Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?
Dr Elain Aron and her husband coined the term “Highly Sensitive People” (HSP) to characterize people showing several specific personality traits. They and other scientists have been studying HSP for more than 30 years. This trait is found in 15 to 20% of the population and reflects an increased sensitivity of the Nervous Central System.
This is not a medical or psychological disorder. It is innate, it can be roughly observable from birth, it is found in over 100 species, and reflects a certain type of survival strategy with associated advantages and disadvantages.
If you belong to the HSP group, you are special. Your mind works differently. You may observe the following characteristics in yourself:
- You are more aware than others of subtleties. This is mainly because your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply.
- You are also more easily overwhelmed. If you notice everything, you are naturally going to be overstimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time. Big crowds, loud noises, unpleasant senses or accumulation of different tasks and lack of a well-defined pathway can make you confused and very tired.
- You have highly awareness of details – this makes you pick up more information in an unconscious way, meaning you are more intuitive. You are better at spotting errors.
- What is moderately arousing for others can be over-arousing for you. You are more aroused by new and prolonged stimulation.
- You frequently think about your own thinking. This means that you have a rich and complex inner life, deep thoughts and strong emotions.
- You are deeply affected by other people moods and emotions. You can notice immediately if something is wrong with others and that affects you in a great deal.
- You are deeply moved by beauty, either expressed in art, nature, or the human spirit.
- You feel a need for downtime (not just a predilection), particularly when you have frantic times; you look for a dark, quiet place so you can recharge.
- When you are being watched timed or evaluated, you get over-conscious and that affects your performance. It is difficult to display your competence in those circumstances. For example, you can be very good at a foreign language, but arousal may make you lees fluent.
- You are able to concentrate in tasks that require vigilance, accuracy, and the detection of minor differences. But you need to avoid distractions.
- You really do not like violent or frightening films because you feel overstimulated or emotionally disturbed by them.
Your body is:
- Specialized in fine motor movements
- Good at holding still
- More affected by stimulants like caffeine
- More sensitive to hay fever and skin rashes
- Sometimes you feel too tired to sleep. You wake up during the night with no reason or because of an intense dream.
This trait is not good or bad – It is NEUTRAL
Its value depends on the circumstances. Dr Aron found out that this trait exists in several species because it is useful to have at least 15% of the individuals on the alert for danger, take care of the needs of the young and sick and detect the new subtle changes in the environment. It is also good to have others that go out to explore, fight for the group and face the dangers with courage.
This trait has been misunderstood. Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called “shy.” But shyness is learned, not innate. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverts, although the trait is often mislabelled as introversion. It has also been called inhibitedness, fearfulness, or neuroticism. Some HSPs behave in these ways, but it is not innate to do so and not the basic trait.
Sensitivity is valued differently in different cultures. In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told to “don’t be so sensitive” so that they feel abnormal, and they try to be different and they don’t accept and valuate their special trait – meaning they don’t accept themselves. This leads to a range of unnecessary mental health problems.
Dr Aron cautions medical professionals against prescribing psychoactive medications to “cure” the trait, which may or may not coexist with an actual disorder.
Advisors and Warriors
The most long-lasting and happier cultures have always had two classes to govern themselves – the warrior kings and their advisors. In those societies’ expansion, aggression, domination, freedom, and fame were the good values (as it seems to be nowadays). But for these societies to survive, kings needed to have their advisers, people who insists on stopping and thinking about all the possible effects of an idea. Counselors, historians, teachers, scholars, and the upholders of justice were/are part of this class of advisers. They lookout for the wellbeing of the people and warn against irrational or impulsive actions. Sometimes making themselves unpopular by stopping the majority from rushing ahead.
HSP tend to fill that advisor role. But to perform their role well, HSP need to feel very good about themselves.
Just because the warriors have their bold style, which is seen as high value, doesn’t mean you are not good enough. You need to ignore all the messages from society that you need to be different. You have your own style and it is of great value to society. We do not need to be all businessmen, CEOs, soldiers, top athletes, or stressed people always searching to be above, ahead, richer, better looking, more intelligent, the best at anything… etc. Our impulsive and toughness-dominant society tends to see your trait as something difficult to live with, something to be cured. There is a place for all of us. You have every reason for pride – you were born to be among the advisors and thinkers, the spiritual leaders of our society.
