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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! 🙂
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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.