Discussions of lifestyle usually center on net worth, material possessions, travel, and social life. The word conjures up thoughts of “life outside a person”: What do you have? Where do you go? What do you do for fun? What can you afford? Do you keep up with the Kardashians? But, for the Highly Sensitive Person, “lifestyle” is an expression of a unique, rich, vibrant inner life. It is carefully, thoughtfully chosen, as much out of necessity as out of preference.
For the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who understands and embraces the unique trait of High Sensitivity (HS), life can be gloriously lived.
For the HSP who still lives in the dark with regard to the trait of High Sensitivity, life can be a constant struggle to fit in.
Who are these HSPs? And what is so special about them that they warrant a discussion of their own “lifestyle”?
Highly Sensitive People come into the world that way. High sensitivity is an inborn trait, not something cultivated, practiced, or achieved.
If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Even some HSPs are still unfamiliar with this special neurological make-up that wasn’t really discussed or researched until the 1990’s.
Because HSPs process information deeply (their most defining characteristic), their formula for being happy in life doesn’t equate with that of the majority.
HSPs need somewhat different things in life than non-HSPs to be happy.
Making the most of the Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle depends, in large part, on keeping the inherent strengths of High Sensitivity at the helm. Only then can the many advantages of HS prevail.
The HSP who lives true to the special gifts — and needs — of HIgh Sensitivity can live a life rich with meaning, depth, and pleasure.
In other words, an ideal Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle.
This is about congruence and the alignment of thoughts and feelings with the body’s HS experience.
The result of this congruence is an added dimension infused into each moment.
If you are an HSP, you probably have an instinctive awareness that what works best for the majority of people (non-HSPs) may not work so great for you.
And how could it? The High Sensitivity trait is present in only 15-20% of the population. The majority of people don’t operate on your frequency.
What is (and is not) High Sensitivity?
High Sensitivity is defined differently from the dictionary definition of “sensitive.”
It’s not a flaw, diagnosis, disorder, or curse. Nor does it mean you are “too sensitive,” a “crybaby,” or weak.
Unfortunately, HSPs and non-HSPs have been conditioned–at least in this culture–to view sensitivity as bad.
HSPs are used to being told they are “too sensitive” and “need to toughen up,” as if being Highly Sensitive is a fault and not a “wiring” present from birth.
Contrary to our cultural understanding of sensitivity, HS is associated with what has been referred to as “superpowers.”
What does that mean?
For starters, it means that, from the first moments of life, you’re aware of subtle messages both outside and inside yourself.
You’re sensitive to emotional stimuli (e.g. feelings, facial expressions, words, social cues of people around you) as well as physical stimuli (sounds, lights, textures, temperature, smells).
You feel deeply and care profoundly.
But wait, there’s more!
Empathy, conscientiousness, creativity, attention to detail, perceptiveness, and an ability to pick up on nuances that others miss are just a few additional strengths.
When you understand what High Sensitivity is, you recognize that you, like all HSPs, are anything but weak.
Your strength is in the details. You have no “weak links” because you pick up on, process, and respond to…well…everything!
And the more your Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle aligns with your unique intrinsic preferences, the more your strength increases.
But superpowers come with responsibility. And the weight of that cape can sometimes feel heavy.
In fact, only 15-20% of the population has one to begin with. And that means a small slice of the world is navigating life very differently than most of the world.
It’s imperative, therefore, that you know the kind of lifestyle that best suits you as a Highly Sensitive Person.
Having innate sensitivity bestows both advantages and disadvantages. Recognizing the pros and cons of the trait provides ample opportunity to create the perfect Highly Sensitive personal lifestyle for yourself.
A Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle should include space, both practically and metaphorically.
- (Cue the HSP theme song: Don’t Fence Me In.) HSPs need physical, mental, and emotional space.
- HSPs require an opportunity to reset their nervous systems after stimulating activities that deplete them.
- After a particularly unfulfilling or shallow interaction, HSPs’ emotions feel drained. Taking space in the form of solo refuge and quiet surroundings helps. So does finding a different physical space in which to re-energize.
- At the end of a long day, resorting to a quiet, dimly lit area in the home helps to reregulate the nervous system and provide more inner calm.
- Having a quiet, safe, beautifully decorated space to retreat to is super important. Adding “soothing tools” (music, clay, adult coloring books, etc.) is an extra step toward helping you feel at ease.
- How space looks and feels matters. It can rejuvenate and soothe…or create unease and discomfort. Be intentional!
- The most awesome space for HSPs is in nature. Ocean, beach, woods, mountains, fields— all are examples of physical space that provides luscious inner mind space.
- What kind of space has the opposite effect? Think of a crowded elevator. And all the crammed-in strangers are just leaving a hot yoga class on the 10th floor. For an HSP, that 10-floor ride might as well be a field trip to Hell.
HSPs also benefit from having enough time.
- Rushing or nagging an HSP with time pressures will have a crippling effect, and everyone will lose. HSPs need time to transition between activities/days/schedules, time to respond in conversations, and time to arrive for appointments “on time” or early.
- Time to adjust to changes is important to HSPs. Even positive changes, like starting a new relationship, can be overstimulating and thus require an additional period of adjustment.
- The tendency to straddle the “Old Soul” and “Late Bloomer” line has to do with an existential sense of time.
- HSPs tend to be more aware than non-HSPs of mortality, and their depth of processing reflects that awareness.
- Because of deep processing, HSPs may appear to move more slowly than non-HSPs. It is actually not about moving more slowly, but having more considerations, thoughts, and feelings to process.
- HSPs need more time to make decisions and complete activities because of all the data they process in their minds at once.
HSPs seek and need meaning in life.
- Our culture tends to emphasize the external.
- To go within ourselves and get in touch with ideas, feelings, and theories is super healing.
- HSPs tend to be lovers of animals, whose souls feel kindred!
- And being with someone who understands and/or values that practice is invigorating and adds even more meaning to our life.
- HSPs crave deep connection with others. They may even get bored in relationships lacking meaningful interaction. HSPs may work harder to create intimacy with their partner.
“Sensitivity can be overwhelming, but it is also like having extra RAM on my personal hard drive…Creativity is the pressure valve for all that accumulated emotional and sensory data.”
HSPs need replenishment.
- HSPs don’t do well on a go-go-go schedule.
- Time to relax lowers stimulation levels and restores balance.
- Everyday sources of depletion include small talk, loud environments, crowded spaces
- Key sources of replenishment include nature, quiet time, meaningful relationships, and rest.
- HSPs need a restful night of 8 hours sleep to offset the day’s impact on their nervous system.
Being intentional about how and where you spend time and energy is central to creating an ideal lifestyle. Be deliberate about how you create your way of living life so that your strengths as an HSP are indeed superpowers.This includes making sure you provide yourself with time and space to attune to your internal self.
HSPs crave and pursue meaning. Questions such as “who am I”? “Why am I here”? “Why was I put on this earth”? “How can I make a difference?” are common.
Being aware of how you spend and replenish time and energy, and what kind of lifestyle feels most fulfilling, makes a huge difference – to you, your community, and the world at large.
(By the way, plump, juicy berries with fresh mint leaves as garnish are the kinds of “little” things that make for a happier, more meaningful and beautiful dish – and life! Sometimes the best recipes are the simplest.)
Dr. Elayne Daniels is a clinical psychologist in the Boston area. Helping HSPs thrive and live their best lives is one of her greatest passions.
P.S. The photos of the seals are from my annual HSP retreat on Cape Cod.
Are you dating a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?* If you suspect so, there are things to know that will make or break your relationship. Having a sense of these features in advance (or even during) is helpful. But lacking familiarity with the trait of High Sensitivity (HS) could wipe out your chances of a second date.
Wondering if you are an HSP? Go here and take the short quiz. (Sometimes people discover they are an HSP later in life.)
High Sensitivity is real. It’s a temperament and is, for the most part, invisible. You can’t see it the way you can see eye color, for example.
However, the trait of HS affects all aspects of life, both visible and invisible. Thoughts, feelings, behaviors, senses, work, recreation, relationships— all are touched and influenced by this powerful trait.
High Sensitivity is an inborn trait, just as being right- or left-handed is a built-in trait. About 15% of men and women have it.
