In the 90’s, Dr. Elaine Aron discovered that there are many people who have a significantly more sensitive nervous system than what’s considered normal, herself included. She coined this innate trait as “HSP”, or Highly Sensitive Person. It affects about 20% of the population, so it’s not uncommon. You probably have one in your family or circle of friends, or may be one yourself.
Some of the sensitivities of the HSP can overlap and blur the lines between being highly sensitive and being introverted, especially when it comes to the environmental aspect. According to Dr. Aron, thirty percent of HSPs are extroverts, which leaves a whopping seventy percent of them being ambiverts or introverts. You may also find that the emotional depth associated with highly sensitive people may be similar to that of an empath or INFJ. The bottom line is that anyone can be an HSP.
Dr. Aron’s website contains a simple HSP self-test, if you would like to know, or confirm, whether you are a highly sensitive person.
HSPs and Highly Sensitive Stimuli
The HSP is sensitive to many things, since the nervous system is quite extensive throughout the body, and in charge of many functions. Additionally, according to Dr. Aron, our brains also function differently than others, processing subtle changes and details, allowing us to feel and observe more deeply. While it will vary greatly from person to person, HSPs can be highly sensitive to sensory input, environments, or emotional situations, and it can make life extra difficult at times.
I would like to point out that being an highly sensitive individual is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can amplify wonderful things like creativity, the pleasure of food, the beautiful intricacy of music, and provide a deep appreciation for art, while allowing you to better sense the emotional needs of a loved one. These heightened sensitivities and keen awareness can, literally, help you be a better parent, friend, and lover, and help you see the world in a more vibrant way.
External Stimuli – Senses and Surroundings
Your five senses are conduits for physical sensation, which is intensified by heightened sensitivity. Some or all of these may affect you, or one may affect you more than the other.
“I am deeply moved by things. I’d hate to miss the intense joy of that.” ― Elaine N. Aron,
Smell – Although I relish in the comforting smell of homemade cookies, vanilla, or the aromatic lure of a flower garden, strong or unpleasant scents can be annoying for anyone, but they can feel downright assaulting for someone who’s highly sensitive. For example, I cannot sit next to someone wearing any kind of perfume or walk through a department store perfume bar. It makes me cough, dries out my sinuses, and I feel like I can still smell it over an hour after being removed from the source.
Sight – Bright or intense light can be problematic for those who are highly sensitive. Personally, I don’t have any difficulty with indoor lighting, but many do. Sunlight, on the other hand, always feels very intense to me, so I make it a habit to always wear sunglasses outdoors, even on cloudy days. When it comes to what I see, though, I can’t help but notice the details, subtleties, and intricacies in everything. It’s one of my favorite parts of being highly sensitive.
Taste – I’m sure there are people who have foods that they really, really dislike, but this more refers to hunger. For us more sensitive folks, hunger is about as distracting as it gets, to the point of stopping me in my tracks. It’s not just a little tummy grumble, but more a sense of cavernous void, and it usually feels urgent. It reminds me of how I felt when I was pregnant and hangry.
Touch – There are two sides to this one. First, it can refer to the sensitivity of something against your skin, most often a fabric that causes you discomfort, like a certain blend of clothing or sheets. Second, it can refer to pain sensitivity or the sensitivities involved in intimacy. HSPs are deeply sensitive to most everything, so sex is no exception. It can be felt just as deeply as anything else on this page, but usually in a much more intense, but pleasurable, way. Dr. Aron even included it in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love.
Personally, I need a deep, meaningful connection with my partner that allows me to feel comfortable in my vulnerability. Sex, for me, can feel so physically overwhelming that I end up crying, screaming, or laughing uncontrollably until I feel like I can’t breathe. I usually have to pull away at a certain point just to regain control. It’s incredible, but very difficult to physically handle.
Hearing – We are sensitive to loud noises, and may even be easily startled. I can hear so much. The background instruments in a song stand out to me. I can hear whispers that aren’t meant for me. And, I begin to feel extremely uncomfortable when things get too loud, especially when I start to feel the reverberation through the floor or my body. I adore listening to music, but at a reasonable decibel.
Environmental – Other external stimuli also includes large crowds and other chaotic situations. Chaos involves any noisy, out-of-control situation that leaves us feeling over stimulated and, therefore, overwhelmed and drained. These situations are best limited for the sake of our sanity.
Sensitive people also tend to struggle when rushed for time, have too much on their plate, or are forced to meet deadlines, as they may become flustered under pressure. This also holds true when they know someone is watching them, like in a competition or if their supervisor is hovering over them. Even minor changes in the weather, moods of others, drugs and caffeine, and major changes in our lives can affect us, even if we chose to make those changes. We are a cautious bunch, and shy away from the unknown, so big change is a big deal for us. We may need a little extra understanding during this time.
Internal Stimuli – Strong Reactivity
Although upset by strong imagery and discord, the strongest of the HSP emotions is love. A deep, meaningful love that is rooted in the soul. Because of the way highly sensitive people process everything so deeply, they are naturally intuitive when it comes to the emotional needs of others.
Violence, Injustice, and the Disturbing – We absorb everything around us like a sponge, so we tend to avoid the news, scary or gory movies, and disturbing stories or images. Our empathy is heightened to a degree that makes it difficult for us to forget or let go of what we’ve seen and heard, whether it’s true or not. We may cry, become angry, or deeply upset.
I have to avoid all of these things as much as possible because of the empathy I feel for others. It’s as if whatever bad thing has happened to them is happening to me or someone I love, and I can’t get it out of my head or heart. I can’t unsee it. Note: Some HSPs also absorb the moods or pain of others (empaths), so be very wary of your surroundings.
Conflict and Emotions – Conflict is uncomfortable for most people, but HSPs take it to a whole other level. We hate it when you call us “over sensitive”, but we are. And it’s not something we can easily control. We are sensitive to unkind words, criticism, and arguments. On the other hand, the same holds true for our enthusiasm or excitement. We are usually overjoyed to the point of tears.
Overstimulation and Overwhelm – Everything we’ve mentioned so far can cause any highly sensitive person to feel over-stimulated or overwhelmed. What we do when we feel this way is withdraw and take a break so we can function as ourselves again.
Highly Sensitive, but Normal
Everyone has challenges, and being highly sensitive isn’t a defect or disorder. It’s an innate trait, and it’s both sensational (see what I did there) and frustrating, like most things in life.
We can focus on the good or focus on the bad. We can set ourselves up for success or failure.
What we can’t do is ignore who we are. We need to accept ourselves, and meet our needs, and not push ourselves to the point of regret. We love our families deeply, even more than we can express, and we want to participate in life in our own way. We know what makes us happy and the things we need to limit in our lives to maintain that happiness.