Do you respond more intensely to experiences than the average person might? Do you cry easily? About 20% of the population fits into the category of being a highly sensitive person (HSP). This trait is distributed pretty equally among men and women. HSP is different from introversion, although both can get overstimulated and need to retreat at times. It's believed that sensitivity may run along a spectrum, like some other traits, from low to high. This is not a disorder, but a trait which tends to be permanent over one's lifespan.
HSP was first identified in the 1990's by research psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron. HSP is also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The Arons developed a 27-item scale to assess for being highly sensitive, which you can take online at http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/. Here are a few sample items:
Other people's moods affect me.
I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens close by.
I have a rich, complex inner life.
I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
I am conscientious.
I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
Changes in my life shake me up.
When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
Highly sensitive people show brain scan differences in their neural activity, as compared to non-HSPs. Those with this feature are more empathetic, pay close attention to the environment and non-verbal cues from other people. A study at University of California, Santa Barbara published in the Journal of Brain and Behavior in April 2014, demonstrated that people identified as HSP have more neural activity in parts of the brain when looking at the face of a loved one than people with an average level of sensitivity.
People with HSP are believed to have a deeper depth of cognitive processing. They can get overwhelmed, be more aware of emotional subtleties and have stronger emotional responses than others do. HSPs are well-suited professionally to work as counselors, teachers, artists, pastors and writers.
There are liabilities that come with being an HSP, too. They can be easily hurt. They can get exhausted from people and too much stimuli. HSPs can be vulnerable to stress. Dr. Arthur Aron, research professor at Stony Brook University in New York and visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley acknowledges that HSPs can get easily overwhelmed and that they tend to process information more deeply than others.
In relationships, both HSPs and their partners need to be aware of the sensitivity. The highly sensitive person can learn to identify when they are a needing a time out during disagreements with their partner or when overwhelmed. HSPs need to do extreme self-care, being certain to eat healthily, sleep well, and get downtime to relax. HSPs must appreciate that their partner probably processes events and experiences differently, and appreciate the differences.
People who are partnered with an HSP are best to never say "calm down." It's best if you are not critical, and validate your partner's feelings. Telling an HSP partner that they are making a big deal out of something won't help. Be supportive, and express that you understand what they are feeling.
Being a highly sensitive person can be both a gift and a burden. Understanding yourself as an HSP or your HSP partner is of critical importance for a well-balanced, happy life and relationship.