High Sensitivity is not a disorder, malfunction, or attempt to be dramatic.
You may be dating an HSP and not know it. In fact, there is a 36% chance you are, according to research by Dr. Elaine Aron.
Aron coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” in the 1990s. Her research suggests that about half of all HSPs are married to other HSPs.
It’s also possible that you are an HSP and just don’t know it…yet.
Knowing signs of High Sensitivity will help you identify if you’re dating a Highly Sensitive Person.
If one of you is an HSP, you’re unlikely to feel ambivalent about a second date. Either the date will go very well, or very poorly.
As Dr Aron says, relationships with an HSP tend to be “exceptionally successful… or quite unsuccessful.”
If you’re dating a Highly Sensitive Person, you’re dating someone who
- thinks and feels deeply
- is moved emotionally by what may seem like little things, whether positive or negative
- becomes distressed by too much noise or chaos
- is intuitive and conscientious
- takes extra time to adapt to change
High Sensitivity is defined by 4 distinct features:
Depth of processing: HSPs are deep thinkers. They’re careful and are alert to subtleties
Over-arousal: HSPs are prone to anxiety and overwhelm due to deep processing.
Empathy: HSPs have a huge capacity for empathy; they feel emotion deeply.
Sensory specific sensitivity: HSPs tend to be sensitive to smells, bright lights, loud sounds, tastes, or tactile features.
Here’s another way to think about HSPs. Their motto is “look before you leap”. Being cautious, taking in information before taking action, and not rushing things are characteristic.
The non-HSP’s adage is “opportunity only knocks once.” Seizing the moment, taking initiative, and being adventurous are characteristics of most non-HSPs.
Which approach works better depends on the context.
In a relationship between an HSP and non-HSP, there is ample opportunity to find the sweet spot, somewhere in the middle.
By nature, HSPs are more likely to take risk into account before making any decisions about relationships, icluding the one with you.
HSPs are going to pause and reflect before diving in. They do their own cost/benefit analysis, considering the risks (e.g. betrayal, loss) and the gains (e.g. love, partnership).
If you’re dating a Highly Sensitive Person, here are 5 important things you need to know:
1. HSPs do lots of reflecting, which may look like overthinking.
Your partner’s nervous system picks up on subtleties and nuance. And that means there’s a lot of processing in the form of thinking and feeling. (And a ton of unique insight, creativity, and empathy too.)
A “downside” of the deep reflection is that HSPs may be more impacted by your words or actions than someone without the trait would be. You may feel like the HSP you’re dating tends to take things “too personally”. (She is used to hearing that, unfortunately.)
This is due to HSPs’ depth of processing.
2. Because of all the feelings, thoughts, behaviors, perceptions, and nuance that HSPs process, overwhelm is more likely to happen.
The over-arousal part of the “DOES” accounts for why HSPs are prone to worry. They hit “overload” sooner than non-HSPs do.
Over-arousal is probably the hardest feature of High Sensitivity.
Ideally, the HSP has created a lifestyle that serves her sensitivity. To do so requires that she knows about her trait and takes time to create a life that aligns with her make-up.
HSPs who know themselves and their traits well are typically aware of early signs of overwhelm. They have learned how to navigate those feelings and often need alone time.
So, Mr. Non-HSP, this would be a not-so-great time to initiate sex (which is often arousing and stimulating) or start a heated discussion.
3.Your HS partner has a natural depth of caring that defies words.
She wants nothing more than to support you. Empathy comes naturally to the HSP.
She is also nurturing and romantic and may, to your astonishment, feel your feelings, even if you aren’t aware of having the feelings at the time.
HSPs are unlikely to intentionally hurt you. They have a way of making you feel more loved than you’ve ever felt.
4. Highly Sensitive People’s feelings can be more intense.
Relationships, regardless of their tenure, involve emotion..
For HSPs, who experience the world in a deeper, more intense way, however, emotion by itself isn’t enough. Meaningful relationships are the only real option.
This of course has both benefits and drawbacks.
HSPs are able to be more deeply moved, touched, or affected than the average person. They are uber-sensitive to beautiful, heartwarming parts of romantic love.
The same happens with negative emotions.
Emotional pain causes an HSP’s heightened nervous system to release a cascade of stress hormones.
Highly Sensitive People tend to experience more threat in their partners’ flaws or behaviors. They also reflect more and worry about how things are going.
All of that is the “extra” part of HSP wiring.
4. For HSPs especially, connection is the basis for a relationship.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? After all, connection is important for any relationship!
That’s the key word – “relationship.”
If you’re in the market for a hookup rather than a relationship, look elsewhere. HSPs value a bond of true connection that provides mutual understanding, warmth, and compassion.
On the other hand, HSPs are also prone to avoiding conflict and taking more time to build up to intimacy.
Finding effective ways to connect and communicate smooths bumps in the road, just as in any relationship.
5. HSPs’ sensitivity is a (relationship) superpower.
HSPs are naturally romantic and nurturing. They tend to love deeply, but are also more impacted by conflict in the relationship.
They have trouble just sweeping conflict under the rug and are more inclined to notice if there is an elephant in the room.
Perceptiveness is an HSP strength and helps to pre-empt potential rough spots.
Quick tips for Dating a Highly Sensitive Person
HSPs are unlikely to enjoy:
- loud restaurants
- busy arenas
- cigarette smell
- small talk
- fluorescent lighting
- dinner parties
HSPs bring to relationships a basic paradox: They fall hard into love, yet fear it more.
They’re drawn to deep waters, filled with mystery and intrigue.
However, they fear how to get out of the deep water and back to the safety of shore.
Dr Aron reminds HSPs that certain behaviors of a partner, like whistling, may be bothersome and tough to tolerate. It’s all part of the HSP/non-HSP package. You attune to your partner’s subtle needs and prefer he not whistle when you’re with each other.
We’re all a mixed bag!
Thoughts on a non-HSP dating an HSP
You’re much more likely to meet an HSP on an Appalachian Mountain Club hike or an Earth Day clean-up than at a nightclub or rock concert.
As an HSP and non-HSP couple, you have what Dr. Aron calls “hybrid vigor”.
The HSP attunes to the subtleties in a situation.
The non-HSP partner acts on that information.
As a non-HSP with an HSP partner, you benefit from how observant she is to subtleties. She sees things you do not, be it in the environment or in someone’s facial expression.
You have the opportunity to experience the magic of life vicariously through your partner, whose nuanced attunement provides excitement and new frontiers.
Because of her awareness and attunement, you may become more generally tuned in over time.
HSPs tend to live a healthy lifestyle. They know when they need to work out, sleep, eat, or take a break. You may be inspired to join her.
Dr. Aron’s research suggests that HSP/non-HSP couples are about as happy as HSP/HSP couples.
Regardless of the configuration, HSP or non-HSP, relationships bring meaning, depth, and joy to life.
Dating a Highly Sensitive Person has the potential to open up a whole new world, filled with richness and dimension.
*This article is written from the perspective of a cisgender female and heterosexual relationships.
Dr. Elayne Daniels, a psychologist in MA, specializes in helping Highly Sensitive People thrive. She has additional specialties in treating eating disorders and body image issues. Contact her here.
Describing the many benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) might come across as peddled optimism, especially if you are an HSP.
Perhaps people have repeatedly told you you’re “so emotional,” “can’t take a joke,” or are just “tooo darn sensitive.”
As much as the judgmental lack of understanding stings, you’re not alone. Many HSPs hear the same things.
But please hear this hint of consolation: Knee-jerk criticisms and platitudes are really statements about those dishing them out, not about you.
Those who don’t understand (or even seek to understand) High Sensitivity often need to cover for their own insensitivity. And what more convenient way to do that than to project the burden of understanding onto you?
(Not sure if you’re Highly Sensitive? Take this quiz to find out.)
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Highly Sensitive People experience the world differently than non-HSPs do.
HSPs feel deeply and are easily moved by little things.
Environments with a lot of stimuli (loud noise, bright lights, strong smells) can be especially stressful due to overstimulation.
The natural ability to think and feel deeply means HSPs can easily get lost in their rich inner worlds. They enjoy reflecting deeply about life – so much so that downtime is necessary to refuel and recalibrate.
