The simple beauty of autumn leaves

What is an Hsp or Highly Sensitive Person

The simple beauty of autumn leaves
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"What is an Hsp or Highly Sensitive Person"
Caption: The simple beauty of autumn leaves
Image by: Peter Messerschmidt

"Don't be so sensitive!"

"You need to grow a thicker skin!"

"You just let every little thing get in your way. Don't be so fussy!"

"I don't understand why you can't deal with life the way others do!"

If other people have often said things like this to you, there's a good chance you're a highly sensitive person, or HSP. 

Of course, the idea of sensitivity is not something new to our world. Already in the earlier parts of the 1900s, Swiss psychiatrist C.G.Jung wrote about the "sensitive temperament" as part of his exploration of human archetypes. But it wasn't until the mid 1990s that research psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron performed a deeper examination of the idea that a person's inherent sensitivity might be about something more than temperament.

The study of high sensitivity actually grew out of unrelated research on the ways people relate and fall in love, after Elaine Aron observed that a fairly substantial part of the population- consistently 15-20%- seemed to have a distinctly different approach to life than their peers. This turned out to be consistent with observations from the animal kingdom, where about one-fifth of populations ranging from fruit flies to octopi to deer have been determined to be "cautious" or "hesitant," when compared to the remainder of their groups.

The term Highly Sensitive Person- typically abbreviated "HSP"- was coined in connection with the Arons' original research and the subsequent publication of Elaine Aron's 1996 book "The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You." For the first time, sensitivity was characterized as a physiological trait rather than a temperamental one. HSPs- literally- were found to have a more finely tuned central nervous system than their non-HSP peers. Although this may sound ambiguous, subsequent studies- using functional MRI mapping- have shown that HSPs actually engage different parts of their brains than non-HSPs, when performing the same tasks.

So how exactly does "high sensitivity" manifest?

The first thing to keep in mind is that to fully understand what a highly sensitive person is, we need to discard most conventional dictionary and cultural interpretations of the term "sensitive." Sensitivity- as Dr. Aron defined it- is *not* centered around "getting your feelings hurt easily" or being "a fragile fussy flower." 

It is about experiencing everything in life more intensely.

As an extension of her research findings, Elaine Aron developed a 28-item "inventory" for determining high sensitivity, which has grown to become a fairly standard and accurate measure for therapists evaluating clients, as well as for individuals wishing to assess their sensitivities.

Absent the sensitivity self-test. HSPs can often be recognized by having many- or sometimes all- of the following characteristics:

*  HSPs tend to have exceptionally deep awareness of nuances and changes in their environment.
*  HSPs are highly aware of the moods of people around them.
*  HSPs usually have very rich "inner lives" and are sometimes seen as "daydreamers."
*  HSPs tend to be highly idealistic (or even naive) in their approach to life.
*  HSPs have a high need for "alone time" to recharge their inner batteries, following stimulating events.
*  HSPs are drawn to artistic and creative fields in uncommonly large numbers.
*  HSPs are often extremely sensitive to bright lights, noise, smells and touch. 
*  HSPs often perform poorly- below their potential- when being watched and/or evaluated.
*  HSPs are frequently moved to tears by beauty- in music, nature, movies or stories.
*  HSPs tend to get overwhelmed and burn out quickly in stressful situations.
*  HSPs typically find violence abhorrent and will actively avoid violent or graphic movies and books.
*  HSPs tend to be non-competitive by nature, preferring "cooperative" efforts towards a common good.
*  HSPs are often deeply spiritual, although not necessarily religious.
*  HSPs tend to be unusually conscientious and sometimes loyal to a fault.
*  HSPs usually deal poorly with sudden and unexpected changes in their lives.
*  HSPs often respond well to sub-typical doses of prescription drugs.
*  HSPs can be extremely sensitive to both physical and emotional pain.
*  HSPs are typically deeply intuitive and empathic, to the point of appearing "psychic." 

Many people in the field of psychology were inclined to pathologize the whole idea of people being "HSPs," when the concept was first introduced. They questioned the veracity of Dr. Aron's findings, and dismissed high sensitivity as merely being generalized anxiety, Asperger's Disorder, shyness, avoidance, low level autism, social anxiety or introversion and insisted it was not "natural," but should instead be "treated" to give clients and patients more normal lives. Some skeptics insisted that "high sensitivity" was no more than a convenient "New Age Label" invented to sell self-help books and enable socially inept introverts to not deal with their deeper psychological issues.

However, as more peer research was done on high sensitivity- most notably in the US, Canada, China and The Netherlands- the more scientific term "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity" started to gain favor around 2009-10. As a result, it is now increasingly accepted that being an HSP is part of the normal spectrum of human experience, and *not* something to be regarded as a "syndrome" or illness, nor as "pseudo-science."

The primary challenge facing highly sensitive people is how to best manage emotional and physical overstimulation. Having a finely tuned nervous system and experiencing surrounding stimuli more intensely by extension also means that HSPs get overwhelmed more easily.

As a very simple metaphor, think of two different kinds of devices. One- "the normal" version- is very solid, reliable and designed to methodically perform its tasks at a moderate speed, with little variation. The other- the "HSP" version- is capable of handling a *huge* number of processes very fast and very accurately, which offers considerable benefits, but these benefits come at the "price" that the "HSP device" overheats and burns out more quickly and must be regularly shut down for a while before it can be used again. Neither approach is "wrong" or "right;" nor "good" or "bad;" they are merely "different."

Elaine Aron's research findings emphatically stress that high sensitivity is a *neutral* trait, not a character defect or weakness. 

In attempting to understand the life of a highly sensitive person, it is important to remember that HSPs are not all the same- just like the rest of the world, they are as different and unique as snowflakes. And sensitivity manifests differently from person to person. Some HSPs are mostly "physical" sensors who are deeply sensitive to things like certain foods, smells, strong lights and rough textures. Others are "emotional" sensors who feel people's moods and feelings, intuit others' needs with ease and have almost psychic abilities. Yet others are "environmental" sensors who perceive slight sounds, minute changes in temperature or barometric pressure, and so on. In most cases, though, highly sensitive people have a cross section of characteristics. HSPs come from all walks of life, and all social strata.

So DO highly sensitive people get their feelings hurt easily? Yes... and no. As part of experiencing everything more deeply, a hurtful comment is also experienced more deeply, so in that sense the answer would be yes. However, we humans tend to notice and dwell heavily on the negative, so it is often overlooked that HSPs also experience *positive* interactions and rewards more intensely. As a result, these "positive" HSPs tend to use their intuitive and creative gifts to quickly rise to key and leadership positions in many organizations, typically outpacing their non-HSP peers. 

High sensitivity is a very a complex subject and it can take years of self-study to fully understand all the nuances and the ways they affect you if you are an HSP. The important thing to remember is that it's *not* a pathology, *not* a weakness, and there is nothing to be "fixed." It is a natural inborn neurological trait- often heritable- and the best strategy for a highly sensitive person is to learn as much as possible about how to best manage their lives.

As broader awareness of the trait has increased, a significant number of excellent resources have become available online. Aside from Elaine Aron's web site (linked to, above), a very extensive web article entitled "The Highly Sensitive Person or HSP: What Exactly IS that?" offers a very thorough exploration of the trait at length, while the web site "Highly Sensitive and Creative" aggregates articles and news items relating to high sensitivity from many sources around the world.

More about this author: Peter Messerschmidt

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