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The word “sensitive” has different connotations for different people. Some might think of it in the sense of being sensitive to the feeling of others or maybe having a sensitivity to a certain food or chemical. Oftentimes, the word is used in a negative sense as when people are described as being “overly sensitive.”
The word “sensitive,” as used in the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), refers to an innate trait studied by researcher Dr. Elaine Aron. Being a highly sensitive person means that your nervous system reacts differently than for others who don’t have this trait.
Highly sensitive people process information (sensory data, thoughts, emotions, etc.) at a very deep level and are very aware of subtleties in their environment, and because they are so aware, that means that they are easily overwhelmed by them too.
Highly sensitive people usually tend to be more the “look before you leap” type, especially in unfamiliar situations, and their first reaction is usually to pause and observe first, taking in all of the details, information, and sensory data. HSPs also tend to be very drawn to art, poetry, music, etc. and they often feel a strong connection to animals. Being out in nature is usually especially calming for HSPs.
A few facts about the trait of High Sensitivity:
- HSPs make up about 15-20% of the population
- The trait is found in animals as well as in humans
- High sensitivity is an inherited trait
- High sensitivity is considered a “normal” trait, not a disease or a disorder
- Most HSPs are introverts (about 70%), but around 30% are extroverts
10 Signs You Might Be a Highly Sensitive Person
1) You notice subtleties. You’re aware of small details and slight changes. You notice if something is a little bit out of place or if the position of something has shifted slightly since the last time you saw it. You pick up on subtle details like a color that’s a shade darker or lighter, a subtle scent, or a slight change in someone’s tone of voice or facial expression.
2) You’re affected by the moods of other people. Being around somebody who is stressed makes you feel tense and stressed too, even if their stress has nothing to do with you personally. You still pick up on it and feel the effect of their mood in your body.
3) You feel overwhelmed if there is too much going on around you at once. You get frazzled if you have to do many things at once or with a time limit. Having too many activities scheduled into the same day feels like too much to handle and you get very stressed if you’re running late or have to rush to try to finish something before a deadline.
4) You’re strongly affected by bright lights, strong smells, crowds etc. Being in huge crowds makes you feel stressed and walking past the perfume counter at a department store makes you feel like you’re suffocating. You prefer dimmer, ambient lighting or natural light from windows to bright fluorescent lights.
5) You need downtime. You need some time alone every day in a quiet, peaceful environment to rest and recharge. If you go straight from work to running errands to going to a party, you feel exhausted and need quiet time to recover.
6) You startle easily. Sudden noises, like the phone ringing or an ambulance siren make you jump or make your pulse rise.
7) You tend to observe and reflect first. Decisions often take longer to make because you are reflecting on and processing all of the information and subtle details. At a party or large gathering, your tendency is usually to observe and listen first.
8) You don’t perform as well when being observed by others. Even if you can do it perfectly when practicing by yourself, when you have to do it with other people watching, it never goes quite as well.
9) You’re bothered by loud noises and chaotic environments. Being surrounded by noise and chaos makes you want to just snap your fingers and disappear into a place that’s peaceful and quiet. Even if you’re doing something that you really enjoy, you can’t last for as long in these sorts of environments as others can who aren’t highly sensitive.
10) You have a rich and complex inner life. You need time alone to think things through and process everything. You probably think a lot more than you speak, and tend to be very introspective and reflective.
Not every HSP will necessarily relate to all of these 10 signs, but if these descriptions sound like you, you can find the full HSP self-test on the Highly Sensitive Person website. When I took the self-test, I couldn’t believe how accurate it was for me. I found myself going down the list, putting check marks in just about every single box, and it was like somebody I had never met before had described me perfectly!
Many who take the self-test either say “Yes, that’s definitely me!” or “No, that doesn’t really sound like me at all.” And then there is a smaller amount of people who feel that they fall somewhere in the middle. So, even if you aren’t an HSP yourself, chances are that you probably know somebody who is.
HSPs and non-HSPs often share many of these traits, too. Anybody can be bothered by loud noises, for example, but the difference is that highly sensitive people will usually be bothered much sooner and to a greater degree than people who aren’t highly sensitive.
And just because you’re not a highly sensitive person doesn’t mean you’re insensitive either. Both HSPs and non HSPs can be empathetic and sensitive to other people. It just means that your nervous system reacts in a different way than for those who have the trait of high sensitivity.
(Note: It’s also possible to be a highly sensitive person and a “high sensation seeker.” There’s a separate self-test for high sensation seeking on the same website. I definitely don’t fit into this category, but there are lots of HSPs who do, so if you feel like you’re always wanting to try new things and do lots of activities but then feel exhausted after and need recovery time, you might be a high sensation seeking HSP.)
Understanding Yourself Through the Perspective of Being a Highly Sensitive Person
Finding out about the trait of high sensitivity was a big “aha” moment for me. For one thing, it meant that I wasn’t completely crazy (even though it felt like it a lot of the time!) And a lot of things seem to make more sense in light of this trait.
Now I understand, for example, why I would often feel lightheaded and almost dizzy at places like amusement parks or the boardwalk at the beach. Between the flashing bright lights, the scents of popcorn and trash barrels and cigarette smoke all mixed together, and the noises of crowds of people and music so loud that I could actually feel the rhythm pounding in my body, I was completely overwhelmed with sensory overload. A few minutes of rest in a quieter place were usually all I needed to start feeling better again.
