What is a highly sensitive person and what does it mean to be one?
Before Elaine Aron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) over ten years ago, people who had these characteristics were often wrongly diagnosed as neurotic, timid, or introverted.
In her book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’, Aron explains that we all have a nervous system, but in some, it is overly sensitive. This occurs in up to 20% of the population and is thought to be an inherited trait.
What a highly sensitive person experiences
An HSP has an increased awareness of the minute subtleties in the world around them. They can pick up on tiny effects and nuances, particularly when they themselves are in a calm and relaxed state. They are also good at avoiding making mistakes and seeing potential errors in others. This is because their way of observing the subtleties in the world around them allows a greater level of interpretation.
Aron explains how this way of picking up the missed messages and clues gives them extraordinary insight:
“This greater awareness of the subtle tends to make you more intuitive, which simply means picking up and working through information in a semiconscious or unconscious way. The result is that you often “just know” without realizing how. You “just know” how things got to be the way they are of how they are going to turn out.”
Being a HSP means that you are typically a highly meticulous person, who works painstaking on any task. However, in order to do so, you require absolute calm and no disruptions. You are enormously affected by other people’s moods and emotions and find it hard to shake them off.
If you are an HSP you may have some of the following qualities:
- Be a morning person
- Are good at keeping still
- Affected more than others by stimulants such as caffeine
- Suffer from food allergies or hay fever
- Be highly sensitive to other’s emotions
- Become overwhelmed when you see great beauty or tragedy
- Can tell if someone is lying
- Been diagnosed with SAD (seasonal affective disorder)
- Prefer to spend time alone
- Are overly sensitive to OTC drugs
- Dislike crowds or enclosed spaces
Negative qualities attached to highly sensitive people
Paradoxically, although HSP are typically sensitive to other people’s emotions, when they themselves are tired and overstretched, they become extremely insensitive.
HSP can easily get overwhelmed, due to their over-sensitive nervous system. Imagine that your brain is being bombarded every second with information about your surroundings and all this data is highly stimulating. It can get very tiring and led to a burnout phase called ‘transmarginal inhibition’ or TMI.
Ivan Pavlov was the first psychologist to write about TMI. It has been described as ‘an organism’s response to overwhelming stimuli’ with Pavlov stating:
“That the most basic inherited difference among people was how soon they reached this shutdown point and that the quick-to-shut-down have a fundamentally different type of nervous system.”
This suggests that those with a highly sensitive nervous system will shut down faster than those with one that functions normally.
How do you become a highly sensitive person?
As with most behavioural traits experienced in adulthood, we have to look back to childhood to examine how we were cared for at this important time when our identities were being formed.
Psychologists believe that stress during our childhood is deeply significant to how we behave in later life.
“Depth psychologists place great emphasis on the unconscious and the experiences imbedded there, repressed or simply preverbal, that continues to govern our adult life.”
What this equates to is that stress during our informative years can manifest itself subconsciously, without the HSP even knowing. Aron calls this “preverbal programming,” and relates the HSP adult to taking care of a helpless infant. She calls this analogy the “infant/body”.
“Taking good care of a highly sensitive body is like taking care of an infant. The infant/body self knows what you lacked, what you learned from your parents and other caretakers about how to treat him, what he needs now, and how you can take care of him in the future,” says Aron.
There are several kinds of intense situations in which the parents or caretakers can make the infant feel anxious, and cause it to retreat and dissociate as a defence.
- Constant fussing
“The point of all this is that how others took care of you as an infant/body has very much shaped how you take care of your infant/body now.”
How to cope if you are a Highly Sensitive Person
Make sure you are healthy. Your body should be working as well as it can be as a highly sensitive person will feel more than most, the effects of a poor diet, lack of sleep, or excessive alcohol.
Taking certain supplements can help to rewire the brain chemistry. Vitamins such as B complex and vitamin C, magnesium, 5 HTP and GABA are said to assist in re-balancing brain activity. They promote the calming chemicals which help HSP deal with stressful situations.
Meditation will also help to shut out the intrusions of the everyday noises that HSP hear and feel on a daily basis.
Writing down your moods in a diary is a good way of getting out your feelings and being able to put them to bed.
Finally, remember, you are different and it’s ok to be different.