The Highly Sensitive Person

Faces of empathy

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Highly Sensitive People are Labeled as Weak

“Sensitivity”, in the context of describing human personality, is often viewed as a character flaw made out to be synonymous with weakness, immaturity, low self-esteem, excessive anger, emotional instability, and a number of other negative, undesirable traits. Individuals considered “too sensitive” have historically been looked down on in mainstream society and many have been teased, bullied, and rejected. These negative and incorrect views and assumptions are perpetuated by the general lack of awareness and understanding of “Highly Sensitive People.”

Brain Changes in Highly Sensitive People

“High Sensitivity”, also known as “Sensory-Processing Sensitivity,” is an innate, genetic trait found in 20% of the population that involves increased activity in certain parts of the brain involved in sensory stimuli perception and processing. Both males and females are equally likely to possess this trait that makes them more perceptive and aware of subtleties. These individuals process information more carefully and more in depth than those without the highly sensitive trait. Highly sensitive people have more empathy than the average person due to increased activation in the mirror neurons, a part of the brain that allows people to feel the experiences of others as if the experiences were happening to them.

Heightened Sensitivity to Stimuli

Highly active mirror neurons give highly sensitive individuals the ability to pick up on what others are thinking and feeling. Because highly sensitive individuals are more sensitive to internal and external stimuli due to their heightened perception of the world around them and their deeper, more reflective processing of information, those with this trait become overstimulated quickly and more frequently and are more emotionally reactive than the 80% of the population who do not have the trait.

Isolation of Highly Sensitive People

Due to the different way they perceive and process the world around them and experience life, highly sensitive individuals often feel isolated and misunderstood or think something is wrong with them. These individuals have commonly been and still continue to be misdiagnosed with a number of mental health disorders as well as incorrectly medicated based on these misdiagnoses. High Sensitivity is NOT a disorder. Highly sensitive individuals have a remarkable emotional intelligence level and beneficial abilities and skills many people lack, however, these individuals also deal with difficulties non-highly sensitive people are far less likely to experience which is why the highly sensitive trait is often described as “a gift and a curse.” Individuals who are highly sensitive become overstimulated quickly, making certain situations and environments difficult for them. They tend to be more affected or bothered by loud noises, bright lights, odors, and other stimuli that the average person may easily ignore. Their constant awareness of how others are feeling and what others want and need makes it difficult for them to say “no” and advocate for their own feelings and needs. Highly sensitive people may struggle with separating their own feelings from the feelings of the people around them due to their great amount of empathy.

Advantages of High Sensitivity

While the trait of high sensitivity does present difficulties and issues unique to those who possess it, it is truly a remarkable characteristic that gives these individuals important qualities and skills that the world too often lacks such as empathy, compassion, and awareness and understanding of others. Highly sensitive individuals have a different way of thinking that results in creativity, revolutionary ideas, and endless possibilities due to the depth in which these individuals process the world around them. Their ability to “read the room” and quickly pick up on subtleties, tension, conflict, and other social stimuli makes highly sensitive individuals extremely adaptive and socially aware, and these skills give them the ability to be a leader in a different and potentially more effective sense than the mainstream idea of a leader currently held by society. Through gaining an understanding of the trait, making lifestyle adjustments, and learning and implementing helpful techniques and coping skills, highly sensitive individuals can overcome these difficulties and fully embrace the incredible benefits of their high sensitivity.

Recommended coping skills and techniques for highly sensitive people:

  • Recognize and understand high sensitivity
  • Accept and embrace your high sensitivity and the benefits of it
  • Avoid unnecessary stimuli
  • Schedule some down time each day such as taking a walk or meditation
  • Learn to say “no”
  • Advocate for your feelings and needs
  • Set boundaries with others: While setting boundaries can be more difficult, it is crucial
  • Take breaks from work before you become exhausted
  • Explain your high sensitivity to safe, supportive people in your life
  • Reach out for support from friends or family members who understand or get your high sensitivity
  • Sleeping/staying in bed resting for at least 8 hours each night
  • Check in with your feelings and emotions regularly in order to practice distinguishing yours from those of others
  • Recognize the environments, relationships/friendships, jobs, activities, e.t.c. that you thrive in and immerse yourself in them and remove yourself from those that overstimulate and/or negatively affect you

References:

Aron, E. N.(2016). The Highly Sensitive Person.

Aron, E. N. (1997). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Harper, W. (Director), & Aron, E. N. (Writer). (2015). Sensitive: The Untold Story [Motion picture]. United States: The Global Touch Group.

Stony Brook University. (2010, April 2). Researchers Find Differences In How The Brains Of Some Individuals Process The World Around Them. Stony Brook News: General University News.

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