HSPs’ brains process emotions, thoughts, and sensory input deeply because their nervous systems are uniquely wired. (And science provides evidence for why and how HSPs are neurologically wired differently than non-HSPs.)
There is no “nervous system hierarchy.” Neither HSP nor non-HSP is superior to the other. They’re just…different.
At the same time, there exist what HSPs (and non-HSPs in-the-know) consider to be benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person.
Some of those benefits, as you will see, are nothing short of remarkable…even unbelievable.
What is “DOES”?
Understanding the characteristics of High Sensitivity may help you to recognize and celebrate the unbelievable benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person.
A simple way to remember the defining characterizations of High Sensitivity is by the acronym “DOES.”
D: Depth of Processing
Highly Sensitive People tend to think a lot. And their thinking is deep.
They’re also reflective and take longer to make decisions.
If you’re an HSP, you will quickly recall being told you “overthink” things or “take things too seriously.”
HSPs are “intense” and feel their feelings deeply.
As a child, you may have been told you’re an “old soul” – usually a nod to perceived maturity for your age. Especially in comparison to other children.
Highly Sensitive People notice a lot. They naturally pick up on others’ feelings (even if unexpressed), features in the environment (e.g. that lovely lavender scent), and internal experiences (e.g. their own delight).
As a result, a sense of “too muchness” and overwhelm is common. It’s not so much that HSPs have a lower threshold for stress. It’s that they have so much processing going on all the time that overarousal happens sooner and more easily.
E: Empathy/Emotion Responsiveness
Highly Sensitive People have strong emotional responses to all kinds of situations.
As an HSP, you’re highly attuned to others’ feelings and can sense others’ “vibes.”
You may feel feelings that belong to people you’re standing with and who don’t even have awareness of their own emotions. You feel their energy and “take it on.”
You’re deeply moved by nature, music, and the arts. You are often easily moved to the point of tears when you encounter something poignant. Regardless of how simple it may seem or whether anyone else notices what has moved you.
Empathy is another “E” aspect of High Sensitivity, and is one of the most beautiful, socially necessary benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person.
As an HSP, you’re extremely in tune with emotions and may even have been asked if you’re clairvoyant or psychic.
Another example of empathy is your aversion to injustice and torture.
Horror films aren’t your idea of entertainment. Even commercials to raise money for abandoned puppies can be too emotionally weighty. If you look back in your history, you can probably draw connections between terrors you have witnessed and the nightmares you have had (and may still have).
S: Sensory Specific Sensitivity
HSPs are more attuned to sights, sounds, smells, and tactile features of the environment than are non-HSPs.
For instance, you notice and are easily touched by sunrises, the breeze, and birds chirping.
You are also more easily affected by bright lights, loud sounds, textures, and flavors.
The effect could be in either direction – pleasant or unpleasant. What registers is the intensity of sensitivity to the specific circumstance or stimulation.
Understanding the trait of High Sensitivity is like hitting ‘refresh’ on the keyboard.
The understanding brings the benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person to light. The benefits are definitely there, yet need to be recognized to be maximized.
The most common reaction to learning about “DOES” and the associated benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person is something like, “Oh wow! My whole life makes sense now!”
For HSPs, learning about the trait is a complete game-changer. Most HSPs have felt judged for being “too sensitive.” Or have been treated as if their sensitivity is a weakness or flaw.
And yet, it’s the opposite that is true: The powerful and amazing benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person are a strength, a gift.
In our fast-paced, extraversion-valuing culture, advantages to being Highly Sensitive may not be apparent. And that’s one reason that recognizing the upside of High Sensitivity and leveraging its features are so important.
Here are 10 remarkable benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person:
HSPs are readers of people’s energy. To the point of people asking if we are psychic because of our depth of intuition.
HSPs “just know” things that other people who aren’t Highly Sensitive don’t know.
Because of innate creativity and a tendency to introspect, HSPs can be hilarious – especially in a quirky, nerdy, punny way.
The intrinsic empathy HSPs have is refreshing. HSPs are naturally phenomenal at caring.
They can’t, for example, watch a scene in which a person or animal is being hurt. They’re well aware of how much suffering there is in the world. Being a witness to another’s suffering is a call to end it, not find entertainment in it.
Systems of oppression and social injustice concern them greatly. Long after observations and relevant conversations have ended.
4. Environmental awareness
HSPs seek refuge in nature, where every sense beautifully activates. Sounds of birds, warmth of the gentle breeze, scents of flowers. It’s almost like being immersed in a scene on high-def television.
Another example of the way HSPs value nature is their respect for it. It’s safe to say there may never have been an HSP who has thrown plastic bottles onto the beach or who dismisses climate change!
5. Appreciation for the little things
The saying, “God is in the details” is, to the HSP, a mantra for being.
You’re astutely aware of such microscopic details that others may not even notice what you are reveling in. You linger on the variety of oval shapes of raindrops on your windshield. And the way the flower bud sways in the breeze.
You’re that rarity who, without struggle, discovers “a world in a grain of sand.” And a microscopic photo of a tiny bug’s face will only serve to expand your compassion to all life.
A benefit of being a Highly Sensitive Person is that even “the little things” in life are not little things. “Everything contains everything.”
One benefit of having such a rich internal world is HSPs’ innate creativity.
To the HSP, there’s no other way to exist. Creativity is our natural state. To ignore it is to go against the essence of who we are. (So say the Highly Sensitive ones.)
The world around the HSP takes joy in the creativity that she sees as simply “being who she is.”
She makes the world a more beautiful place because she elevates all those microscopic details that others miss. She glorifies them, brings awareness to them. And makes them desirable and approachable to an otherwise mundane world.
In a nutshell, the HSP draws others into the gifts of heightened awareness and appreciation of the little things in life.
The active imagination of HSPs is noteworthy. The creative mind is the “engine” of the HSP. Ideas may spark at any moment.
“Being a sensitive empath is a beautiful thing as an artist…”
“I am very sensitive to the interactions I have with people. Whether it’s a momentary glance in an elevator, or a deep philosophical conversation over dinner, or a brush-by in a café, I feel attuned and affected by the subtle exchanges that pass seemingly benignly between us as human ships. Being a sensitive empath is a beautiful thing as an artist, and it fosters a deep burning curiosity about why we do the things we do.”
― Alanis Morissette
7. Deep friendships
Quality over quantity for sure. HSPs tend to have fewer friends than their non-HSP peers, but the friendships they have run deep. Very deep. They are meaningful and often long-lasting.
8. Desire to nurture
With the innate empathy of HSPs, nurturing others comes naturally. Having a sixth sense of what others need also lends itself naturally to a joy of nurturing – children, animals, the environment, or people in general.
9. Skillful at observing minor differences and details.
HSPs naturally scan the environment like Sherlock Holmes, often without even realizing it.
Let’s say, for example, you ask what the people at the table next to you ordered from the menu. No problem! The HSP will remind you in vivid detail.
When an HSP looks at something like fruit, for example, he notices nuance in color, shape, size, and other features.
10. Love of nature
The likelihood of an HSP littering or walking by a plastic bottle on the beach without picking it up is tiny.
What is likely is that an HSP will be at the beach early in the morning to witness the sun rise or at dusk to watch the sun set.
There are tradeoffs with just about every aspect of who each of us is.
In other words, there are pluses and minuses to nearly all personality characteristics.
Why not discover ways for your High Sensitivity to work for you?
Imagine if you and your High Sensitivity were on your own side?
In our go-go-go, win-win-win culture, many benefits of High Sensitivity are unappreciated. But that doesn’t mean you have to lack appreciation for being Highly Sensitive.
Good news! You can intentionally create your own space for appreciating how you are wired.
How? By being aware of your needs and prepared for hiccups. Finding ways to protect yourself from feeling overwhelmed. Getting enough sleep, and not letting your blood sugar destabilize.
Celebrate Your Sensitivity
Being sensitive is not a bad thing! Your hard-wired nature brings you benefits of joy and happiness. Your awareness of and empathy for other people are sources of strength.
You naturally wonder why people and things are the way they are. You’ve likely wondered why so few other people are as enchanted by the mysteries of the universe as you are.
