7 Signs You're Highly Sensitive

It could be called ‘Princess and The Pea syndrome’ but those with a hypersensitive nervous system are now labelled by experts as highly sensitive people


Zooey Deschanel in New Girl. Picture / Supplied.

Are your feelings easily bruised and do you worry about hurting other people’s? Do you well up at charity advertisements about illness or animal cruelty, dislike scary films or feel bothered by loud or irritating noises in a way that others don’t? You could be a highly sensitive person, or HSP - a condition that is common but until now rarely understood.

Awareness of HSPs has been gathering pace in America, and a new documentary called Sensitive the Movie, which premiered in San Francisco, explores the issue. It features Dr Elaine Aron, a scientist and author of the million-selling book The Highly Sensitive Person. It also includes new research that shows how the region of the brain that deals with empathy and sensory information is different in people who score highly on the sensitivity scale. The singer Alanis Morissette, a self-confessed HSP, appears in the documentary. “My temperament is highly sensitive. I’m very attuned to very subtle things, whether it’s food or minerals or lighting or sounds or smells,” she says. “Overstimulation happens pretty easily.”

Rather than being a personality type, being an HSP is defined as having a hypersensitive nervous system. As well as being easily over-whelmed by emotions (they tend to have high empathy and get upset very easily), HSPs also have a Princess and The Pea-like sensitivity to stimuli such as lights, sounds, temperatures and even scratchy fabric.

Dr Aron, who is a leading researcher in the field, says: “Being HS is genetic: 20 per cent of us are born with it and it affects both sexes equally. I explain the condition in four letters: DOES.

D is for depth of processing: they process everything around them very deeply. O is for overstimulation. E is for emotional reactivity and empathy. Research shows HSPs respond more to the emotions of others and to situations in general. And S is for sensitive stimuli - they’re incredibly sensitive to smells, sounds and light. “However, not all HSPs are alike. For example, we know that around 30 per cent are extroverts rather than introverts, which is what most people expect them to be.”

Dr Ted Zeff, a psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, agrees. “Every sensitive person is different,” he says. “Some people have some of the traits, like empathy, but they’re not HSPs.”

So what are the traits? Dr Zeff says people who are HS “don’t have a natural shield. They find it hard to tune stuff out. For example, somebody standing close behind them and peering over their shoulder will really unsettle an HSP.” As for a cure, Dr Zeff says, “if you are an HSP you shouldn’t want to ‘cure’ yourself. It’s who you are.”

HSPs, he believes, do best in nurturing environments and are more likely to be artists, musicians, teachers, counsellors and health practitioners. They are also likely to be popular because they are so in tune with the needs of others. However, it may need to be managed otherwise it could become overwhelming. “Most tend to develop coping mechanisms,” Dr Zeff says.

HSPs also need daily downtime. “They shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are,” he says. “But there needs to be some compromise. For example, just because you don’t like noise it doesn’t mean everybody around you has to be quiet. Just go into another room or go for a walk.”

As for highly sensitive children, Dr Aron says when they are raised with an awareness of their overactive nervous systems they will thrive and get ahead socially because they have such great empathy. However, if they are constantly told off for crying or told to “pull themselves together” they may think something is wrong with them and become anxious or depressed.

Habits of highly sensitive people:

1. They feel more deeply and cry more than most.

2. They have often been told to stop being so sensitive or to toughen up.

3. They enjoy solo sports such as cycling or running, although they can enjoy group sports too.

4. They agonise over decisions: as well as paying great attention to detail, they also worry about upsetting others. “But they tend to make very good decisions in the end,” Dr Aron adds.

5. They notice small details: “An HSP will notice somebody’s new haircut or the design of a hotel carpet when others won’t,” Dr Aron says.

6. They’re people pleasers: because they’re so sensitive to criticism, they tend to over-compensate.

7. They feel other people’s pain. “HSPs tend to have incredible empathy, they’ll worry about others a lot and be in tune with how they’re feeling,” Dr Aron concludes.

— The Daily Telegraph

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