Do you feel overwhelmed in crowded spaces, by too much noise, bright lights, strong smells and lots going on around you? Do you need lots of time alone to recover when you have been exposed to such stimuli? Are you very affected by other people’s moods? Are you very sensitive to the needs of others? Are you often right in your hunches about things? Growing up, were you often told you that you were too sensitive or that you thought too much? Do you spend lots of time thinking about the meaning of life and death and other big philosophical questions? These and more are traits associated with being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Being highly sensitive has to do with the hyperarousal of the nervous system. We all need a certain level of alertness in order to function well. Conditions in our environment communicate with our nervous system and by their intensity create higher or lower levels of arousal. The challenge for HSPs is that it takes very little for their nervous systems to be aroused beyond a comfortable level, causing them to become overwhelmed. Most HSPs are born that way, some develop high sensitivity through certain types of early life experiences.
HSPs seem to make up about 15-20% of the population in any society, also among several other animal species. They are more sensitive to stimuli because they perceive things with more intensity. They notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others, such as subtle sounds, sights or physical sensations like pain. HSP’s do not have better eyesight, hearing, etc., but their brains process this information more thoroughly. This greater awareness of the subtle is responsible for HSPs’ more intuitive nature. Other characteristics common among HSPs are creativity, deep thinking, insightfulness, enjoying time spent alone, a rich inner life (often seen by others as shyness). HSPs are also very sensitive to the effects of substances like caffeine and alcohol and often perform poorly under pressure.
Being an HSP is not popular. It is being the ‘cry baby’, the child who gets bullied in the school playground for being weird or a nerd. Most HSPs grow up being made to feel inadequate about the way they are, that there is something wrong with them. Because HSP’s are only 15-20% of the population, they are in the minority and therefore judged by the majority, including by the mainstream of fields like psychology, to be maladjusted and their trait sometimes even deemed a pathology. This majority view on HSPs has an effect on the mental health of many, as they grow up with a sense of being flawed in some way and can develop low self-esteem and even mental health problems, like depression and anxiety as a result. Because of that, many fail to develop and use the positive aspects of being an HSP for the benefit of society.
What the concept of HSP does is it helps people who are highly sensitive understand as well as accept themselves and their life experience. It also helps them begin to see the value of their trait for themselves and those around them. While society does not value the characteristics of HSPs, they are very needed in society. As mentioned in the previous post, HSPs are our healers, our mediators, our thinkers and artists, our advisors and those who keep the more aggressive impulses (also needed for certain purposes) in the mainstream in check.
If this sounds like you and you would like to learn more about how to make it in this world as an HSP, I highly recommend you pick up the book Highly Sensitive Person, How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms you, by Elaine Aron.