7 Signs You're A Highly Sensitive Person (And How To Keep It From Holding You Back)
If you've ever wondered why you seem more sensitive than other people—why certain things seem to affect you more than they do other people—it's probably not because you're weak or incapable or less than anyone else. It just means you're different. And it may, in fact, mean that you're what's known as an HSP—a highly sensitive person.
Over the years, research has explored and refined the concept of HSP, and it's not that unusual. According to one of the leading researchers in the field, Dr. Elaine Aron, 15 to 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive. This list of questions will help you determine whether or not you fall into that group.
While it may mean you have to take better care of yourself than some people to minimize the negative effects of your sensitivity, it also gives you advantages—among them, insight, intuition, and empathy—that non-HSPs just don't have. Read on to find out if you're an HSP and to learn more about how to care for yourself and others:
1. Do you tend to take on other people's emotions?
If you find it difficult to move on with your day after you've encountered someone in turmoil, it’s likely that you're a highly sensitive person. Most people feel a pang of empathy, of shared suffering, when they hear someone else describe their difficulties. But highly sensitive people feel other people's emotions almost as if they were the HSP's own.
This doesn't make you emotionally deficient. It allows you to empathize with others in a way non-HSPs can't. But it can make handling your own feelings and struggles more difficult. For sensitive types, it’s especially crucial you find ways to replenish yourself emotionally. For example, you may require more time alone. Or perhaps writing will facilitate the reflection and processing of those emotions. Author and licensed family therapist Julie Bjelland writes about some of these strategies in her book Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person.
2. Are you especially jarred by loud, sudden noises; bright lights; and strong smells?
I'm a highly sensitive person myself, and I’ve found that loud music quickly triggers my anxiety. If sirens or thumping music make it hard for you to feel at ease, don't perceive it as a weakness. Acknowledge that you're more in tune with your environment than most people and honor that by limiting your exposure to overwhelming stimulus.
I used to feel guilty about asking my friends to turn off their fluorescent lights, though they irritate my eyes. Now, I know that it’s essential that I make this small request to feel good in my skin and enjoy my time with my friends. And anyone who really cares about me doesn't see this as an inconvenience.
Feeling easily overwhelmed by environmental stimuli is a common trait of HSPs. Brain scan research at the University of California has shown that the brains of highly sensitive people actually respond more aggressively to chaotic situations than those of others—loud sounds, bright lights, etc., triggered a defensive response that wasn't seen in non-HSP brains. One strategy that may help is practicing focusing on one source of input at a time while tuning out everything else. Learn more about how to deal with noise sensitivities here.
3. Do you prefer to exercise alone?
Dr. Zed Teff, author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide and blog Healing for Highly Sensitive People, has found that a majority of highly sensitive people prefer to work out alone. HSPs are more likely to feel pressure to perform in such an environment. And since HSPs take on the emotions of others and find an excess of stimulus to be overwhelming, exercising solo can prove a valuable recovery strategy.
4. Do you cry often?
This doesn't mean you lack emotional strength or that you're not in control of yourself. Crying more often than the average person is a perfectly natural result of feeling everything more intensely. The best thing you can do when you feel the urge to cry is to allow yourself to cry, freely and without judgment. If you are with other people and you need to excuse yourself for a few minutes, do so. Knowing your own needs and meeting them without criticizing yourself is a great sign of emotional maturity.
5. Does hunger make you feel agitated or reactive? (Think 'hanger' on steroids.)
Having the right nutrients is essential to everyone, but the effects of an insufficient diet are especially pronounced in HSPs. Lots of people suffer from hanger, but you can bet that HSPs get the worst of it. To avoid putting added stress on your system, eat a healthy, balanced diet, and make sure you don't let yourself get to the point of gnawing hunger before eating. Sarah Best suggests that being well nourished helps to create a buffer between HSPs and the chaos of the world.
6. Do you get flustered when your attention is demanded in multiple places at the same time?
If you're being asked to do several things at once, it can help to write them all down. Then you can work to tackle one task at a time rather than letting yourself get overwhelmed by the whole list. If you can focus on the task at hand until it's complete, and only then shift your attention to what's next, you'll be more efficient and avoid a meltdown.
7. Are you especially sensitive to stimulants?
When I drink coffee, I feel like someone has strapped a jetpack to my back and it's all I can do to keep my feet on the ground. Now, if this doesn't apply to you, that doesn’t mean you’re not a highly sensitive person. But HSPs are more likely than others to experience the anxiety and jitters sometimes associated with caffeine.
In Dr. Susan Baili’s article, "The Top 10 Survival Tips for the Highly Sensitive Person" she suggests HSPs limit their caffeine intake. It's pretty intuitive, but if you find that caffeine triggers an anxious response in you, limit your intake. Consider switching to green tea or matcha, and give yourself a cutoff time for caffeine consumption to ensure that it doesn't interfere with your sleep.
If you’ve answered yes to most of these questions, you are most likely a highly sensitive person. The most essential thing for an HSP is to honor your needs whenever they arise. On top of all the strategies mentioned here, quiet time, reflection, and meditation are critical to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
You will likely find yourself naturally inclined to take prolonged periods of time away from others. There's nothing wrong with that. It's only by respecting your needs that you can most fully utilize your gifts and enjoy the experiences life has to offer.
Ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.