Lead with your enchantment. The world desperately needs its vibrant inspiration.
Be kind to yourself. Make a plan to take care of yourself in stressful situations. Celebrate your sensitivity each day.
Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist in the Boston area whose passion is to help people celebrate their High Sensitivity…and shine their light!
This world can be a cruel place for sensitive souls. It seems to struggle with its ability to balance progress with presence. And those who suffer the most are often those with the innate gifts capable of giving meaning to progress. To feel, to process, to act upon the call of compassion take time. And progress, in its misguided rush for the profit of the day, too often dismisses anything that asks it to pause, feel, or change course.
The sensitive ones take the burden upon themselves to find a way and place to fit in. “Why am I so sensitive? Why do I not feel connected to this world? Does anyone understand me? Paradoxical as it will sound, if you recognize your own loneliness in this description, you are not alone.
You may be part of a small percentage of people described as Highly Sensitive.
Curious as to whether you might be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)? Take this quiz to learn more.
Is it normal to be so sensitive?
High Sensitivity is a real thing. It’s a normal genetic trait found in 15-20% of people.
If you happen to have come into this world with your planets in the house of High Sensitivity, you will be sensitive your whole life. That’s just how you’re wired.
Even though HSPs are in a minority, being Highly Sensitive isn’t bad, wrong, or deviant.
High Sensitivity actually has many cool features, especially when you live in a way that honors it.
There are four components of being Highly Sensitive:
- Depth of processing: You pick up on things (including nuances that most people don’t even notice) easily and process information deeply.
- Overstimulation: Because you are constantly processing information, you are prone to anxiety and overwhelm. Regular time to yourself helps to replenish.
- Empathy and strong emotions: You easily pick up on social and emotional cues and have tremendous empathy.
- Sensory-specific sensitivity: You’re highly responsive to smells, flavors, sounds, fabric, and/or things you see.
The scientific name for the High Sensitivity trait is Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
SPS sounds like a bad thing. (Why else would they give it an acronym?)
Remember, High Sensitivity/SPS is not a bad thing. To the contrary….
Please hear this loud and clear. There is nothing wrong with you. You don’t have a diagnosis or condition due to being “so sensitive.” You’re not a “crybaby.” You’re not “too” anything.
(Reread that sentence as many times as you may need to!)
Of course, if you’ve been told over and over to “stop being so sensitive,” “lighten up,” or “you need to get a thick skin,” it makes sense that you would wonder why you are “so sensitive.”
The reason you’re “so sensitive” is that, as an HSP, you process information deeply, be it emotions, thoughts, or sensory stuff. This naturally makes you more physically sensitive and emotionally sensitive than people without the trait.
So, true, you may feel overstimulated in a noisy setting. (Why can’t anyone else hear the person snapping gum or tapping a pen on the desk?) Or irritated more often by things that don’t bug other people. And I bet you feel things deeply, including your feelings and those of others. (That’s why you can watch only so much of the news and can’t stomach horror movies or images of cruelty.)
At times life itself can feel “too much,” as if a black cloud is following you.
In our go-go-go culture, sensitivity is generally considered a weakness. That’s both an unfair and weighty judgment to live with. It’s also exhausting.
But here’s some good news: Being an HSP is not doom and gloom.
Sure, as with any personality trait, being “so sensitive” has challenges.
But it also has many strengths.
It’s even considered a superpower.
What’s good about being “so sensitive”?
What better way to answer a great question than to hear it directly from someone who is “so sensitive”?
“I used to dislike being sensitive. I thought it made me weak. But take away that single trait, and you take away the very essence of who I am. You take away my conscience, my ability to empathize, my intuition, my creativity, my deep appreciation of the little things, my vivid inner life, my keen awareness of others’ pain and my passion for it all.”
Doesn’t this sound like a beautiful human being? Someone who seems to be connected to what genuinely matters in life? Someone you would like to know and even emulate?
Who are these “HSPs”? What makes them so special?
HSPs tend to be:
aware of surroundings
healers, teachers, helpers
(All of this is true, as long as you’re not in a state of overstimulation.)
Want to see some of the great company HSPs are in? Click here to read about some of the great HSP contributors to our world.
Why are you “so sensitive”?
(If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that….)
1. Brains of HSPS have more activity in areas responsible for empathy, emotion, and reading social cues. This translates to HSPs being extra alert and tuned into people around them, as well as to themselves.
2. HSP’s take things in easily, like a sponge – so much so that sounds, emotions, images, smells, and people’s vibes are easily “absorbed.” Because of how quickly and automatically this happens, overwhelm or “too much-ness” happens.
3. HSPs have more active mirror neurons than do non-HSPs, which allows them to feel a deep empathy for and understanding of other people.
4. Being Highly Sensitive is a personality trait, not a disorder, there is no diagnosis or treatment. It’s just how you’re made. Your nervous system is wired with Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
(Another consideration: How about the sensitivity level of those around you? It’s certainly possible that they are not sensitive enough.
“Majority” is not always the definition of “normal.” It may define “norms,” but it doesn’t necessarily define how things are supposed to be or how they would best exist.)
Understanding your sensitivity is key to managing overwhelm.
HSPs navigate life differently than people who are not “so sensitive.”
They generally like to take time to enjoy subtle experiences. They get more joy out of smelling the aroma of freshly baked bread than from listening to a loud concert.
HSPs take in a lot from the environment and are able to subconsciously evaluate what they take in. That means stronger intuition.
They process more information and process it more deeply than non-HSPs.
Why not lean into the pleasurable aspects of HSP superpowers? Instead of questioning yourself – “Why am I so sensitive? Why can’t I shut this off?” – why not embrace what only a small percentage of people have and can do?
(Cue poignant song lyrics, beautiful piano playing, a crocus popping up through the snow, or the smile of a child.)
Misunderstandings about why some people are “so sensitive” mean life can be challenging for HSPs.
Imagine as a child being told constantly to “put your big girl/boy panties on” or “just let it go!”
As an adult, you’d probably be filled with depression, anxiety, and low self-worth.
But if, as a child, you were raised in a supportive environment, your active nervous system would be respected rather than criticized. And, as an adult, you would likely feel content with yourself and your life.
For people who are “so sensitive,” I recommend the following:
Spend time by yourself each day to help manage overwhelm and anxiety. It’s crucial!
Also important is putting thought into how you will spend your time. Be choosy about how, with whom, and where you spend time.
Anytime you ask yourself “Why am I so sensitive?” remember that your High Sensitivity is a superpower. Like all traits, there are benefits and challenges that go along with it.
Once you understand your sensitivity, you’ll navigate your way to the land of thriving. Unapologetically.
Wearing the superhero cape is optional.
Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, body image, and High Sensitivity. Her passion is helping Highly Sensitive People embrace their sensitivity so they canTHRIVE! For more information, contact her here.
They’re enigmas to most of the world. They “over-think,” “over-feel,” and have an almost eerie ability to read a roomful of strangers at a heart-level. They can go from “life of the party” to needing a three-day nap with no social interaction. And, when they come out of hiding, they go about saving the world with their empathetic do-gooding and creativity. Who are these alien earthlings? And what are the ways a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain is different from the brains of…well…the not-so-sensitive?
Put another way, why is an HSP’s brain considered the “most powerful social machine in the known universe”?
(If you aren’t sure if you are an HSP, take this quiz to find out.)
What is High Sensitivity?
High Sensitivity (HS) is a trait, present at birth, in about 15-20% of the population. It has no gender-bias, and it’s not a disorder or diagnosis.
People with the HS trait are ultra-responsive to what’s going on in their environment. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) notice darn near everything, and they process it all deeply. They’re extremely perceptive.
In general, American culture views sensitivity as a weakness. HSPs are used to hearing, “You’re too sensitive” and “You need to lighten up.” In other cultures (e.g. Japan), however, sensitivity is considered a strength.
The scientific name for High Sensitivity is Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
Scientists have discovered SPS in over 100 species, including fish, birds, dogs, monkeys, and horses.
Why else would 10-15% of dachshunds or guppies be Highly Sensitive?
Because they’re more responsive to their environment, animals (and people) with SPS are more aware of opportunities, such as food and mating options.
