What Does it Mean to be Highly Sensitive?

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I’ve always been considered ‘sensitive.’ At school, my teachers described me as conscientious and shy. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t observe a situation before acting, or seemed to instinctively ‘know’ when there was tension between others. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago though that I started to understand that my character is far more than simply sensitive.
It was a conversation with a psychologist that sparked this. It was the first time I’d heard the term ‘highly sensitive.’ She used it to describe me! Initially I took it as an insult. I thought of every negative connotation of sensitivity: overly emotional, fragile, neurotic. She went on to explain that high sensitivity isn’t the same as hyper sensitivity. Hyper sensitivity is when someone finds it hard to understand and deal with their emotions. Highly sensitive, on the other hand, can actually be an advantage.

What is High Sensitivity?

Intrigued by this concept, I started to do my own research. This is when I came across Dr. Elaine Aron. She’s been studying high sensitivity (or Sensory Processing Sensitivity to give it its scientific name) since the early 1990s. Dr. Aron emphasises that unlike hyper sensitivity, high sensitivity is about more than emotions. From her studies, she’s concluded that highly sensitive people’s (HSPs) brains work in a different way. We process things more deeply. It’s the ability to notice subtleties, be it in a piece of art or someone’s behaviour. To illustrate what it means to be a HSP, Dr. Aran has developed a brief checklist of criteria. (Lo and behold, I fit them all!)
Some of these criteria are:
  • Feeling easily overwhelmed by bright lights or loud noises.
  • Avoiding TV shows with heavy violence.
  • Avoiding overwhelming or upsetting situations.
  • High emotional intelligence.
  • Considered shy or sensitive as a child.
(You can see the full list here.)
It was the first point that grabbed my interest. It’s a real amusement for some of my friends at how easily startled I am. I can jump out of my skin at loud alarms, sirens etc. I can’t stand banging doors or when the volume on the TV is too loud. I’m not sure if this falls in the same category, but I’m super sensitive to the sound of people chewing or gulping drinks! I find it so unbearable that I’ve left the room before just to get away from it!
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I knew I was more sensitive than others. Like I said before, I was always thought of as shy and conscientious as a child. I remember sitting my Year 2 SATs and reading through my answers at least five times before I handed it in. (It was strange enough behaviour to my teacher, that she later mentioned it to my mum!)
I was also painfully shy. In primary school, I rarely spoke to anyone aside from my best friend and when I did, my voice was barely above a whisper. Dr. Aron makes an interesting observation between shyness and high sensitivity. For her, shyness is a learnt behaviour while high sensitivity is innate – you either have it or you don’t. As high sensitivity is characterised by the survival strategy of ‘observe then act,’ it’s not surprising that it’s so often mistaken for shyness.
A turning point for me in realising that I saw things a little differently to others was after my first bout of depression at 15. I suddenly realised that I’d built up a wall and suppressed my emotions so I didn’t have to deal with them. Once they’d bubbled over, there was no going back! Ever since, I not only sympathise with others but am able to put myself in their shoes. Sometimes this is to the point of feeling drained from taking on people’s negative emotions. I now cry at films, charity appeals, even TV adverts if they strike the right chord. When I wasn’t dealing with my own emotions, that just wasn’t possible for me.

Pros & Cons

Dr. Aron estimates that 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive. (This is the tricky place between too many to be a disorder and too few to be truly understood.)
Being in the minority, of course, has it’s ups and downs. As I mentioned, one of the real positives is strong empathy. I see it as a blessing that I can read non-verbal cues so easily and can understand others’ points of view to effectively mediate conflict. Such strong empathy does have its pitfalls – it can be exhausting taking on other people’s problems. It’s something I’m constantly trying to work on.
HSPs are often seen to be wise too! My guess is this is because the deep processing we do, means we analyse every situation and store that knowledge for future use. I know I relate any present dilemmas to similar scenarios I’ve faced in the past to help me cope better.
On the downside, the ability to see what others don’t means HSPs get overstimulated more quickly. I can get easily overwhelmed by things that other people don’t find remotely stressful. I remember going on holiday with friends and feeling so spent from sightseeing all day that the thought of heading out in the evening too was a real struggle – even with a power nap! I now understand that because I notice the subtleties in everything, I get worn out more quickly and need to recharge. For a long time, I thought I simply lacked stamina!
Overstimulation affects the nervous system too. Because highly sensitive people are more aware of subtleties, negative attitudes, noisy environments, demanding to-do lists etc. can impact us more. In short, we’re more sensitive to stress. (It’s no surprise to me then that I was so fascinated with the module on chronic stress on my yoga teaching course!) I often find myself in desperate need of a lie down after a chaotic day, or looking for some respite during an especially busy period at work.
I think this is the main reason I benefit so much from yoga. To be able to seek that respite on my mat and focus on my breathing helps me to recharge. I’d especially recommend yin yoga to help with this. It’s a very gentle practice designed to stimulate the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system to reduce stress. You leave a class feeling like you’re floating on a cloud!
While high sensitivity certainly has its downsides, I do see it as an advantage. My ability to read non-verbal cues, without conscious thought, usually means I’m a good judge of character. There have been more than a few occasions where I’ve picked up on a negative ‘vibe’ from a new acquaintance that others seem oblivious too. I’ve found it incredibly frustrating in the past and wondered why it seems to only be me who can’t get along with this person. Now I try to relax and take it as it comes. Past experience has taught me that if there’s a negative character there, it always shows eventually.
I think being aware of your sensitivity is the best way to make the most of this gift. Nurture it by knowing that when you need to take some time out, it’s okay. Appreciate that you might need a little more quiet time than those around you. What I’ve found is that ultimately us highly sensitive people possess a trait that many people envy!
If you’re interested to know if you might be highly sensitive, you cant take Dr. Aran’s quick test here. I scored 25 (14 or more indicates high sensitivity). Let me know how you scored!
(Full credit for all information on High Sensitivity in this article goes to Dr. Elaine Aran.) 

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