Dealing with the world
There is a story of a man who wanted nothing to do with the stress of life. He retreated to a cave so he could be alone and meditate for the rest of his life. But soon he came out again because he was overwhelmingly distressed by the sound of the dripping water in his isolated cave.
The stressors will always be there. We bring our sensitivity with us wherever we go. Something is going to be there that can frustrate us, arouse us or disturb us. What we need is to find a way of living with the stressors.
But the way to come to tolerate the stressors is not to avoid them, it is to be in the world and expose yourself to them. The more you do it the easier it becomes. Easier to say than to do. Knowing that you are going to face some fear, over-arousal and discomfort isn’t fun. But it really can be done if you stay in tune with your body, allow yourself to accept the imperfections in yourself and in others, have support from people around you and take time to have rest and have fun.
You just need to organize your life around your traits. You need to reach the deepest parts of your body, emotions and instincts. You need to be patient with yourself, respect and take care of your body and enjoy your wonderful traits.
What you really need is:
- Rest – To sleep properly and find time to rest regularly. Caffeine can be a problem for HSP
- Recreation – But don’t let other people in your life to tell you what is fun for you. Squeezing a dozen activities in one morning may not be your idea of having fun. For many HSP having fun is reading a book, gardening, a quiet meal at home, a nice walk … and that’s OK.
- Downtime – This time is for you to unwind and thinking over the day
- Transcendence – You need to rise above it all, usually in the form of meditation or contemplation or prayer. The idea is to take you out of ordinary thinking into pure consciousness, pure being, grounding to gain a bigger, fresher perspective of your life.
First-aid for over-arousal
Whenever you are in a situation that is overwhelming you, it is a good idea to work through the fear and upset. If you feel overwhelmed in a certain situation you can:
- Reframe the situation – note what is familiar and friendly instead of what is frightening. Think about a similar situation in the past and how you were able to deal with it.
- Repeat a phrase, gesture, prayer or mantra that, through daily practice you have come to associate with deep inner calm. If your mind goes back to what is over-arousing it is important not to get discouraged and stop. Continue focusing in your anchor – you will still feel better than without it.
- Witness your over-arousal – imagine standing to one side, watching yourself and talking about it to an imaginary figure. “There is him/her again, so overwhelmed!. Of course, at this moment she/he can’t see beyond it but as soon as she takes some time to rest she/he will be able to calm down. When she/he is rested, she will feel energized and will be ready to face the situation. For now, she/he just needs to rest no matter what seems to need to be done.
- Love your over-arousal – An expanded, loving mind, one that is open to the whole, is the opposite to a tightly constricted, over-roused mind. It is important that you love yourself in that situation. It is essential that you look to yourself with the “eyes of love”, with the “energy of your heart”.
Get physically out of the situation – Many times we forget to take action simply to get out of the situation. There are several strategies to can use:
- You can close your eyes to shut out of the stimulation
- Take a break and go for a walk in Nature – Nature can be deeply calming. If possible put your bare feet on the ground and feel the connection with the earth. Also, the familiar rhythm of walking can be soothing
- Calm your breathing – exhale slowly with a little extra effort, as if you were blowing a candle. The inhalation will be automatically deeper, from your stomach. Don’t worry about inhaling – if you exhale totally you will inhale totally.
- Adjust your posture to be calmer and more confident – the mind imitates the body. Balance yourself over your centre – do not bend over back or forward. Straighten up, feel your body light and fluid. Uncurl. Feel your feet on the ground. Move in the manner you want to feel. Your mind will replicate your body.
- Interact with water – Water seems to help a lot. Go and drink a glass of water, walk beside water and appreciate it. You can have a bath or go swimming.
- Smile to yourself and to others. Why you are smiling does not matter.
The main thing is that you protect yourself from overstimulation.
Your safe places
When you are under extreme stress you can always count on your safe places. I am talking about concrete places like your home, a beautiful garden, the church, the library, the beach, somewhere in the countryside or in the mountains. But also, about the intangible “safe places” like the precious people in your life: spouse, parent, brother or sister, close friends, spiritual guide or therapist. But there are even less tangible safe places like the love and compassion energy inside of you, inner words memories of good times, your deepest beliefs, and philosophy of life. Whatever happens, nothing and no one can take from you your love energy, your faith, your creative thinking, or your spiritual practice.
Growing into wisdom is relocating more and more of your sense of security from the tangible to the intangible “safe places”.
OBS: If you would like to take the Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale (HSPS) to better assess if you belong to the HSP group, take this questionnaire.
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