Some people just seem to be more sensitive to their environment than others — they are just more “high-strung” and aware or “sensitive” to what’s around them. For whatever reason, these people just tend to be more sensitive than their friends, or even than their brothers and sisters. They are really affected by the world around them and sometimes they can’t get through a movie or even a sappy TV commercial without feeling emotional or even shedding a few tears. The type of TV commercials about abused animals or poverty in a third world country can actually affect them deeply on a visceral level. They can also really be affected by violent TV shows or the news.
Judgement or criticism from others really affects them and may even cause them to feel real emotional pain even if the critique is actually fairly innocuous. They are also often very empathic and try to be kind, considerate and accommodating to those around them, sometimes even to their own detriment.
Often these people are told, “You’re way too sensitive!” or “Why do you let everything bother you so much?” The reality is that some people are simply just more sensitive than others. Sometimes they are not only sensitive to emotional situations, but also to loud noise/sound, bright or sudden light, and even other physical stimuli around them like the smell of a strong overpowering perfume someone in the elevator is wearing.
A popular term that is used in the current vernacular is that these people are, literally, called, Highly Sensitive People, or HSP for short. People who are HSP might react very strongly and negatively to a mildly difficult social situation, a loud noise or a strong smell that most people would barely pick up on their radar.
There is solid psychological research showing that being an HSP is certainly a “real thing” and is likely a certain “personality trait” known as “Sensory Processing Sensitivity” (SPS) that was really first discovered by personality researchers Aron and Aron in 1997.
Research suggests that Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), is found in about 20% of humans and in over 100 other animal species! There is even fMRI brain scanning research showing that people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity even have brains that are much more likely to have recurrent activation in the regions involved in environmental attention and awareness, “emotional meaning making” and empathy (Acevedo, et. Al. 2014).
Why does it happen?
Evolutionarily speaking, HSP appears to be an adaptation to our environment that is designed and intended to help us survive as a species (Aron and Aron 1997). By being more aware of and reactive to our environment, we gain an enhanced awareness of environmental possibilities and opportunities. Being sensitive to our environment can help us in finding and accessing food sources and helps us to be more aware of threats from predators and other environmental dangers.
Being sensitive and socially aware of the nuances of human relationships can help us relate to others better and consequently have better success choosing and keeping mates, creating stronger social connections/alliances and forming stronger community bonds. Awareness of our surroundings and creating community are some of the things that have allowed humans to thrive. Unfortunately, people who are HSP may have too much of a good thing. Their over-sensitivity to the environment may actually hinder their relationships and complicate their lives.
Might You Be a Highly Sensitive Person?
Do the following signs/characteristics seem familiar to you?
- Sensitivity to criticism Almost all criticism feels personal and even painful. To many HSP’s there is no such thing as constructive criticism. You are not able to let criticism “roll off your shoulders” as others seem to do. Unfortunately, this can make you too much of a “people pleaser” and you may find it hard to set boundaries and limits with others.
- You find it difficult to be watched when you “perform” or do something You dislike doing things in public where you might be watched, critiqued or judged by others
- You feel “overly” emotional in numerous situations in your life Both positive or negative emotions are experienced intensely and you react strongly to them.
- Sometimes you feel alone Because other people may have told you that you need to “stop being so sensitive” or to “toughen up,” you see yourself as overly sensitive and judge yourself as inadequate or different and consequently you feel isolated or alone.
- You’re very compassionate and generous You have a high degree of empathy and try to offer help to those who hurt or suffer. You’re really the person the cliché “walk a mile in another’s shoes was written for”. You really go out of your way to avoid offending, insulting or hurting others feelings.
- You’re especially sensitive to all kinds of external stimuli. You seem to notice that the sounds of the nearby street are distracting, or that the overhead fluorescent lights are really “flickery”, annoying and loud. Driving in fast heavy traffic may make you feel overstimulated. Even noticing small things like the rough fabric of a shirt or being slightly cold in a room may make you feel much more uncomfortable than most people.