They’re also more aware of threats, such as predators, and are more prepared to respond.
In other words, HS provides a survival strategy of being observant before acting. The wait-before-acting approach guarantees that a species continues to evolve. (This sensitive survival strategy is only beneficial if found in a minority.)
Let’s briefly review what a Highly Sensitive Person is before discussing the Highly Sensitive Person’s brain.
“DOES” is a helpful way to remember the 4 pillars of High Sensitivity.
- Depth of processing: HSPs are deep thinkers.
- Over-arousal : HSPs are prone to anxiety and overwhelm due to deep processing.
- Empathy: HSPs have a huge capacity for empathy; they feel emotion deeply.
- Sensory specific sensitivity: HSPs tend to be sensitive to smells, bright lights, loud sounds, tastes, and tactility.
All features in the “DOES” framework are due to differences in the Highly Sensitive Person’s brain.
How does the Highly Sensitive Person’s brain work differently than the brain of someone who is not HS?
Understanding a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain brings clarity to the why and how of an HSP’s experience.
1. While at rest, a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain works harder than the brain of someone who is not an HSP.
HSPs process everything deeply, even when not reacting to something specific in the here-and-now. An HSP could be processing something from three hours ago or something suddenly remembered from last month.
So, in plain terms, the brain of a Highly Sensitive Person never really shuts off – even at rest.
2. At least three sets of genes and their variants distinguish a Highly Sensitive Person’s brain from the brain of a non-HSP.
The three genes are responsible for serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
- Serotonin Transporter:
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that helps neurons communicate with one another. It’s central to mood and emotion because it’s primary function is to stabilize mood.
Serotonin transporter is a chemical that transports serotonin out of the brain.
HSPs have a variant of the serotonin transporter encoding gene, known as 5-HTTLPR. The 5-HTTLPR gene variant decreases serotonin in the brain and increases sensitivity to surroundings.
The HS brain may have less mood-stabilizing serotonin than the non-HS brain, but it has an enhanced ability to learn from experience.
The presence of this gene variant enhances the effects of both good and adverse childhood experiences.
This may explain why childhood experiences – both positive and adverse – so dramatically impact wellbeing for HSPs.
For better or worse, HSPs’ childhood experiences affect them more than do the childhood experiences of non-HSP.
This neurotransmitter is known as the reward chemical.
If you have a sensitive nervous system, you don’t need much to feel “rewarded” by external stimuli. Chaotic, noisy, loud environments exhaust rather than excite you.
Carry that reality over to an environment like a loud football stadium, and you and your non-HS friends are likely to have very different experiences. Their “dopamine hit” will probably register as unsettling for you.
The explanation for this difference lies in the fact that the relevant dopamine gene variants all have to do with dopamine receptors. As an HSP, you simply don’t need the same amount of “reward” from external stimuli.
The same dopamine variant also explains why HSPs feel more rewarded by positive social or emotional cues.
Norepinephrine helps the body with the stress response. It’s also central to “emotional vividness,” or a person’s perception of emotional aspects in the world.
A variant of the norepinephrine gene, common in HSPs, boosts emotional vividness. If you have it, you experience emotional aspects of the world intensely.
You may also have more going on in parts of the brain that create internal emotional responses to experiences.
HSPs naturally respond more strongly to emotions than do non-HSPs. In addition, they notice emotional nuances when others don’t necessarily pick up on anything.
This ability to perceive emotional nuances – to “feeel” what others are feeling but not necessarily overtly expressing – is the foundation of empathy.
If you’re Highly Sensitive, this norepinephrine gene variant may be at least partly responsible.
3. HSPs have more active mirror neurons, which explains their gigantic capacity for empathy.
Mirror neurons are brain cells that help us understand what someone else is feeling. They’re involved in recognizing sadness and relating to it.
Because of such active mirror neurons, HSPs absorb emotions from people around them. Often they’re not even aware they’re doing so.
4. HSPs’ emotions are extra vivid due to a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).
The vmPFC is involved in emotion regulation, especially the vividness of emotions.
The emotional vividness is not of a social nature (unlike mirror neurons). The vmPFC is more about how vividly HSPs feel emotions inside in response to what’s happening outside, in the environment.
So HSPs often do have stronger feelings than other people because of the workings of their vmPFC. HSPs’ brains are so finely tuned that they can pick up on subtle emotional cues and react to them.
5. fMRI studies of the brain suggest the cortex and insula are more strongly activated among HSPs than non HSPs.
The insula is located deep in the brain. It has a lot of jobs, including interoceptive awareness.
Interoceptive awareness is about knowing what’s happening in your own body, such as hunger, thirst, and needing to pee. Emotions and moment-to-moment awareness are also part of the insula’s job.
By combining the most nuanced internal awareness with emotional context, the insula gives emotional meaning (e.g. pain, pleasure) to physiological states.
6. Another area of greater activation for HSPs is in the middle temporal gyrus (MTG).
This part of the brain has to do with emotional meaning-making. It’s involved in awareness of and response to stimuli. Examples of stimuli include things like loud sounds, strong smells, bright lights, and other people’s moods.
The Highly Sensitive Person’s brain is a gift.
It deeply processes information, makes interesting connections, and cares about people.
Science shows us that HS is associated with certain genes and patterns of brain activation. It’s not just hypothetical or theoretical.
The High Sensitivity trait is real.
An extra-special HSP gift is the one your brain gives to YOU. It is the gift of protection.
Your brain is able to recognize and understand what is going on around you. You see things coming before they happen.
So, the next time someone comments on your sensitivity, let the smile of knowing (and gratitude) spread across your face.
Offer to go into detail about the science and inborn nature of High Sensitivity. You know, the cingulate, premotor area, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, mirror neurons, ventromedial PFC, insula.
The superpower stuff you came into the world with.
See how your critic processes that!
Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist and coach in MA whose absolute passion is helping other Highly Sensitive People thrive. Contact her here.
Are you a Highly Sensitive Person or in a relationship with a Highly Sensitive Person? Either way, there are important things to know about Highly Sensitive People in relationships.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Highly Sensitive People are ultra-aware of what’s going on around them. HSPs process information thoroughly and respond strongly to both positive and negative input.
As a result, HSPs commonly experience the world as overwhelming.
“The world” refers to everything going on around and within a person. External stimulation includes sounds, images, smells, and taste. Internal stimulation derives from the vivid internal world of thoughts, feelings, and overall creativity.
Why the overwhelm?
HSPs are just wired that way. High Sensitivity is as natural to their makeup as having blue eyes or a size-7 foot size.
In the case of High Sensitivity, taking in a lot of information easily leads to overstimulation and a feeling that it’s all “too much.” The “too muchness” may unfortunately create the perception that the Highly Sensitive Person is “too much.”
The “too muchness” also applies to joy, gratitude, and other positive emotions. Walking by the ocean, observing Piping Plovers on the water’s edge, and feeling the sun’s warmth can be intoxicating for HSPs. As the partner of an HSP, you too benefit from his or her high-definition experience of a walk by the ocean.
HSPs make up about 15-20% of the population, with an equal male/female ratio.
HSPs themselves may not even be aware they have this trait. There’s a gigantic “aha!” moment when HSPs recognize having the trait.
The dots in life immediately connect when HSPs discover the High Sensitivity trait.
The same can be said of you if you’re in a relationship with a Highly Sensitive Person. Everything makes more sense when you recognize the High Sensitivity trait in your highly sensitive partner.
People who don’t have the trait pay less attention to subtle stimuli, approach situations more quickly, and are less emotionally reactive. They have a greater capacity to be unaffected by loud sounds (e.g. sirens) and by more subtle sounds (e.g. when a piece of silverware makes a scratching sound on a china plate).
The same kind of heightened capacity also applies to the non-HSPs other senses.
If you don’t have the High Sensitivity trait, understanding people who do have it can be challenging.
Many HSPs suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem because their sensitivity isn’t appreciated.
How do people know if they’re Highly Sensitive or in a relationship with someone who is?
The fastest way to determine if you’re Highly Sensitive is to take the self-test that Dr Elaine Aron created. She is a pioneer in the field, and her research in the 1990’s helped to identify the trait of High Sensitivity.
