Are you very perceptive and intuitive?
Do you find that you need regular time alone in order to be at your best?
Does being hungry really knock you off centre, derailing your concentration and/or mood?
Are you unusually sensitive to the effects of refined sugar, caffeine and other drugs – and/or to pain and to hot and cold temperatures?
Are you especially affected by and sensitive to others’ moods and to unkind words or acts?
Do you sometimes experience mind fog or find that when put on the spot your mind goes blank?
Do you sometimes have real difficulty switching off and getting to sleep?
Do you seem to become overwhelmed more easily than others – for example in crowded environments or when you have too much to do?
Do you have a vivid imagination?
Are you deeply moved by music and the arts, and/or by nature?
If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, you’re in the 15-20% of the population that is highly sensitive.
And since you’ve found your way to my website it’s very likely you are, as those in this group are by far the most likely to be drawn to alternative and conscious lifestyles.
I’m right there with you, and discovering the information I am going to share with you here changed my life.
You may have considered your sensitivity a liability, as I used to. As a child (and possibly adult) you may have been told that you’re “too sensitive” and to “stop being so sensitive”, as if your sensitivity was a bad thing and something you could just turn off.
But in fact your sensitivity is valuable beyond measure.
The concept of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was first recognised by the psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron, and if you recognise yourself (or a loved one) in the description above, her book – The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You – is essential reading.
Aron found that 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive, and another 27% sensitive, while 42% count themselves as “not sensitive at all”.
We live in a world that is in dire need of more sensitive people. War, poverty, factory farming and decimated rainforests are just four of the devastating consequences of a world run largely by the insensitive.
Other consequences are our culture’s endemic superficiality and preoccupation with all things material.
Carl Jung, an HSP himself, observed that the life of the HSP, “teaches the other possibility: the interior life which is so wanting in our civilisation,” and that HSPs often possess a “prophetic foresight.”
So if you have higher than average sensitivity, I encourage you to recognise your immense value.
HSPs have great passion and creativity. They show deep compassion and empathy; high awareness and intelligence. They notice things others miss, which is why visionaries and geniuses are more often than not HSPs. HSPs are also the intuitive artists, healers, therapists, teachers, parents, writers, researchers, philosophers and spiritual seekers.
“We come as package deal, however,” writes Elaine Aron. “Our trait of sensitivity means we will also be cautious, inward, needing extra time alone.
“Because people without the trait (the majority) do not understand that, they see us as timid, shy, weak, or that greatest sin of all, unsociable. Fearing those labels we try to become like others, but that leads to our becoming overaroused and distressed.”
Being highly sensitive is not a disorder, but in a culture where it is not the norm, it is very misunderstood and is sadly often treated – and medicated – as one.
As Aron explains, all of us (regardless of sensitivity) perform best and are happiest when our nervous systems are aroused just enough, but not too much. Being bored is not good, but nor is being overwhelmed.
But we differ greatly in how much our nervous systems are aroused by the same stimulus. This is where the downside of the HSP trait shows up – we are unable to tolerate as much as most people.
She writes, “What is moderately stimulating for most people is highly arousing for HSPs. What is highly arousing for most people causes an HSP to feel completely frazzled and overwhelmed.”
Those who are not sensitive may view HSPs as touchy, tetchy or temperamental. But our degree of sensitivity – and this goes for all of us, HSP or not – is a trait over which we have a lot less choice than most people assume.
In fact, brain imaging studies show it is hard-wired into us.
What all HSPs have in common is a hyper-responsive amygdala – the part of the brain that governs both fear responses and pleasure.
This means that for the HSP, everything is amplified; experienced in high definition.
And here’s a contrast worth noting. At the other end of the sensitivity scale to the HSPs sit the 1-3% of humans who are least sensitive.
We know them by the interchangeable terms “sociopath” and “psychopath”.
Brain-imaging studies show this group to have, in stark contrast, uncommonly unresponsive amygdalas.
As Jon Ronson writes in his book The Pscyhopath Test, there are psychopaths in all walks of life. The trait goes mostly unrecognised – in fact, in our culture that rewards toughness and ruthlessness, they often accumulate great power and wealth.
And their impact on all around them is so damaging (in covert, as well as overt, ways) that although only a tiny minority, they have a disproportionately massive negative impact on our world.
Within the 15-20% of the population that is highly sensitive there are as many men as women, but due to cultural stereotypes regarding gender, the men have by far the harder ride of it and are more likely to go to great lengths to hide or suppress their sensitivity.
This is a tragedy because while we need more sensitive people of all kinds in the world, what we most urgently need is more highly sensitive men.
While the highly sensitive are a blessing to society, and while a highly sensitive nervous system can be a wonderful vehicle through which to experience life, life can be challenging for some HSPs.
Sadly, many grew up with the negative aspects of their trait being pointed out to them by parents, teachers and peers, and little to no appreciation nor validation of the positive ones.
HSPs value and need deep relationships more than any other group, and take things more personally than any other group, so if HSPs grow up feeling misunderstood and being told they are not acceptable as they are, this puts them at high risk for depression and anxiety – and consequently for eating disorders, addictions and other manifestations of those states.
HSPs for whom life has been a struggle may have a hair-trigger flight-or-fight response, which can lead to the stress hormones being chronically elevated.
This in turn affects every system of the body, including the digestive, immune and endocrine systems, and is linked with many health challenges.
So it is really important that HSPs find a way of dialling down this stress response, perhaps through a combination of yoga, meditation and building in plenty of quiet time alone.
On the positive side, just understanding that you experience life through an extra-sensitive nervous system can in itself be a huge relief for the HSP, and incredibly healing.
Especially once you realise – maybe for the first time – that your sensitivity is not a defect but a trait which brings immense blessings along with the challenges.
The next step is to learn to play to your strengths and manage your energy so that the challenges fade into the background and you consistently manifest those blessings.
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