The Blessing and Curse of Highly Sensitive People
Updated: Feb 2
Do you feel anxious and quickly become exhausted? Would you consider yourself highly emotional, intuitive, or easily overwhelmed? Perhaps you feel introverted and need to withdraw to a quiet place to recharge? If so, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), a genetic trait found in 15-20% of people. High sensitivity can often feel like a double-edged sword – both blessing and curse – creating an advantage of being able to live, love, and feel deeply, but which can also result in feeling overstimulated and misunderstood.
I was a sensitive kid with an overactive imagination. I had vivid dreams and got bored easily, and it seemed I was always being admonished by my parents and teachers – slow down, Stephen, toughen up, and stop being so emotional. For as long as I can recall, I’ve had a heightened sensitivity to my surrounds, an ability to perceive subtleties in my environment other’s miss – colours, sounds, smells, textures. When I was six years old, things took an alarming twist when loud noises started causing physical pain – crowded public spaces, high-frequency appliances, an ambulance siren or power drill – would literally freak me out and shut me down. No one could determine the cause of my malaise and following countless appointments with doctors and specialists they ruled out autism, which HSP is often compared to publicly, and I was misdiagnosed with neurodevelopmental ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Consequently, I fumbled through my teens feeling misunderstood, unable to stick at things, and never quite ‘fitting in’. It wasn’t until my early twenties I learned about HSP and its definition brought clarity to my context. I’m not one for labels, however, understanding this trait has helped me transform the debilitating aspects of acute sensory perception into a superpower that now enhances my life, work, and relationships.
Dr. Elaine Aron, clinical research psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person – How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You, has been studying hyper-sensitivity in people for more than 20 years, individuals she describes as having a particular genetic characteristic that makes them more keenly attuned to the world around them. Contrary to what you might think, high sensitivity isn’t just an introvert thing – approximately 30% of HSP’s are extroverts – albeit they do share similar tendencies, such as needing ‘alone time’ and to withdraw from crowds to reenergise. In fact, high sensitivity is a normal trait 1 in 5 people are born with, individuals who tend to have more empathy and who are more acutely aware of social and environmental cues than others. What’s interesting is that scientific studies highlight actual differences in the level of neural activity of HSP individuals, compared with non-HSP’s. For example, they have a deeper level of cognitive processing and notice even the subtlest sensations. If you’re interested to learn more, take the HSP quiz to find out if you are highly sensitive.
Mahatma Gandhi is widely believed to have been an HSP – a man who led by inspiring others and who left one of the greatest legacies of peace the world has ever seen. In fact, people from all walks of life have learned how to harness their sensitivity as a source of empathy, leadership and creativity – parents, teachers, executives, athletes, artists, musicians, doctors, nurses – people like you and me. Here’s the thing: if you become overly sensitive to perceived signs of rejection, feel uncomfortable in group situations, such as work meetings or social gatherings, or hide your true self and emotions to fit in, then perhaps you are HSP and don’t even realise. Whilst more research is needed, understanding the different ways hyper-sensitivity manifests can help us feel less isolated and ‘different’, but most importantly, give us courage and confidence to mindfully transform the stress and anxiety from overstimulation into one of our greatest strengths.
Until next time...