If you’re wondering if your partner is Highly Sensitive, check out the same self-test and evaluate how closely it describes your partner.
Things to know about Highly Sensitive People in relationships:
1. Highly Sensitive People NEED down time to recalibrate their nervous systems.
This is not a luxury! It is for basic self-preservation. Expect your HSP partner to require alone time and maybe short breaks throughout the day to regroup.
Don’t take this personally or as rejection. It’s just your Highly Sensitive partner honoring their nervous system. Remember, the HSP’s central nervous system is constantly taking in information you don’t even notice.
The onslaught of sensory stimuli can be exhausting!
2. Highly Sensitive People have less interest and capacity to socialize, especially in a group.
Your partner is not anti-social; they just get overwhelmed more easily because of the depth of their processing and attunement to so many details. You would, too, if you were that aware of others’ emotions, especially when those emotions aren’t in sync with what’s being expressed.
Having a discussion in advance for how to navigate social occasions is helpful. Communication and compromise are key.
Socializing is also more difficult for HSPs if there’s a lot of noise, activity, or other distractions (e.g. the air temperature is hot).
So, if you’re all about partying hard, you’re probably not in a well-suited relationship!
3. HSPs are ultra-responsive to touch.
Whether fabrics are itchy or velvety, HSPs feel it. Really feel it. This is important to know so that your HSP partner has the optimal level of positive stimulation and responsiveness.
Bring on the body lotion so your skin is nice and soft for your Highly Sensitive partner! The benefits are mutual.
Your HSP partner can always recognize the sweet spot. Whether it’s mattress firmness, furry slippers, or a cozy sweatshirt, an HSP knows what feels right.
She also knows what doesn’t feel right (like that annoying tag in the sweatshirt). She may enjoy or abhor the feel of your beard. Ask her and go from there.
Ultra-responsivity to tactile joy is a plus for your relationship with a Highly Sensitive Person!
4. Highly Sensitive People notice things others don’t even see.
Your partner isn’t being picky or demanding by responding or reacting to subtleties.
The subtlety may be the way your smile changes with your mood.
It could be that one lightbulb is dimmer than the other two…or even that there’s a spider web in the distant upper corner of a room.
HSPs naturally process thoughts and feelings deeply. They tend to be curious, too. As a result, they’re often excellent problem-solvers.
You may value or despise the HSP’s “sixth sense.” Regardless, their antennae pick up on vibrations in the environment and in everyday intricacies.
Whether this is “good,” “bad,” or neither depends on perspective.
Think of it this way: Your Highly Sensitive partner must have seen positive qualities in you when you met. She had a “good sense” of who you are and of the relationship you two could have. She probably noticed “the little things,” including your quirks. And now here you are, a couple.
Perhaps your partner’s High Sensitivity is what brought you together?
5. HSPs dislike confrontation.
In relationships, Highly Sensitive People often avoid confronting their partners. They prefer to keep the peace.
Why? Because arguing creates lots of stress, and the stress becomes “too much.” HSPs then feel overwhelmed, and overstimulation sets in. With overstimulation comes anxiety, uneasiness, and misunderstandings.
Avoiding confrontation can create problems, especially when resentment builds. Over time, resentment will inevitably build. That’s just what happens when you hold things in.
One way to avoid resentment is to prioritize meaningful conversation, including “checking in with” one another. Invite warmth and understanding – rather than resentment – to build up over time.
Being in a relationship with a Highly Sensitive Person is an opportunity to live life more deeply. Especially if you’re both aware of the High Sensitivity trait, and you navigate your life with the trait in mind.
Unprecedented depths of meaning await!
Dr Elayne Daniels is a MA-based psychologist who helps Highly Sensitive People embrace their High Sensitivity and thrive! Contact me here.
Posted in Thriving As A Highly Sensitive Person
Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are more likely to burn out than the 80-85% of the population who aren’t Highly Sensitive. Some good news for all you Highly Sensitives out there: There are things you can do to prevent burn out.
Why are Highly Sensitive People more likely to burn out?
Highly Sensitive People are born with a nervous system that is highly attuned. If you’re an HSP, you know how responsive (i.e. sensitive) you can be to experiences.
Whether it involves sight, sound, touch, scent, taste, or even body language, you sense it all. You uniquely tune into the emotions and vibe/energy of people around you.
Understanding the four pillars of the High Sensitivity trait will further help you appreciate why Highly Sensitive People are more susceptible to burnout. And it will help you know what to do about it.
The four pillars of High Sensitivity include:
Depth of Processing:
- As a Highly Sensitive Person, you tend to spend a lot of time reflecting.
- You take your time thinking through decisions. You naturally take in a lot of information from around and within you. No effort or intent needed.
- You’re aware of subtlety and nuance that others simply are not aware of.
- You process everything more by relating and comparing present-moment experiences and observations to past experiences and observations.
Because of your deep and extensive thought process, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed due to the pure enormity of what’s on your mind.
- You notice a lot in all situations.
- You’re aware of details that others aren’t aware of.
- You may feel people’s feelings, even when they don’t feel their own.
- Because of all the stimulation, you’re more prone to feeling overwhelmed.
Because of all you notice, hear, see, manage, remember, and process, it makes sense that you are prone to overwhelm…and sooner than non-HSPs.
- Your positive and negative emotional reactions are strong.
- You’re in tune with other people’s emotions.
- Empathy is purely natural for you.
- You may even feel people’s energy field.
- “Vantage sensitivity” is the fancy phrase referring to your tendency to benefit disproportionately from positive conditions and interventions.
- Having more active mirror neurons than non-HSPs explains why you naturally read emotion and have automatic deep empathy.
Your inherent empathy, combined with your tendency to have strong emotions, makes you prone to feeling overwhelmed sooner. You also feel more intensely than people without the trait of High Sensitivity, which can also lead to feeling burned out.
Sensitivity to Subtleties:
- Your senses are highly attuned because of how you process sensory information.
- The attunement is because of the way you process input from your senses.
- Brain areas are very active when you perceive things because of complex processing of sensory information.
Ugh! The fluorescent lighting in your office, the cubicles, loud sounds of many people talking at once, and the smell of the fish sticks from the microwave are super intense for you. This intensity puts you at higher risk of experiencing your environment as “too much” and therefore quickly burning out.
What can Highly Sensitive People do to reduce/eliminate burnout?
The High Sensitivity trait is innate — something you’re born with (or not). So, unless you alter your DNA, your High Sensitivity is not going to change.
Learning how to navigate as an HSP is imperative. Otherwise, you will burn out. As in extra crispy.
Tips for Highly Sensitive People to Avoid Burnout:
- Own it.
Know your trait! When you’re aware of the implications, you’ll be able to anticipate what gives you energy and what depletes you of energy. And you’ll be able to plan accordingly.
- Know your people.
Spend more time with people who give you energy and less with people who deplete it. Smaller groups or 1:1 are often more comfortable than larger groups for HSPs.
- Be aware of triggers.
In general, what sensory experiences are unmanageable in the short term? Long term? See if you can find balance between triggers and taking breaks.
Giving full attention to one task at a time means you’ll work more effectively. Multi-tasking takes a lot of energy and can easily lead to overwhelm.
- Recharge often.
This is essential and non-negotiable for HSPs. Go into nature, where there is more serenity. Be still or walk; listen to nature’s sounds and enjoy. Consider putting your phone away and just be.
- Move it.
Regular exercise lowers the risk of burnout.
- Say nope.
Learn to say “no” more often. Saying “yes” to something you would rather not do is actually a “no” to yourself. Learn to set your boundaries.
- Dare to be less than perfect.
Most HSPs are also perfectionists. Learn how to reduce or even let go of your perfectionism.
Perfection is an ideal to strive toward, but it doesn’t actually exist.
You are good enough as you are!
- Create meaning.
HSPs need to do meaningful work. When work lacks meaning, stress happens more easily and quickly. So find work that gives you satisfaction.
- Structure and planning.
Structure and routine are often important to monitor your impulses, and you do this through planning.
Make a weekly schedule, starting with your non-negotiables (things you can’t avoid, like a dentist visit). Then schedule me-time and alone-time.
When you have open time, you can plan other things.
Good planning ensures that you take action and that you also take moments to relax.