It makes sense to me now why I always feel like I need to “recover” after a long day or a night out at a party or why it always seems to take me forever to make a decision about even something very small. Looking back on my life with the perspective of the trait of high sensitivity, I can think of time after time where this trait has influenced the way I reacted to and was affected by certain situations and environments.
Finding out that I am a Highly Sensitive Person has helped me to understand myself better, and it’s also helped me to realize some of the ways that I can help myself to manage this trait, like reducing sensory overload when possible, and allowing more downtime into my day and not over-scheduling myself so that my body can have the time to rest that it needs.
More Helpful Information About Highly Sensitive People:
If you want to learn more, a couple of great resources are these books about HSPs:
- The Highly Sensitive Person
- The Highly Sensitive Child
- Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person
How did you score on the self-test? Do you feel like you might be a Highly Sensitive Person? Let us know in the comments! 🙂
Photo credit (C) Depositphotos.com/[BalazsKovacs]
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.
Ever Since I was a Child, I get Overly Emotional at Parades – Guided By Spirit – By Maura Blakely
Wednesday 20th of June 2018
[…] You can learn more about HSP traits here: https://www.ourheritageofhealth.com/are-you-a-highly-sensitive-person-10-signs-you-might-have-this-i… […]
Michelle Danielson Tinkham
Thursday 3rd of May 2018
I relate to all of these so deeply. When I was younger, I thought that there was something horribly wrong with me because I just did not enjoy the same things as other children. I liked quiet, peaceful, play areas. I preferred sitting in my room reading a book, or playing with my toys with the door shut. I preferred one friend at a time, over many friends all at once. I very much disliked being made to go to birthday parties, or having large birthday parties myself. I looked forward to when I could go home, or when everyone went home. When I went to school, I would come home completely drained and unable to focus on anything but rest, which caused some problems with homework as I got older. I think I was the only child, that when grounded for not completing their homework, was actually happy because it meant I could use that as an excuse to deflect invitations to go out with friends. lol The labels that followed me were "too sensitive", "overly cautious", "needs to get a thicker skin". Those in my life that should have protected me, made me feel foolish and stupid for just being how I was. When I was 2, my father and my grandfather chased me around the yard popping balloons and bags in my face. I was so traumatized by that that I was screaming and crying uncontrollably, and I wet myself. My mom had to put me in my darkened bedroom by myself, wrapped in blankets so I could reset. To this day, I break out in a cold sweat, my hands and feet tingle, and I feel like I can't breath when I am around balloons or bags that can be popped. I have such shame attached to it, and at 40 years old, it makes me feel ridiculous. There is literally nothing that I can do about it except pray and try to breathe. I have started taking St. John's Wort along with Cod Liver Oil capsules, and that helps me exponentially when going out.
Friday 4th of May 2018
That sounds very similar to how I was as a child too. I always preferred the quiet, peaceful activities, and I loved reading a book or playing quietly in my room. I enjoyed playing with friends one-on-one or in small groups, but I never felt comfortable in large groups, and I often felt like I was too sensitive or too quiet or too cautious, etc. There are so many people who don't understand what it's like to be highly sensitive, and a lot of times adults end up shaming sensitive children or making them feel like there's something wrong when them because they aren't as tough as other children. That sounds like such an awful experience you had with the balloons! It makes perfect sense that you be traumatized by that since HSPs process experiences to such a deep level. And unfortunately trauma isn't easy to get past either :( That's great that the St. John's Wort and the Cod Liver Oil have been helping some, though! Hopefully eventually highly sensitive children (and adults) will be better understood and accepted in the future :)
Tuesday 21st of February 2017
Wow! I'm a 10 outta 10! You have described me 100%. I will certainly be checking out more articles on this subject. Perhaps I'm not as crazy as I thought!!! Thanks!
Tuesday 21st of February 2017
You're not crazy at all! Having this trait can come with some challenges, but there are a lot of positives, too, like having a good eye for detail, being really observant, being able to notice subtle things, having a high level of empathy, and being able to deeply appreciate things like beauty, music, art, etc. :)
Monday 15th of August 2016
Yes , im a HSP ... and let me know if that makes me incompatible with my fiance? Who i think knows I'm kinda sensitive . One more thing , does that changes the characteristics of my fiance? Is she going to be affected adversely? And yes thanks for giving a confirming article about HSP
Tuesday 16th of August 2016
There may be some challenges and things to work out, as there would be in any relationship, but being an HSP doesn't necessarily mean that you would be incompatible with your fiance. It really all depends on the individual personalities of the people involved. How does your fiance feel about the fact that you're an HSP, and how does she react when your HSP tendencies mean that you need a quieter environment or need to leave a crowded place (or whatever situations are the most challenging for you? And have you tried talking with your fiance about this? I know it could be a bit awkward of a conversation, but if it's something that you're concerned about, then it might be a good idea to talk with her to see how she feels about it and whether she feels like it adversely affects her in any way. Since you say that you think she already knows that you're a sensitive person, then it might be something that she's already thought about. I also know that Elaine Aron wrote a book about the topic of HSPs and relationships. I believe it's called The Highly Sensitive Person in Love. That might be a good book to read to help address some of your concerns.
Monday 1st of August 2016
Wow I have all the traits of Hsp except indeciveness. My mom (I'm adopted ) used to always get after me for being "to sensitive". Good to know at 52 I share this with many :)
Monday 1st of August 2016
Yes, I'm realizing that there are a lot more of us HSPs than I would have thought! :)