Do you pick up on other people’s emotions easily? Do other people’s words and actions stay with you and make you feel like those feelings are yours too? Do you sometimes wonder, why am I so sensitive?
If you’re highly sensitive, you might feel that life is a little overwhelming at times. It can often seem as though everyone else is ‘tougher’ or less bothered by things that get to you, which can be frustrating. Negative experiences might affect you more than the average person, and emotions like anger or sadness might feel like too much to handle.
However, sensitivity is a blessing. Just because you’re more in touch with and aware of even the most subtle feelings and emotions than others does not reflect your worth or validity as a person.
Whether you’ve got heightened sensitivity or you’re more numb to your environment, that does not affect your inherent right to be here, to be accepted, and to be loved. It is important to understand that your sensitivity is not a personality flaw.
If you’re reading this article, you may have searched for the question in the title, or perhaps you saw the title while browsing, and it resonated with you. Highly sensitive or compassionate people tend to be deeply aware of and interested in their own personality traits and behaviors, so it’s no surprise that you’re reading this.
This article will explore why some people are more prone to sensitivity than others, what characterizes a ‘sensitive’ person, and what you can do to get the most of your sensitivity and lead a happy and healthy life while you’re at it.
What is sensitivity?
Someone might tell you that you’re ‘too sensitive’ or to ‘toughen up’ when your emotions rise to the surface. You may have heard someone say, ‘stop being so sensitive!’ when you couldn’t help but cry or have a reaction to something that aroused your nervous system.
While today’s society is, fortunately, more accepting of highly sensitive people than ever before, we still live among the residue of a society that shamed people, particularly men, for showing signs of high sensitivity and emotional vulnerability.
As such, it may be hard to integrate your sensitivity into your life fully. You must understand that your ability to feel your emotions so profoundly is not a bad thing, no matter who you are.
If you’re a sensitive person, it means that you’re in touch with your emotions and your physical and psychological reactions to life around you. You might feel positive and negative emotions to a more intense degree than others.
You may also be able to empathize with other people beyond what others are capable of and can relate to people’s stories easily because it’s not hard to imagine what they’re going through, even if you’ve never been through it yourself.
Being sensitive is a beautiful thing. You can offer a compassionate ear to anyone who needs to speak about their worries because you can hold a space for their emotions without judgment. However, the flipside of that is that you might also feel overwhelmed in the same situation.
As much as you want to be of help to someone, if their story or rant is too emotionally charged, you might absorb their difficult emotions and try to deal with them as if they’re your own. This is one of the main downfalls of a highly sensitive person, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of your life.
Later in this article, we’ll offer some practical tips to help you manage your sensitivity without suppressing it and how to place an effective shield around your mind and heart to help you keep your mental health and well-being in check.
What causes sensitivity?
It is not well known why some people are more sensitive than others, but some researchers suggest that it’s caused by something called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
SPS is a typical human personality trait defined in the medically reviewed journal Personality and Individual Differences as ‘an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.’
Another study in the same journal outlines the characteristic of SPS, which include:
- Taking a second to notice and ‘check’ one’s surroundings in novel situations
- Accessing deep cognitive processing strategies to cope with and overcome stressors
- Heightened emotional reactivity, ‘both positive and negative.’
In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Aron uses the acronym ‘DOES’ to describe the main traits of the HSP.
D – Depth of processing
‘Our fundamental characteristic is that we observe and reflect before we act. We process everything more, whether we are conscious of it or not.’
O – Overstimulation
‘If you are going to pay more attention to everything, you are bound to tire sooner.’
E – Emphasis
‘.. emphasizing our emotional reactions and having strong empathy, which among other things helps us notice and learn.’
S – Sensitive
‘..being sensitive to all the subtleties around us.’
The highly sensitive person scale
The degree of sensitivity a person experiences can be measured by the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS). The terms’ sensory processing sensitivity and ‘highly sensitive person’ were coined in the 1990s by clinical research psychologist Elaine Aron and her husband, Arthur Aron.
Together, they created the HSP Scale, which consists of 27 questions that determine your level of sensory processing sensitivity. The HSPS takes the form of a Likert scale. This scale requires a respondent to answer questions regarding what they agree with from 1 (‘not at all’) to 7 (‘extremely’).
Examples of questions of the HSPS include:
- Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input?
- Do other people’s moods affect you?
- Are you easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by?
- Does your nervous system sometimes feel so frazzled that you have to go off by yourself?
- Do you make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows?
- Do changes in your life shake you up?
- Do you notice and enjoy delicate or refined scents, tastes, sounds, works of art?
- When you were a child, did parents or teachers seem to see you as sensitive or shy?
What do the results of the HSPS mean?
You can take the HSPT test here. If you answered around fourteen or more of the questions from 4 (moderately) to 7 (extremely), you are probably highly sensitive. A very high score on the test would indicate that you experience many hypersensitivities, which can be exhausting.
Alternatively, if you answered less than fourteen as accurate for you, but those which were true for you, you strongly or extremely agreed with, you may also be a highly sensitive person.
Know that no psychological test will give you a detailed explanation of your personality, but it gives you some valuable insight to reflect upon and learn from.
Is being a HSP a mental health condition?
