benefit from journalling before bed – putting any ruminations on paper such as tomorrow’s to do list or worries about the future can help to you to switch off knowing that any important thoughts you want to revisit tomorrow are there in front of you.
Overall, the message to HSPS and those around them is to appreciate the genetic diversity that produces a world of individuals with a range of talents and interests. HSPs are one such group which have many gifts to offer, such as high creativity, high concentration and awareness of the world on a deeper level, once they surpass the self consciousness of being a little different and find the people, passions and place in the world where they can thrive off their natural preferences and abilities.
For more strategies to cope with high sensitivity and to learn more on the topic, check out the following sites: