Do you often get told to toughen up or stop being so sensitive? Do you cry easily at movies or even sad commercials? Do you shy away from noisy, busy places? If so, you might be a Highly Sensitive Person or HSP. It’s not an illness or disorder, but rather a character trait that is estimated to affect around 20% of the population, equally affecting both men and women[1]. It’s a trait that is only recently being recognized, although it has likely existed for much longer, and both the term and an acceptance of the trait are becoming more mainstream. There has even been on a documentary on the subject (Sensitive: The Movie), and there are several books available. But what exactly is it? Are you a HSP? And if you are, what can you do to protect yourself?

What is HSP?                            

Dr. Elaine Aron, scientist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person, is one of the leading researchers into HSP, says that it’s a genetic trait rather than something that is learned and that it affects more people than we might think. Some famous HSPs include singer Alanis Morisette[2], Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, and Steve Jobs[3], so being HS doesn’t necessarily mean being shy and retiring. There are, however, certain traits that lead to HSPs to being overstimulated or easily upset. It’s defined as having a hyper sensitive nervous system, and HSPs can both become overwhelmed emotionally and be very sensitive to external stimuli such as lights, noise, temperatures, and smells[4].

Dr. Aron explains the trait using the acronym DOES: depth of processing, meaning HSPs process information longer and deeper; overstimulation due to depth of processing; emotional reactivity and increased empathy; and sensitivity to external stimuli. In general, HSPs:

·       Are more likely to cry or become emotional

·       Tend to enjoy solo sports and hobbies

·       Agonize over decisions

·       Notice small details

·       Get overstimulated or overwhelmed

·       Are good friends, as they tend to be in tune to others’ needs and desires

·       Empathic[5]

Physiology

What’s really interesting about this trait is that it appears to be not just a psychological issue. In fact, research shows that HSPs actually have different brain activity to non-HSP, with high activity being shown in the regions of the brain that deal with empathy and sensory information. In a study recently published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, HSPs and non-HSPs were shown images and were asked to perform tests whilst undergoing an MRI scan. Not only were HSPs shown to pay more attention and due care than non-HSPs, but brain activity was higher in areas associated with high-order visual processing[6]. It’s not that surprising, then, to discover that the trait is found in other animals too. Dr. Aron claims that it affects over one hundred different species of animal, including but not limited to: fruit-flies, birds, dogs, cats, horses, and primates[7]. So it’s more than simple human shyness then.

Who are HSPs?

It’s hard to define what type of person a HSP is because they are not all alike. Whilst the trait may seem rather reserved or introverted, it’s estimated that around 30% of all HSPs are actually extroverts[8], showing that there is no ‘type’ of person that HSP affects. Dr. Ted Zeff, psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide explains that “every sensitive person is different […and] some people have some of the traits, like empathy, but they’re not HSPs.”[9] Due to their sensitive natures though, it’s thought that HSPs prefer nurturing environments, typical career choices include artists, teachers, or counsellors, and they are often popular people. 

Dr. Aron suggests that male HSPs have a harder time, especially in Western countries, because it’s less socially acceptable for a man to be sensitive or in touch with his emotions[10], but in reality, treatment of HSPs varies from culture to culture. There are some places in the world where being sensitive is seen as a strength rather than a weakness and even more so in the animal kingdom where sensitivity to changes in energy and environment are vital[11].

The Cure

Ultimately, HSPs develop coping methods as they age. Whilst children and teenagers may find it harder, adults simply learn to avoid the situations that make them uncomfortable. They minimize the effects of their trait by being aware of it and adapting accordingly, just as anyone would when a trait affects their daily lives. So what’s the cure? There isn’t one – and that’s a good thing! Being HSP isn’t bad, it’s not a disease or a disorder. It’s not an illness or a problem that requires ‘fixing’. It’s simply yet another example of how we, as human beings, are all different and how that’s okay. Dr. Zeff said it best when he said “you shouldn’t want to ‘cure’ yourself. It’s who you are,”[12] and he’s right.

 

[1] Maria Lally, 2015, Highly Sensitive People: A Condition Rarely Understood, online, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/health-advice/highly-sensitive-people/ [accessed 01/13/2016]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Angel Chernoff, 2015, Life-Changing Tips for Highly Sensitive People, online, available at: http://www.marcandangel.com/2015/07/22/10-life-changing-tips-for-highly-sensitive-people/ [accessed 01/13/2016]

[4] Lally, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Helen Kirwan-Taylor, 2015, Are You Too Sensitive? Online, available at: http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/are-you-too-sensitive?page=2 [accessed 13/01/2106]

[7] Dr. Elaine Aron, 2016, The Highly Sensitive Person, online, available at: http://hsperson.com [accessed 13/01/2016]

[8] Lally, op. cit.

[9] Cited by Lally, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kirwan-Taylor, op. cit.

[12] Cited by Lally, op. cit.

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