Being a HSP, or experiencing a significant amount of sensory processing sensitivity or hypersensitivity, is not in itself a mental health condition.
However, people with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tend to show characteristics of hypersensitivity. They would typically score high on Aron’s HSPS.
People with ADHD, autism and borderline personality tend to be highly sensitive people. Loud noises, chaotic environments, a lack of personal space, and other stressful situations can trigger the onset of several uncomfortable and distressing symptoms, including hypersensitivity.
If you experience many hypersensitivities, it might be helpful to speak to a GP or professional therapist who can help you get an accurate diagnosis for your symptoms.
How many people have SPS?
Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a trait among 15 – 20 percent of the population, which is far too common to be classified as a disorder. Extensive research supports the theory that SPS serves an evolutionary survival function.
Despite its survival advantages, SPS can be disadvantageous in that HSPs might quickly become overwhelmed. They might become overstimulated by the large influx of information one experiences on an average day.
Sensory Processing Disorder
There is a condition with similarities to SPS, known as Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder. This neurological condition involves issues in one’s motor control, such as spatial awareness, proprioception, and a ‘mixing up’ of brain signals, leading to out-of-context responses and disorientation.
It is important to note that the root cause of overstimulation and SPD and SPS are not the same.
What to do if you’re sensitive
Below we will offer some practical tips to help you manage your sensitivity and optimize it to add to your happiness and quality of life. First, let it be known that being a highly sensitive person is not a bad thing.
Your emotional intelligence, ability to think deeply, and feel things with significant depth is more of a blessing than a curse. It is by no means a sign of a deficient personality.
Heightened sensitivity is a great trait to possess, but if left unmanaged, it can wreak havoc on your well-being. ‘All virtues have a shadow,’ explains Elizabeth Aron in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Because your mind and nervous system are highly sensitive, life and its rough edges can sometimes overwhelm and exhaust you.
Other people’s negative emotions and feelings may cause you to experience and process those emotions yourself. Highly sensitive people often feel responsible for ‘fixing’ other people’s emotional issues because they seem to have so much insight and knowledge about emotional states.
Still, given your heightened sensitivity, negative emotions may be harder to deal with than they would be for someone less sensitive. As such, it’s essential to get to know how much of other people’s emotional turmoil you can handle and when to set a limit.
“Keeping yourself healthy and in your right range of arousal is the first condition for helping others.” – Elaine N. Aron.
If highly sensitive people don’t look after their mental health, they risk fatigue, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and unnecessary stress.
Stress has become one of the leading causes of anxiety, depression, illness, and disease, so if you’re highly sensitive, take the following advice to prevent stress from taking over.
How to live with high sensitivity
1. Accept yourself
Begin by accepting yourself as you are. Free yourself from the notion that you need to change your personality to be accepted. There is nothing wrong with having heightened sensitivity, despite what others might tell you. Try to keep your thoughts about yourself compassionate and upbeat.
2. Be responsible
Take responsibility for your mental health and well-being by practicing self-acceptance. Moving forward, take responsibility for how you engage and interact with the world around you.
If you know your sensitivity is high, you know some situations will trigger you and may require some mental preparation.
It becomes easier to accept yourself and your emotions when you learn to sit with and be at peace with them. This is a fundamental aspect of mindfulness, but you don’t need to follow any religion or ideology to reap its benefits.
Find a quiet place and take some time to slowly breathe in and out. Allowing your body to completely relax and disconnect from the world.
4. Identify emotional triggers
Some people will tire you out if you’re a HSP. Others will really brighten your day. Take notice of how you feel around other people. Bring awareness to your relationships and check if the people you spend time with are right for you.
Your heightened sensitivity will make you vulnerable to other people’s emotional states, but you can reduce how influential other people’s emotions are by making wise choices and setting healthy boundaries.
The right people will understand your level of sensitivity and be mindful of that when they’re with you. That doesn’t mean they’ll treat you special, but they’ll check their own behavior and attune to yours if things seem stressful.
5. Take care of yourself
It may sound simple, but the most important and effective thing you can do for yourself if you’re a HSP is to take care of yourself. Your sensitivity is a gift, but it becomes a burden if you don’t look after your physical and psychological health.
If you neglect self-care, you increase your risk of anxiety, depression, and other stress-related symptoms.
You can keep your health and well-being in check by:
- Eating nutritious food
- Getting regular exercise
- Practicing meditation
- Immersing yourself in nature
- Setting healthy boundaries
- Express yourself through journaling or other creative outlets
- Creating a warm, safe space for yourself to rest in when you feel overwhelmed
- Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours of sleep a night)
6. Seek support
If your sensitivity is too overwhelming and you’re experiencing frequent waves of anxiety, it may help to seek the support of a professional therapist.
In therapy, you can learn practical coping skills to apply to your daily life when things become too overwhelming. While there is a wealth of resources available online to help you cope, sometimes it helps to learn with an attuned and compassionate therapist.
They may be able to provide a diagnosis for anxiety, or if your SPS is a symptom of ADHD or another neurological condition, they can also offer to help you get the extra support and care that you might need.
If they see that you’re suffering from dysregulation of the nervous system, they can direct you towards another professional who can offer appropriate diagnosis, medical advice, or therapy if necessary.