Do you often feel too sensitive for the world around you? Overwhelmed in crowded spaces or loud environments or easily affected by other people’s moods? Maybe you feel like you are experiencing their emotions within your own body.
Psychologists estimate that 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive.
Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) get overwhelmed much more easily because you are processing your environment more deeply than others. Your sensory experience is heightened, it’s a neurobiological thing. This means, your brain processes your environment, emotions, sensory experiences and feelings at a deeper level than the rest of the population.
See? We are definitely into superpower territory here.
Here comes the (neuro) science part.
Thanks to new scientific research, high sensitivity is becoming increasingly recognised and understood. Here’s a little bit more about the neuroscience.
Highly Sensitive People have a stronger depth of processing, actually using a part of the brain called the “seat of consciousness” that integrates inner and outer information, meaning you will feel things more deeply neurobiologically.
Additionally, the highly sensitive brain has more active mirror neurons. They help us understand what someone is doing or experiencing, based on their actions. Allowing humans to feel empathy and compassion for others. HSPs have more active mirror neuron systems, relating to social and emotional processing. This will make you more empathic, more intuitive and are more able to read people accurately.
Lastly, a part of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), may also be responsible for the enhanced emotional vividness experienced by HSPs. This area of the brain has been associated with emotions, values and processing sensory data. This has the effect of increased vividness when feeling emotions.
So, if you seem to feel things more strongly than other people, you are probably right.
Why? Well, it turns out there is a small but significant evolutionary benefit to human society if a significant percentage of the community have enhanced empathic ability.
Some of the super-power worthy traits of people with high sensitivity.
You are easily able to accurately get a good sense of other people
You know how people are feeling without them having to tell you
You naturally empathise with others
You’re naturally intuitive and perhaps even spiritual
You have a deep appreciation for nature, music, the arts and beauty
You have a high EQ (Emotional Intelligence)
You are a deep thinker, enjoying time in meditation and contemplation
Having superpowers isn’t always easy.
But without having an understanding of how deeply you process the world and prioritising your needs and boundaries, it can often feel like the world is too much.
Picture this… you arrive at a restaurant after a long, tiring day at work feeling a little depleted. As you walk in, you notice the space is very brightly lit, your friend pulls you close and grabs you to hug you, accidentally tugging at your earring and the smell of her perfume smells too strong. The noise of the restaurant means you can barely hear the conversation at your own table. Your friend is having a rough time at work and is telling you all about it, but you can barely hear her over the noise. You’re starting to feel uncomfortable; the light feels too bright and the chair is scratching your back. The more she talks, the more anxious you feel and overwhelmed you’re becoming and a sense that you need to escape starts creeping in. You can’t put your finger on why, as you love your friend, but you are drowning in her story about work and the environment around you and you really want to go home.
Sound familiar? When you process your environment at a more intense level, constantly, you have a tendency to overthink and over-process constantly too. This means you do not naturally rest in the same way that others do. You notice ALL the smaller details and appreciate their beauty as well as their flaws.
This can lead to overwhelm very easily.
Protect Your Energy.
Highly Sensitive People can connect emotionally to many different kinds of people, you look for the deep emotional connection with everybody, but you may be unable to draw clear boundaries identifying when it’s unnecessary to connect so deeply with others. When you are taking on too much of other people’s emotional stuff that doesn’t belong to you. You also feel emotions more deeply than others which can be both incredible and exhausting in equal measures.
Without rest, you might feel overwhelmed, or like you literally cannot take on any more. Everything feels too loud, too bright, too close, too demanding, too uncomfortable. The noise from the washing machine or the constant pinging of your phone could feel unmanageable without the right tools in place to create space to process your environment in such detail.
The thing is, sensitivity isn’t something a person chooses. We cannot control its depth or its volume, we cannot switch it off. Or on. High sensitivity comes from deep within our neurological make-up.
So how do you know if you are a Highly Sensitive Person?
Other people’s mood affects you deeply
You try hard to avoid making mistakes and may seek reassurance as a result
You get easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input (i.e. bright lights, loud noises or strong smells)
You get startled easily
You consider yourself conscientious
You feel overwhelmed and annoyed when there is a lot going on at once
In busy environments you often feel the need to withdraw to get some downtime and relief from feeling over-stimulated
You actively avoid anything violent or cruel in the media because of how it affects you
You don’t handle significant changes in life well. It takes you longer to adjust.
Thriving as an HSP.
The trick is to start embracing your sensitivity as a strength. When you understand who you are and how you respond to your environment, then you can learn tools to manage that. It’s then that you can start to own your unique strengths and your depth of processing and then you can set an expectation of what you expect from other people too
Gentle reminders for highly sensitive people
You don’t need to internalise other people’s criticism of you
You don’t need to empathise or understand others all of the time, save it for the people who appreciate you
You are allowed to retreat to re-energise
You don’t need to explain your sensitivities
You are allowed to hold boundaries without feeling guilt or shame
Being highly sensitive is your gift. It is purposeful, innate and something that doesn’t need changing or healing. You don’t need to grow a thicker skin. What needs looking at are the conditions around you, the boundaries you set and your intentional self-care that you must make a part of your daily life. Consider surrounding yourself with people who handle you carefully and with understanding.
So, make sure that the friend you met at the restaurant is happy to acknowledge your needs too, listens if you express boundaries about what feels comfortable for you, understands your need for alone time or finds a bar with soft lighting and a quiet corner where you can chat more equally about life. See? Superpowers can be amazing and are definitely worth protecting with strong boundaries and good friends.
About the Author:
She specialises in helping women discover balance, fulfilment and self-acceptance. To live a life filled with nothing less than self-awareness, freedom to choose your way, free flowing inspiration, endless motivation, and a whole lot of self-validating love.
Formally a senior marketing professional in TV and film (including Channel 4, ITV and BBC), she understands what is it like to feel overwhelmed and dysregulated. She uses these insights to take a holistic approach to wellbeing through combining the SCIENCE of Psychology (BSc Psychology & MSc Psychology) with the ART of Reiki and guided meditation.