When your head is full, write down your thoughts.
For example, keep a “worry” journal. Peace of mind is more likely when you remove the whirlwinds of thoughts looping in your head.
Understanding the way your nervous system is wired and why you roll the way you roll is helpful in offsetting burnout. If you do not understand your experience of the world, you will be overwhelmed and at major risk for more overwhelm, chronic stress, and burnout.
Fortunately, the more you understand about your HSP trait, the greater the likelihood your choices in life will facilitate your best, non-burned-out, self.
Dr Elayne Daniels, a private-practice psychologist and coach in MA, specializes in treating Highly Sensitive People and people with eating disorders and body image problems..
If you’re a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), you’ve probably had the experience of sensing something was about to happen before it did. Or of feeling people’s energy or mood. Maybe even when they themselves were unaware of their own emotions. It’s no surprise people have wondered if you, a Highly Sensitive Person, are psychic.
Whether you know about or utilize your sixth sense, it is there.
The reality is you don’t actually have bionic powers or microchip technology in your brain.
However, you DO have a superpower of exquisite attunement. (And that is just one of your superpowers.) The attunement is because, in part, of three particular sets of genes you have.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
The concept of a Highly Sensitive Person has gained traction since Dr Elaine Aron coined the term in the late 1990s.
Highly Sensitive People make up 15-20% of the population. The High Sensitivity trait is present in over 100 species.
HSPs are high in sensory-processing sensitivity, a personality trait. High levels of this trait lead to greater awareness of subtleties and deep processing of information. HSPs are more aware of external (noise, light) and internal (hunger, thoughts) stimuli than people without the trait are. Their inner world is filled with rich images, thoughts, and feelings.
Most HSPs have always felt a bit different, without knowing exactly why. Often it’s because of how strongly they feel things and how intuitive they are.
Highly Sensitive People are born with a unique nervous system. It’s configured differently than the nervous system of 80-85% of the population who aren’t Highly Sensitive. In fact, scientists have identified genes that explain behavior, physical reactions, and brain activation patterns specific to HSPs.
So your Highly Sensitive Person psychic brain IS wired in a way that’s essentially a sixth sense.
Brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing are more easily and deeply activated than the brain regions are of people without the High Sensitivity trait.
HSPs essentially feel and integrate sensory information in a way that leads to a high degree of attunement to others and to the environment. Due to their wiring, HSPs feel, think, love, and process life around them very intensely.
This sixth sense is why so many people perceive you to be psychic. You are operating on a higher frequency. You pick up on way more than do the 80-85% of people who do not have the High Sensitivity trait.
A sixth sense/”being psychic” means different things.
There are lots of misconceptions about being ‘psychic’.
For example, many people think being psychic means you’re able to predict the future. True, “fortune telling” is one example of a psychic ability.
But so are:
- Being aware of energy
- Being intuitive
- Feeling others’ emotions
- Detecting lies
Highly Sensitive People may seem psychic because they can sense or even at times feel the energy or vibe of others. For instance, HSPs are better than non-HSPs at distinguishing between “good” guys and “bad guys”. In real life and in movies. (That does not mean the accuracy rate is 100%!)
Many HSPs have stories illustrating their awareness of other’s energy.
Often such anecdotes occur when out in public, such as at a restaurant. HSPs feel the energy of others around them. Maybe for example they’re aware of tension between a couple, even though the couple appear chatty and happy. Or they can sense the sad energy behind a smiling face. Or that their server is having a bad night despite her cheery demeanor.
If someone is bad news, you know it. Or, if something doesn’t feel right for you, you probably know that, too.
Intuition is another version of a sixth sense. For instance, Highly Sensitive People have an inner knowing, an intuition, that is hard to explain. They know for example what changes in the environment someone needs to feel comfortable, whether it is dimming the lights or lowering the television volume.
HSPs are particularly intuitive when it comes to social and emotional cues. “Reading” people comes naturally.
HSP wiring is designed for self protection. It’s fine-tuned to notice and interpret what’s going on around you in a detailed and comprehensive way. The hyperawareness (combined with memory) likely contributes to intuition.
A third type of a sixth sense is the ability to feel other people’s emotions. This can make it tricky to know when the feelings are yours, and when they belong to the other person.
Though Highly Sensitive People are not psychic, a lot of rare abilities go along with the trait.
Many of which could be considered (part of) what being psychic means.
For example, HSPs tend to communicate well. They hear the words coming out of other people’s mouths AND are attuned to subtle gestures and tone.
Another example of why people wonder if Highly Sensitive People are psychic is HSPs’ natural ability to identify people’s display –or non-display– of feelings.
HSPs pick up on each sense: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
Without effort, HSPs also tend to take in new information unconsciously, without being aware of what has been learned. This leads to the experiences of an HSP “just knowing” a solution to a problem. This “sixth sense” isn’t technically psychic, but it’s powerful.
One of the keys to thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person is to access and share the perks of your wiring. Your ability for attunement, aka ‘being psychic’, is one such example.
Being a Highly Sensitive Person has challenges associated with it. Constantly processing so much information (“overthinking”), and feeling emotions intensely (“too sensitive”) can be exhausting, for example.
There are also gifts that accompany your extraordinary brain. Your intuition is one of those gifts.
Whether you call your innate capacities a superpower, or not, they’re part of your nervous system. Why not leverage your natural HSP capacities to enrich your life with meaning and connection?
Life is filled with ups and downs for everyone. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to feel ups and downs even more intensely than people who are not Highly Sensitive. Tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs can help.
Reactivity isn’t a bad thing. It can make life more stressful, though, and is a core challenge to being an HSP.
For anyone, reactivity is especially common when feeling overstimulated. Too many things are happening at once, and your whole system is overloaded.
It makes sense why you may respond by reacting quickly or in a way you’d not otherwise if you were in a state of calm.
Highly Sensitive People have stronger reactivity to external and internal stimuli.
Examples of external stimuli include noise, light, and coarse fabric. Internal stimuli include things like hunger, fatigue, and pain.
The tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs are definitely not a suggestion that there is something wrong with being a Highly Sensitive Person. They’re also not an implication that something about you is broken and needs fixing.
You’ve probably heard messages like “you’re too sensitive” for years. People may insinuate or outright drop their unsolicited judgment about something they don’t even understand.
That’s not what these tips are about.
Bottom line: As a Highly Sensitive Person, you’re genetically predisposed toward overstimulation and reactivity. As a result, you’re prone to have strong reactions to things. That’s just what it means to be Highly Sensitive.
And there is definitely a silver lining.
First, an Example of Reactivity:
Let’s say you and a friend are wading in the ocean. The water is cold, so it takes you a little longer than your friend to walk in up to your knees.
You’re enjoying the sound of gulls and happy children. The warm sun on your skin feels phenomenal, and you’re in the here-and-now — deep in thought, feeling calm and centered. Ahhhhh, it’s great to be alive!
You peer into the clear ocean water to look for sea creatures. There are hermit crabs, starfish, and minnows swimming by. You start writing a book in your mind about hermit crabs and the way they go about choosing the shell they call home.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, your friend splashes the cold salt water into your face and laughs.
You freeze momentarily. Then anger surges through your body.
You have an impulse to scream, but you squelch it and leave the water, ignoring your apologetic friend.
You may even notice tears in your eyes while you simultaneously stomp to shore.
Your non-HSP friend is perplexed by what she considers to be your overreaction. She was only being playful, after all, and being splashed is ‘no big deal.’
You, on the other hand, need to sit in the shade by yourself and ‘chill’ for a few minutes.
Your entire nervous system feels out of sorts. Doing anything else feels non-negotiable. There is no faking it ‘til you make it.
The hardest part of having the High Sensitivity trait is managing emotional reactivity, especially when your mind becomes so overstimulated with thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
But there are ways to manage and ride the roller coaster.
Here are other examples of reactivity/overstimulation triggers for HSPs:
- chemical smells
- too many items on the to-do list
- being late
- unexpected traffic
- cancellation of a planned event/appointment
- an appliance, mobile device, or vehicle malfunctioning
- a dripping faucet
- being observed
- hearing people chew
- unexpected visitors
- favorite food/drink being discontinued
- a task taking much longer than expected
- transportation delays
- lights that are too bright
- doing a task under time pressure
- a loud or gross-smelling hotel room
- the hum of a fan
These examples seem benign. And they can be.
But they can also be a source of ‘too muchness’ for HSPs, especially if the stimuli accumulate.
For HSPs, the straw usually breaks the camel’s back sooner than it does for non-HSPs.
Whether the stimulus is a last-minute change in plans or cold, salty water in your face, reactivity is your system’s default mode.
While you can’t alter your DNA and change this about your nervous system, there are other ways to navigate.
This is where tips come in handy for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs.
Consider these 4 tips:
1. Tip #1 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Awareness: Be familiar with your Reactivity/Overstimulation triggers.
Pay attention to how being an HSP affects you and your day-to-day experience of life.
The more self-aware you are, the more agency you’ll have over choices available to you.
As you become familiar with how you roll, you’ll have a sense of what sets you off, and why and when.
Self–awareness puts you more in the driver’s seat. You can choose to head off overstimulating situations before you become reactive.
Remember that knowledge is power. Sometimes just knowing what could set you off can be helpful. (This doesn’t mean you should be on edge all the time.)
2. Tip #2 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Acceptance: Recognize that the trait has pluses and minuses.
There are so many aspects of being an HSP.
It can actually be a superpower. Even reactivity can be a superpower.
For example, if you’re watching a sunrise, your reactivity may cause you to become tearful. You’re “verklempt” by the beauty of the sun’s rays and the start of the day.
Accept all facets of being Highly Sensitive.
The most challenging feature to navigate as an HSP is the reactivity to surprise, novelty, or aversive stimuli.
Simply knowing that about yourself is helpful.
Embrace all your HSP qualities and traits as an expression of self-compassion.
3. Tip #3 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive:
Anticipate: Certain scenarios, people, and feelings are more likely than others to cause you to be reactive.
Not all HSPs react strongly to the same stimuli. (That’s often due to the way nature and nurture affect development.)
You may, for example, find loud music enjoyable if you’re listening to it on your earbuds. But, at a concert or in the car, it’s too much.
Someone else may prefer to listen to music at a concert and not just on their earbuds.
Anticipating the possibility (or equivalent) of nails on the chalkboard can provide you with some cushion (a soft, pleasant-to-the-touch-fabric kind of cushion, of course).
It may also provide an opportunity to have a conversation in advance to let others know you may be taking breaks.
Being forthcoming before an anticipated stimulus arises both protects you and lets others know not to worry when you take steps to care for yourself.
4. Tip #4 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive:
Self-care: Self-care is important for everyone but is absolutely essential for HSPs trying to navigate life’s ups and downs with less reactivity.
HSPs feel things intensely. That includes our own or others’ emotions, the beauty of nature, or the stinging pain of a hangnail. Crowds, noises, and small talk can be hard to take.
Because of the extra stress we may be navigating and internalizing every single day, we have to treat our tender sensitivity as if it were a friend or loved one.
Speak in a caring tone to yourself, especially to the part that is prone to reactivity. Allow yourself to take breaks/time-outs. Schedule down time each day.
Have measures and practices in place to replenish your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy.
Mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing, body scans, yoga, and meditation can help.
But always remember: these are practices, not ‘perfects.’
Make note of how any of the tips help. Also note which ones need tweaking. Are any unhelpful?
Reactivity and overstimulation are known to cause stress, and stress contributes to physical ailments, including headaches, back pain, joint pain, insomnia, and GI problems.
They contribute to a host of psychological challenges, too — anxiety, depression, and low self esteem, for example.
Awareness, acceptance, and anticipation of situations that are more likely than not to cause reactivity is important.
Empower yourself by considering your options for how to proceed.
Do you confide in a friend who will also be there, and ask for their support?
How about mentioning you may need to leave a social engagement early?
Or promising yourself to recognize when early signs of reactivity occur, and from there deciding how to proceed?
Understand the indicators that extra rest or self-care is needed.
However you choose to handle the reactivity from life’s ups and downs, simultaneously recognize the many blessings and gifts that go along with being a Highly Sensitive Person.
You have those, too.
Ever wonder why some people are Highly Sensitive, but most people are not?
Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are born that way. Highly Sensitive.
High Sensitivity is not a disorder. Nor is it an attempt to be dramatic or to get attention. It’s a trait in the same way eye color is a trait.
HSPs’ nervous system is calibrated differently than non HSPs’.
The way HSPs process social, environmental, emotional, and physical stimulation is more intense and at a deeper level than people without the trait. It is biological.
If you are a Highly Sensitive Person, you’ve likely been called “too sensitive”, at least a thousand times. And advised more than a few times to “have a thicker skin” or to “lighten up.” (If I had a nickel for every time these comments were made to me….)
You may be among the 15-20% of people who is Highly Sensitive if, among other features, you tend to:
- Notice nuance and details
- Get stressed out or annoyed in chaotic environments – and need to retreat somewhere quiet to regroup
- Feel rattled when there’s a lot to do in a short period of time
- Find that you’re unable to watch violent movies or television shows – it’s just too disturbing
- Experience peace and awe in nature
- Need plenty of sleep, consistently, in order to function
- Are prone to getting hangry
The High Sensitivity trait, which occurs equally in males and females, is a result of a combination of genes. In fact, scientists have discovered at least three different genetic combinations among Highly Sensitive People. The gene variants include different configurations of the following neurotransmitters:
- Serotonin Transporter
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. Serotonin Transporter and Highly Sensitive People:
Serotonin transporter is a chemical that transports serotonin out of the brain. HSPs have a variant of this gene (officially called 5-HTTLPR).
The 5-HTTLPR gene variant increases sensitivity to surroundings and is associated with learning from experience. The presence of the gene enhances the effects of both good and adverse childhood experiences.
This may explain why childhood experiences–positive and adverse–impacts wellbeing so much for a Highly Sensitive adult. For better or worse, HSPs’ childhood experiences affect them more than does the childhood of a person without the trait.
This neurotransmitter is known as the reward chemical.
If you have a sensitive nervous system, you don’t need much to feel “rewarded” by external stimuli. Chaotic, noisy, loud environments exhaust rather than excite you.
Let’s just say you don’t exactly get the same kind of dopamine hit that your non Highly Sensitive friends gets at a rock concert or other loud venue.
The same Dopamine variant is also relevant in understanding why HSPs feel more rewarded by positive social or emotional cues.
3. Norepinephrine and Highly Sensitive People:
Norepinephrine helps the body with the stress response.
And there’s one variant, common in HSPs, that boosts emotional vividness. If you have it, you tend to experience emotional aspects of the world intensely. You may also have more going on in parts of the brain that create internal emotional responses to experiences.
Most HSPs respond more strongly to emotions than do non-HSPs. In addition, they often notice emotional nuances where others don’t pick up on anything.
If you’re Highly Sensitive, this gene variant may be at least partly responsible. And it directly drives the level of empathy and awareness you have for others’ feelings.
So if 15-20% of a population has something in common, such as High Sensitivity, it is not considered a disorder. The rate is a lot of people in total but still uncommon enough that HSPs often report feeling weird or different.
HS has been found in at least 100 species, including fish, horses, fruit flies, and chimpanzees.
Highly Sensitive People and HS animals pick up on more environmental cues, recognize things that others don’t, and make wise decisions in new settings. They don’t rely on routines, which non HSPs and non HS animals tend to do.
There is definite survival advantage to being keenly aware of your environment.
In general, people who take the time to notice environmental cues before making a decision come out ahead — even with a high cost to doing so. HSPs’ sensitivity means they make better and better decisions over time.
So, here is the key point: If the rate of High Sensitivity were 100%, everyone would notice nuance and details. No one would have any advantage. That could explain why HSPs are about 15-20 percent of the population rather than 90, 95, of 100 %!
No more wondering why no one else thinks things through the way HSPs do. HSPs are able to see things others don’t see and feel emotions others don’t feel, That in and of itself creates value.
Further, HSPs feel positive things and negative things more intensely. Highs can be joyous, and lows can be horrible. For the survival of our species, only a subset with those features could exist.
The world needs diversity of all kinds, including people who are Highly Sensitive. And people who are not.