Do you feel like you reflect on things more than everyone else? Do you find yourself worrying about how other people feel? Do you prefer quiet, calm environments? Do you feel particularly in tune with nature and animals and re-charge your batteries by spending time alone? If so, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
Rescuing trapped insects
As a little girl I would sometimes go outside to play after dinner, but see a fly trapped against a window, desperately trying to get outside. Instead of passing it by, running outside to play, I’d find myself with a glass and piece of paper, intent on saving the poor insect, even if it meant ‘using up’ my allotted playing time before bed. No-one ever taught me to do this. It was just something ‘inside me’ that actually felt the suffering of others, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant in our big, busy, human-world. Similarly, as a child, I’d want to join my friends by going to Brownies after school, to participate in all the activities and feel like I ‘fitted in’. However, no matter how much I liked the idea of having fun in a group environment, I knew that the reality was very different. I craved my bedroom, my own company, my books, quiet doodling and time with Scampy, our beloved family rescue dog. Growing up, despite wanting to enjoy them, I often found big group activities or loud environments overwhelming and as a teenager I spent a lot of time pretending that my skin was a lot thicker than it really was. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I realised that I didn’t have to pretend to be anything else than what I already was – a highly sensitive person (HSP). What’s more, a growing body of research now exists about HSP traits and such studies have helped me to cultivate a lifestyle and way of appreciating life that embraces my HSP personality instead of it being the hindrance it felt like when I was growing up.
The personality trait was first researched by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., in the early 1990s and it is estimated that 15-20% of the population are in fact HSP. Aron, who has written multiple studies and books on high sensitivity, including The Highly Sensitive Person, also developed a self-test to help determine if you are highly sensitive. While recent interest in introversion - driven largely by high-profile publications on the subject, including Susan Cain's book Quiet, - has brought more awareness to personality traits that value less stimulation and higher sensitivity, Aron notes that highly sensitive people still tend to be considered the "minority." But "minority" doesn't have to be construed negatively - in fact, being highly sensitive carries a multitude of positive characteristics if we embrace our highly sensitive nature and, importantly, learn when to take a step back and re-charge our batteries away from environments that may be over-stimulating and overwhelming.
Studies using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), provide physical evidence that brains of individuals who are “highly sensitive” respond more powerfully to emotional images than individuals who are not “highly sensitive”. This translates to an individual characterised as HSP showing higher levels of awareness and emotional responsiveness based on greater activity in the “mirror neuron system” and “anterior insula” areas of the brain. Biologists suggest that one possible explanation for this is that it offers a different and possibly complementary evolutionary survival strategy.
It is important to point out that being highly sensitive is not something that needs “fixing”. It is a normal temperamental trait that people are born with. However, as I’ve found myself over the years, being part of a minority in modern society can sometimes be difficult: it can make you feel more vulnerable in situations which are aimed at extroversion or where it would be beneficial to be rather a little more thick-skinned. HSPs struggle, for example, with functioning in a society that values sensory overstimulation and a fast-paced lifestyle. They might find themselves working in an environment surrounded by people who are non-HSP and might find, for instance, an open-plan office with fluorescent lighting, noise and time pressure extremely uncomfortable or perpetually overstimulating. Other HSPs might struggle with being in a relationship with a partner who is not highly sensitive. Some HSPs may find it difficult to accept their sensitivity as it may make them feel helpless, vulnerable or disillusioned by the pace and apparent ‘insensitivity’ of modern life.
Am I HSP?
Growing up with a more finely tuned nervous system and therefore a “sharper” perception of the world can therefore come with difficulties. However, it’s important to remember that the trait itself isn’t problematic, although not recognising or responding to the characteristics, or trying to ‘fit in’ in a largely non-HSP society can cause the highly sensitive individual some distress. So, how can the HSP cultivate their traits whilst learning to recognise when they may need some time out to re-charge their batteries? A common solution for HSPs is making lifestyle changes in order to find their optimal level of stimulation but first, it’s necessary to actually recognise HSP characteristics and attributes. Do you think you may be an HSP?
HSPs are often more aware of subtleties in their environment and become overstimulated more quickly than others
HSPs are often more sensitive to physical pain or the effect of stimulating substances (e.g. caffeine)
HSPs tend to be easily startled and often feel overwhelmed by loud sensory input, violent films or large crowds
HSPs tend to be more cautious when facing new situations
HSPs are often highly conscientious and have a tendency to be perfectionistic
HSPs are easily shaken and distressed by change. They also do less well in "multitasking" situations
HSPs are often sensitive to loud noises, strong scents, coarse fabrics or bright lights (sirens, aeroplanes, fluorescent lighting etc.)
HSPs tend to be "cooperative," rather than "competitive," and often underperform in highly competitive environments
HSPs get easily rattled in stressful situations and under time pressure
HSPs are highly empathetic and frequently "pick up moods" from other people or feel like a ‘sponge’, soaking up the emotions of others
About 70% of HSPs are introverted, while about 30% are extroverted. All of them tend to have rich inner lives and show a tendency to think deeply about the world, others and their lives
HSPs tend to need more time on their own in order to reduce their level of overstimulation, often preferring being in nature or in a quiet, less stimulating environment
HSPs are often drawn to the arts, music, nature and spirituality and quickly have an emotional reaction to images of beauty
HSPs often perform poorly, even doing familiar tasks, when they are being observed or "evaluated" by others
HSPs are very sensitive to other species and nature. Since they are so in tune with energies, emotions, and the lesser-noticed things in life, HSPs often feel emotionally and physically distressed when they witness cruelty to animals or the destruction of the natural world as if it is actually happening to them. On a more positive note, HSPs tend to re-charge their batteries by spending solitary time in nature or with a companion animal and often experience a deep sense of elation and joy when engaged in such activities
HSPs tend to be motivated by eudemonic, rather than hedonic wellbeing: They are often driven by an internal search for meaning, and if something doesn’t feel meaningful, they can’t just "do it anyway" - they need to silence or filter it out.
If this sounds familiar to you, rather than see HSP as a hindrance, you can learn to cultivate and embrace it, thus making the most of your high sensitivity. This can be achieved by taking steps to:
Be honest about your predisposition to be a HSP, especially in close relationships and work situations.
Reduce the number of intense stimuli in your environment.
Limit the number of tasks when multi-tasking.
Avoid burnout by noticing early warning signs, such as feeling overwhelmed and anxious.
Get your thoughts and deep emotions on paper so that they won’t cloud your brain.
Take advantage of your creativity: draw, colour or write.
Take advantage of your predisposition for higher empathy to strengthen relationships.
Be comfortable in your sensitive skin and never be ashamed of it. By being aware of your HSP nature it’s possible to develop a keen interest in and gratitude for your consciousness and sense of connectedness with other people close to you, the natural world and other species. This complex inner realm, often neglected by many people in our modern, fast-paced society, can become your individual path to wholeness and happiness.
simplify ~ appreciate the little things ~ spread kindness ~ spark joy ~
a quiet contentedness ~ a sustainable happiness ~
First published in the Summer 2018 edition of the Tyne Valley Express magazine.