Sense and Sensitivity

Do busy, noisy environments easily overwhelm you? Do you often need to take refuge in a quiet place or a darkened room? Do you react emotionally to music and art? Do you purposely avoid violent movies or images? Are you extra-sensitive to sounds, scents and tastes? Do you get flustered when people try to make you do too many things at once?

If you answered yes to any or most of these questions, it’s possible you could be what Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., calls a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Dr. Aron provides insight into this trait and offers tips to help HSPs deal with a world that isn’t always very sensitive to their needs.

HSPs are largely unacknowledged and often misunderstood. Many HSPs are labeled shy or introverted at an early age and pressed to be more outgoing. “Buck up” and “Don’t be so sensitive” are phrases all too often heard by HSPs. In fact, shyness and introversion are misnomers. You may really be quite outgoing and fearless, but your high-sensitivity requires you to keep a lower profile.

An HSP has an extra-sensitive nervous system that’s easily over-stimulated and over-aroused. Dr. Aron writes, “What is moderately arousing for most people is highly arousing for HSPs.” Dr. Aron estimates that 15-20% of the population falls into the highly sensitive category. She emphasizes that the trait is most likely inherited. If you think you might be an HSP, chances are that one or both of your parents are as well.

Though high sensitivity poses a challenge for HSPs and can make survival a bit harder, there are also many benefits. HSPs are generally:

Extremely conscientious

Good at deep concentration

Able to analyze their own process of thinking

Good at catching and avoiding errors

Good at holding still

Attuned to other people’s moods and emotions

Creative thinkers

Able to learn without realizing they are learning

Able to process information at deep levels

Attracted to spiritual paths that help them find inner calm

But HSPs are also slower to recover from stimulating experiences and can even “shut down” in crisis situations. When in a state of over-arousal HSPs generally do not perform at their best. It’s necessary for HSPs to learn to be sensitive to their own sensitivity.

Neutral Bliss
The best state for an HSP is a neutral one — neither over-aroused nor under-aroused. Though HSPs must protect themselves and adopt healthy coping techniques, the solution is not one of absolute avoidance. When in an over-stimulating situation, some of these techniques can help HSPs cope:

If appropriate, physically remove yourself from the situation.

Try to remember similar situations you have dealt with successfully in the past. Pick out what is familiar and friendly in your current situation; shift your focus.

If appropriate, close your eyes to shut out some of the stimulation.

Take a break. Venture outdoors. Nature, fresh air and natural light can work wonders.

Drink a glass of water, walk near water, take bath, sit in a hot tub. Water is soothing and relaxing.

Regulate your breathing and adjust your posture.

Get your body moving. Try some easy stretches. Walk around the room. Head to the bathroom just to take a short walk.

Repeat a phrase, mantra or prayer that you have come to associate with calm.

Watch your over-arousal from an objective standpoint. HSPs are generally very good at watching themselves. Place yourself outside of yourself. You can say things like, “This is a tough situation for her, but she’ll feel better about it tomorrow.” Learn from your own experience.

Embrace yourself in the situation. Be gentle, forgiving. If you still feel over-aroused, do not blame yourself. Developing skills for handling over-arousal takes time.

But what about the rest of us? Are you saying we’re all insensitive? Absolutely not. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t classify themselves as HSPs, but are loving, creative, sensitive people. They are just rigged differently. There is a reason why the majority of the population falls into this category. They are the doctors, stockbrokers and fire fighters. In addition, there is a reason why we have HSPs. They are the counselors, teachers, editors, poets and spiritual guides.

It’s essential for HSPs to be active participants in life, but they also need to know their limits. Whether it’s a radio or the TV, sometimes turning the stimulus off is the best option. Situations that don’t have an “Off” switch require your abundant creativity and presence of mind. Though being an HSP is challenging in today’s fast-paced world, it’s also a great blessing, allowing one to experience life on a very special, rewarding level.

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