The condition of being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has been gaining significant traction since 2015 after a new documentary aired that explored the issue of HSP with scientist and author Dr Elaine Aron, who wrote the book The Highly Sensitive Person (which has now sold over a million copies).
In this book, research shows that the region of the brain that deals with empathy and sensory information in different in people who score highly on the sensitivity scale. Rather than having something to do with your personality, like being shy, HSP sufferers have a hypersensitive nervous system and are overwhelmed by both the emotional and the physical, such as lights, sounds, temperatures and touch. As such, it can be hard to travel with an HSP. Mel Collins, author of The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People, revealed in her book that the difference in these things when away from home would make her physically sick and give her migraines.
Mel has always been highly sensitive, but didn’t realise HSP was a thing until she was 32. “I was just convinced there was something wrong with me,” she writes. “Too much noise, bright lights and other people’s moods could be draining. I would absorb other peoples’ emotions, which would leave me feeling completely saturated or like I’d been sucked dry.”
Singer Alanis Morissette also suffers from HSP: “My temperament is highly sensitive,” she says. “I’m very attuned to very subtle things, whether it’s food or minerals or lighting or sounds or smells. Overstimulation happens pretty easily.”
In fact, one in five people are said to have been born with the trait – around 1.4 billion worldwide. And according to Dr Aron, who is a lead researcher on the subject, hypersensitivity is genetic (20% of us are born with it), and affects men and women equally. She explains it using the acronym DOES.
D – Depth of processing; HSPs process everything around them very deeply.
O – Overstimulation, which is produced because of D.
E – Emotional reactivity and empathy. Research indicates HSPs respond more to the emotions of others.
S – Sensitive stimuli; they’re incredibly sensitive to smells, sound and light.
But not all HSPs fit into the same mould – for example, 30% of them will actually be extroverts. Of course, it is possible to have some of these traits without being a Highly Sensitive Person. These traits include feeling overwhelmed when around large groups of people; being deeply affected by the moods of others, leaving you feeling drained; and closing off or shutting down when criticised, taking a long time to recover (if ever). And plenty of things can feel overwhelming, from loud noise levels to strong smells to people standing very close to you.
Obviously, this affects children too, but Dr Aron says as long as they’re raised with an awareness of being a HSP they’ll thrive, as they’ll be able to make the most out of it, using their strong sense of empathy for good – but telling children off for crying too much or demanding they ‘pull themselves together’ will likely make them anxious and oversensitive to criticism as they grow up.
When it comes to a cure for HSPs, the bad news is, there isn’t one. But the good news is, you don’t need one. “If you are an HSP you shouldn’t want to ‘cure’ yourself. It’s who you are,” Dr Ted Zeff, a psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide told The Telegraph. In certain societies being highly sensitive is seen as a positive thing. Research found that highly sensitive men in Thailand and India were rarely, if ever, teased, whereas highly sensitive men in North America were frequently so.”
There are positives from being hypersensitive, if you learn to control it. Mel says those with HSP have higher levels of empathy, enhanced tuition, good listening ability and a propensity for great honesty and generosity.
But while it doesn’t need to be cured, HSPs do need to have coping mechanisms. Developing these tend to come with age – the older you are the more you learn about what you can and cannot withstand. Mel recommends trying the tapping technique, or EFT (you can read more about that here). Dr Zeff says they need daily downtime – and this needs to be considerate of others. “If you’re in a relationship or part of a family or workplace there needs to be some compromise. For example, just because you don’t like noise it doesn’t mean everybody around you has to be quiet. Don’t be what I call an ‘insensitive highly sensitive person’! Just go into another room or go for a walk.”
Learn more about HSP here.