Have you been described by others as being “too sensitive”? Have you been accused of over reacting to circumstances in which others seem to easily get over it? Do you tend to ruminate over conversations and social situations where you keep replaying the scene in your mind and how you messed up? Do you feel hurt easily by what others say and do? Do you feel self conscious to the point of great anxiety when asked to perform in front of others? Do you feel like an empath from the Star Trek: Next Generation TV series where other people’s moods have the ability to cause you pain or even incapacitation? Do you feel weary from being in constant fight or flight mode? Are you especially vulnerable to stimuli from your environment such as loud sounds, bright lights, strong odors, or other potential sources of over-stimulation?
If you answered yes to a lot of these questions you may be what is known as a Highly Sensitive Person or HSP. It sounds just like another acronym for yet another conjured up mental disorder of the month. Yet in my personal opinion, this label for temperament warrants some merit. Back in 1996 Dr. Elaine Aron wrote about the traits of a personality type she deemed as the “highly sensitive person.” Instead of portraying this type of individual as having some sort of disorder, Doctor Aron simply describes the highly sensitive person as possibly having a different neurological make-up than some. It is estimated that up to 20% of the population are HSP’s.
Some describe highly sensitive people as those who have a sensitive but finely tuned neurological system. This type of wiring can be considered a gift because you may be very empathic, creative and intuitive but there may be a price to pay in also having to battle symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you are an HSP you may be in a constant state of overstimulation from both external and internal stimuli. HSPs are said to be deeply affected by physical and emotional pain.
Knowing myself for all these years, I can honestly say that I fit right in with this description. I feel that having this type of temperament has been both a blessing and a curse. I feel that on one hand I am a deeply caring and compassionate individual with a lot of drive and passion. I can feel the lofty highs of joy and exuberance. But I can also feel the extreme lows of despair and sorrow. There are days when I feel like an exposed nerve, unprotected and raw. The world seems especially difficult to navigate as I am always attempting to feel safe but also pursue my goals. There are times when I physically and emotional shut down as an innate protection strategy from becoming overwhelmed.
I think a lot of factors influence whether or not you are a highly sensitive person. I believe that early childhood traumas can contribute to having the mental wiring where you are in constant fight or flight mode. People who have faced numerous life stressors are probably going to be a little or a lot more sensitive than others. Some of us may have both a biological and genetic predisposition to approach the world more warily than other people. Not all HSP’s are introverts but a good many can be described as shy and socially anxious. It is my opinion that people who are highly sensitive may also have what is called a sensory processing disorder. A sensory processing disorder would explain why some HSP’s have difficulty regulating sensory information and find some stimuli aversive or painful such as loud sounds or bright lights.
If you are interested to find out whether or not you are a Highly Sensitive Person, Doctor Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, has a self test included on her website. Please know that this self assessment is not a diagnostic test but merely a tool for greater self awareness.
In the weeks to come we will be discussing some strategies for tailoring your depression and anxiety treatment for those of you who are highly sensitive people. In the meantime I want to leave you with some questions you may want to ask yourself in identifying triggers for your emotional and physical discomfort.
Highly Sensitive Person Assessment
1. Which social situations cause you the most distress or anxiety? Which conditions of a social situation make you feel more at ease and safe?
2. Which aspects of your close relationships cause you the most discomfort? Is there anything which helps make the discomfort or anxiety more tolerable? When do you feel the most calm and unstressed with friends or family?
3. Which elements of your work make you feel the most fearful or anxious? Are there certain conditions at work which put you more at ease?
4. Which sensory factors cause you the most distress? Are there certain sounds, odors, tactile sensations, visual clutter, bright lights, or other environmental stimuli which cause you feel over-stimulated? Are there any sensory experiences which make you feel calm?
5. Which internal variables make you feel the most stressed? Is it ruminating over past events, is it the feeling of loss, feelings of inadequacy, or worries of being judged? Are there any thoughts which contribute to feeling at peace or mentally well?
The key ingredient for mental wellness for the highly sensitive person is balance. You need to find ways to desensitize yourself to internal and external stimuli which cause you pain and discomfort. It is no easy matter. Save your answers to the questions posed above as we will be using this information to come up with strategies to help you cope.
We would love to hear from you on this topic. Do you feel that you are a highly sensitive person? Have you always been this way? Do you feel that this type of personality makes you more prone to having mental health issues? Do you feel that there are gifts to being sensitive? What are the biggest challenges you face as a highly sensitive person?
For more information about being an HSP or highly sensitive person please refer to these resources and articles:
Websites about HSP or related conditions:
• Dr. Elaine Aron’s website ( author of the Highly Sensitive Person)
Articles on HSP and related conditions: