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4 Signs You Might Be a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’

4 Signs You Might Be a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’
Ⓒ Provided by Self

By Nandini Maharaj, Self

I love cozy sweaters but the tiniest bit of wool can feel like sandpaper on my skin. The moment I hear ambulance sirens or loud music, my head starts spinning. Other people’s emotions and ~energies~ can also send me reeling. And I’m not the only one who’s so easily affected by their environment and the people in it: Search #highlysensitiveperson on TikTok and you’ll see a collection of videos with more than 62 million views, some of which show people crying or hiding under a pillow when life becomes too much.

The term “highly sensitive person” (HSP) was coined in 1997 by psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD, who (along with her fellow-psychologist husband Arthur Aron) developed a scale for measuring “sensory processing sensitivity” (SPS)—a personality trait characterized by “greater depth of processing, cognizance of subtleties in the environment, being easily overstimulated, having stronger emotional responses, and empathy to others' affective cues.”

Research on this personality trait is limited overall—and, it’s important to note, not all mental health professionals subscribe to the label—but Dr. Aron’s findings have since inspired other psychologists to look into sensory sensitivity and the combination of genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to it. To be clear, SPS is not a disorder or a type of mental illness. It is, however, a very real experience for around 20% of people, according to a 2014 study co-authored by Dr. Aron, who identifies as an HSP herself.

“A highly sensitive person is someone whose nervous system is more affected by and more reactive to their environment,” Jadzia Jagiellowicz, PhD, a psychologist who researches high sensitivity and a contributing author to The Highly Sensitive Brain: Research, Assessment, and Treatment of Sensory Processing Sensitivity, tells SELF. Dr. Jagiellowicz, who studied under Dr. Aron, explains that HSPs also tend to be highly empathetic and feel both positive and negative emotions more intensely than people who don’t have this trait. In other words, if you identify with this personality type, that’s not a bad thing.

Read More: Is Your Personality Ruining Your Sleep?

How do you know if you’re a “highly sensitive person”?

High sensitivity can be challenging to identify, Dr. Jagiellowicz says, partly because it shares similarities with some mental health issues. Anxiety, for example, can also cause people to have strong emotional reactions or need downtime to recover from a particularly social weekend. Trauma, too, can cause high emotional arousal and make people hyper-aware of their environment. And people with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may also notice signs of sensory sensitivity. However, unlike clinical anxiety, ADHD, ASD, and post-traumatic stress disorder, you can’t be diagnosed with high sensitivity.

But if you consider yourself an HSP or think you might be in the club, there are some general criteria to look to. (Dr. Aron’s self-test is one place to start.) And regardless of whether you ultimately identify with the HSP label, noticing the ways in which you can be especially sensitive could help you develop self-care strategies to make daily life less overwhelming, according to the experts we talked to. Here are a few signs to consider:

1. You’re very aware of what’s happening in and around you.

HSPs “tend to be more reactive to” their environments, Dr. Jagiellowicz says, whether that’s their home, workplace, or the people around them. The key word here is overstimulation, she says—you don’t just notice whatever’s going on around you, but it easily overwhelms you. For example, you might immediately clock harsh lighting when you walk into a room and have trouble focusing on anything else because of it, or, in my case, a noisy and crowded morning commute may put you on high alert from the second you leave your house until you arrive at work, making you want to crawl back under your covers.

If this sounds familiar (or perhaps you felt overwhelmed just reading about my commute), Dr. Jagiellowicz says it’s a good idea to keep track of what makes you feel on edge—either make a mental note or write it in a journal or some other tracker—so you can try to minimize the impact going forward. If you find it nearly unbearable to start your morning with cars honking or people crowding onto your subway car, for example, you might try to plan your commute a little earlier than normal, if you’re able to, so there’s less traffic. Or maybe you get a lamp for your office desk so you can shut off the fluorescent overhead lights, or invest in noise-canceling earbuds to block out distracting sounds in your surroundings.

2. You think deeply about… everything.

Growing up, were you kind of a loner or told you were “shy”? Perhaps you spent more time daydreaming versus talking, or felt perfectly content reading books by yourself for hours on end. What your caregivers may have interpreted as shyness could have been something researchers refer to as “depth of processing,” meaning how deeply you tend to think about things, Dr. Jagiellowicz says. Dr. Aron identified this trait as a key indicator of SPS, and according to a 2019 review of research, it tends to be noticeable from an early age, suggesting that high sensitivity potentially has a biological basis.

As a highly sensitive adult, you might prefer having deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of life to talking about your 401K, Dr. Jagiellowicz says. You also might be the kind of person who puts a ton of thought into vacation planning, researching the hell out of your destination and creating a packing list weeks in advance to make sure you’re prepared for every scenario on the trip, she adds.

Clearly, deep thinking has its benefits, but the tendency to mull things over and search for meaning can be overwhelming for HSPs, too, according to Dr. Fedrick. For example, they might regularly grapple with decision paralysis because they’re bogged down by too many what-if scenarios, or struggle to find a satisfying career since a sense of deep meaning and purpose in their work is critical to them. That’s why identifying personal values before making decisions can be particularly beneficial for HSPs, Dr. Fredrick says. If you know, for example, that you care most about access to nature and proximity to family when you’re thinking about where to live, you might be able to overlook non-deal breakers like smaller closets or a slightly longer commute. Or if it’s most important for you to feel like you’re helping people in your job, a small pay cut or lateral move may be worth the trade-off.

3. You can easily empathize with people and may feel others’ emotions intensely.

“Highly sensitive people tend to be extremely empathic—and often at their own expense,” Dr. Jagiellowicz says. For example, people might take advantage of your thoughtfulness, whether it’s intentional or not; they might call you at 2 a.m. knowing that you’ll pick up the phone, or automatically assume that you’d be happy to help with a project at work.

Along with being empathic, HSPs tend to be hyper-aware of shifts in other people’s moods or energies, Dr. Fedrick says. This includes picking up on body language or facial expressions. For instance, you might notice that a friend’s demeanor changes in subtle ways after reading a text message—maybe they’re avoiding eye contact or seem less talkative than usual. Likewise, hearing someone talk about their personal loss or grief is enough to make your eyes well up with tears. While most people can empathize with someone else’s suffering, they wouldn’t necessarily feel the same level of distress that you experience as an HSP, Dr. Fedrick explains.

Overall, it’s a beautiful thing to have empathy for other human beings (and animals, which is another way my self-assessed high sensitivity manifests), but there are times when taking on other people’s strong feelings or intense energies can hurt your emotional well-being, and being aware of those situations can help you develop self-protection strategies, Dr. Frederick says. You might set boundaries with a draining coworker, say, or avoid horror movies or doom-and-gloom TV shows that send you into emotional overdrive.

4. You’re constantly trying to make other people feel comfortable.

One possible reason HSPs are so attentive to their surroundings is that “it’s how they create safety for themselves,” Dr. Fedrick says. They may be trying to control their environment to make it less stimulating and overwhelming, she explains. And according to a 2018 research review, co-authored by Dr. Aron, this desire for harmony can manifest in HSPs’ tendency to try to make the people around them feel more comfortable, an adaptive response they’ve developed to increase feelings of safety. (In other words, they’re trying to keep the peace to protect their own.)

It’s perfectly normal to want to make others feel safe and comfortable, of course, but constant pressure to “ensure that people around you have their needs met and are happy” can also lead to harmful people-pleasing behaviors, Dr. Fedrick explains. For instance, you might put other people’s needs ahead of your own or avoid expressing your feelings for fear of upsetting someone else. As with the other HSP signs on this list, awareness of this tendency is an important step in managing it. If you know you typically prioritize other people over yourself, you can then work on finding ways to ensure you’re protecting your own well-being, too, says Dr. Fedrick. Maybe you learn how to ask for help when you’re overwhelmed or to cancel social plans when you need time to recharge, for example.

“High sensitivity” doesn’t have to be so distressing.

Again, high sensitivity isn’t a mental health disorder, and you don’t necessarily need to do something about it unless it’s preventing you from living a fulfilling life—if you’re isolating yourself, say, or avoiding activities you love in order to manage your reactivity. In that case, Dr. Fredrick recommends looking for a therapist who can help you sort out the roots of your perceived sensitivity, rule out any underlying mental health conditions or issues that may be driving it, and teach you tools for managing it.

Read More: Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

But even if it isn’t debilitating, being easily overstimulated can still make daily life extra challenging, which is why it can be helpful to notice what triggers your overwhelming feelings. That way, you can work on minimizing your distress—and embracing the best parts of your sensitivity, such as finding deep satisfaction in the little things some people might take for granted. Appreciating the joy you feel from the vivid color of the sky, say, or the rich sound of violins in a piece of music can help you see your sensitivity for what it is—another way of experiencing the challenging and rewarding existence that is human life.

See more at Self




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Health Magazine: 4 Signs You Might Be a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’
4 Signs You Might Be a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’
You could be a highly sensitive person if it doesn't take much to overwhelm you. Experts explained the symptoms of this reactive personality type.
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