Without realizing, most of us know or have met someone that is a "highly sensitive person" (HSP), otherwise known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) according to scientists.
Approximately 1 in 4 people (20-30% of the population) carry this innate biological trait. Individuals with SPS tend to possess a greater awareness of their surroundings, being more sensitive to stimuli, including other people's moods, both for better and worse.
HSPs tend to become over-stimulated or tire more easily than their less-sensitive counterparts, which without the right kind of support can result in feeling misunderstood and frustrated.
If you're wondering "could I be highly sensitive?", here's 5 signs to look for.
1. You Think About Things Deeply
Highly sensitive persons think about things deeply, make connections across themes and reflect on deeper meanings. They also tend to have vivid dreams and a rich inner life.
For example, if you are an HSP and a friend tells you about a problem you will tend to consider all possible angles and situations, consider what may be going on in their lives to spur the issue, take their childhoods into account, and later in the evening you may still reflect on the event.
In the brain, this deep thinking is reflected in the activation of regions associated with awareness, complex thinking, and the integration of information from multi-sensory modalities.
2. You Notice Subtleties in the Environment
Highly sensitive individuals tend to pick up on the "energy" of a room very quickly. They may "feel" a crowd's energy, arrange the lights/candles, or clean up the room so the environment feels aesthetically pleasing and orderly.
For example, one day I sat in the usual spot of a long-time friend's apartment. His apartment is not particularly orderly, with a scattering of books, vases, and knick-knacks. One sunny afternoon I noticed a beautiful blue vase on his bookshelf and said, "Wow, that's such a beautiful vase?" He said, "It's always been there but Eleanor was here this weekend and rearranged some things on my shelves." Eleanor is highly sensitive. When we go out to eat together in NYC she can become irritated and has a hard time concentrating because she becomes distracted or perhaps overstimulated by others' conversations. After many years of hectic New York City life, Eleanor decided to move to the country.
3. You Like Quiet Time
HSPs need alone time. They tire more easily and need to take more breaks than their less-sensitive counterparts. They value solitude, peace, and calmness. Thus, the quarantine situation around the world is a silent victory for HSPs. However, the need for quiet time is often mistaken for introversion or shyness.
HSPs can take longer to make decisions and may not approach new situations as quickly as less-sensitive individuals. Recent brain research shows that during rest, the brains of HSPs are simply not being still or recovering, rather the "rest" time is utilized for deep processing of information such as to integrate new learnings into memory, reflect, and make sense of what has happened. So, if you are an HSP make sure that you are taking enough breaks throughout your day.
According to many yogic traditions, it is in the space of "nothingness" where everything gets done.
4. You Experience Sights, Sounds, and Smells Intensely
Highly sensitive individuals experience heightened bodily senses including sights, sounds, and smells. This can be a blessing or a curse.
For example, I have a dear HSP friend who tells me that they experience a sense of euphoria every time they spray on their French perfume. Not only do they experience pleasure from the sense of the perfume touching their skin but they also delight in taking in the scent and continuing to pick up on its fragrance throughout the day. They also have developed a refined sense of smell for fine wines, flowers, and berries and a fine attunement to music. They can pick up on the subtleties in art and experience great pleasure from aesthetically pleasing objects and landscapes.
Although highly sensitive individuals experience the positive more strongly, they also experience a greater aversion to negative things such as foul odors, loud sounds, and discordant color patterns. In very extreme situations, reactions to negative things maybe even stronger. For example, nausea, headaches, and fatigue are not uncommon for HSPs in response to negative, harsh, or overwhelming situations.
5. You Are Deeply Affected by Other People's Moods and Emotions
HSPs are not only affected by their surroundings, they are also more impacted by others' moods.
For example, if you are an HSP and you spend time with a friend that is kind, caring, and warm you will tend to derive joy, energy, and peace from being in their presence. This registers in the brain as a "reward" signal.
In a research study when my colleagues and I scanned a group of in-love individuals we saw stronger reward signals for HSPs when they were shown images of their beloved partner. However, in response to sad images of the partner, HSPs brains showed decreased reward signals. There was a catch though: those that had positive childhoods did not show decreased reward effects when they saw something negative. Therefore, if you are highly sensitive try to surround yourself with as many positive things and people as possible, and know that when your friends and family experience stress and hardships that you too will be affected.
It's important that we don't run away from people when they are going through a hard time. Sometimes they need space, or we need to set better boundaries, or we simply need to make sure that we are ok before trying to help others.
Also, for HSPs, taking breaks and engaging in replenishing activities such as yoga, meditation, going for walks in nature, taking a bath, or listening to calming music is essential.
Empowerment comes from understand yourself - your unique giftings and traits. If these HSP signs seem familiar, try the self-assessment scale on my free LoveSmart App and check out the resources on my website. In addition, Dr. Elaine Aron's online HSP test is very effective.
If this is just the start of your journey to better understanding your HSP trait, feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.