- You notice how your body “feels” a lot of the time You’re attuned to your body’s internal sensations and feelings. You really feel being tired, cold, hungry, sad, anxious or worried.
- Your emotions are “reactive” Your personal feelings are often very strong and seem to always be there on the surface for you to think about. You also have persistent reactions to what others around you are going through emotionally. When your feelings and emotions about yourself and others come on so very strong, it’s really hard to ignore them or “put them away”.
- You over analyze, overthink and worry too much You seem to notice every little detail and spend too much time overthinking what should be a simple decision, like which laundry detergent to buy in the supermarket. You also sometimes get stuck worrying about the future and spend a lot of time wondering: “What if this or that happens, what if, what if, what if?” (Here’s a link to a previous blog with some ways to start to change that overthinking pattern https://roberthammel.com/strategy-reducing-anxiety-worry-cbt-therapy/).
- You’re really affected by making any bad decisions When you finally do make a decision, and it turns out to be a bad one, you really take it hard. You really beat yourself up for making even the smallest mistakes. This can create a vicious cycle that slows down your decision-making process even more — you learn that even small bad decisions affect you greatly, so you have to be super cautious making all decisions, even those small ones.
- You may be quite sensitive to caffeine or other stimulants.
- You often feel fatigued or tired and often feel a sense of being overwhelmed Because you deal intensely with your own and even other people’s emotions, and you feel a high degree of stimulation from the environment — a good part of the time — you may feel overwhelmed by all of it and feel as though you need may need to unplug or recharge more often than others.
- You are especially polite. Your sensitivity and awareness of the emotions of others make you very well mannered. You pay close attention to how you affect the people around you and you are very giving and “nice”. You also get very irritated when other people are seen to be inconsiderate or ill-mannered.
- Your mood can be significantly affected when you’re cold, hot, hungry or tired.
- You find it really hard to say no Because you don’t want to offend others or hurt their feelings you find it hard to say no and you often say yes when you really don’t want to. This can leave us feeling “put out”, overwhelmed and even resentful.
- You may be considered “artistic” and highly moved by art, nature, movies, literature etc.
If you have a good number of these characteristics, you may just be an HSP and possibly have the kind of brain that might be prone to experiencing Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). The only way to really tell for sure though is to meet with a qualified individual like a Psychologist who can help you explore this further.
So, What Can You Do If You Are an HSP or experience a number of these characteristics?
Being an HSP is not an easy row to hoe sometimes. It can be difficult to have such a strong emotional connection to your world — but there are some things you can start to do for yourself to make it a bit easier:
- Reframe your sensitivity as a positive — i.e. it’s a positive to be empathic and caring with others
- Realize people and even the world itself are imperfect and it’s OK to make mistakes and bad decisions once in a while
- Realize being HSP makes you unique and special and not less than others
- Develop a sense of acceptance of who you are and remind yourself there is nothing wrong with you
- Learn to set boundaries with people who may “take advantage” of your kindness. Learn to say NO… politely.
- Learn who you are and what your needs truly are.
- Try relaxation strategies like deep breathing, physical exercise and meditation to lower your arousal
- Have realistic expectations on yourself and cut yourself some slack
- Limit being in highly stimulating environments and learn your sensitivity limits
- Avoid negative ways to reduce environmental stimulation like overeating, drugs and alcohol
- Be kind to yourself and give yourself the same empathy and kindness you give to other people
- Realize it’s OK to take time alone to recharge and rest
- Realize that as you grow and learn throughout your life — you can develop coping mechanisms to help you live in better ways and have HSP affect you less and less
- Consider seeing a therapist if being HSP really affects how you want to live your life
If you find yourself feeling lots of anxiety or even feel depressed because of your emotional sensitivity — maybe it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist and find some effective coping strategies.
Acevedo, B. P., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Sangster, M.-D., Collins, N., & Brown, L. L. (2014). The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain and Behavior, 4(4), 580–594. http://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.242
Aron, Elaine N. and Aron, Arthur Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and Its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 1997 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 1997, Vol. 73, No. 2, 345-368
Aron, E.N. The highly sensitive person (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 1999)