You know you feel this way sometimes.
Everything seems to be alright, then out of nowhere one small thing completely changes your mood. Maybe it’s an offhand comment by someone you care about. Maybe something trivial goes wrong at work. Maybe it’s just a thought that pops into your head and leaves you dwelling on it for hours.
Some of us get angry. Some of us get anxious. And some of us find ourselves curled up in bed with a half-empty box of tissues and a face full of tears.
Then the storm passes, we calm down, our body and mind finds a certain kind of equilibrium, and we think to ourselves;
Why am I so sensitive?
Let’s first clarify what sensitivity is. Sensitivity is a ‘strong’ response to stimuli. Importantly, because the idea of a ‘strong’ reaction is relative to that of the average person, your response could mean one of two things.
- You are overreacting to something that the average person reacts appropriately to.
- You are reacting appropriately to something that the average person is desensitised to.
Whatever the case, if you find that your sensitivity is causing you a disproportionate amount of stress, you may be what psychologists call a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), and you will probably see great benefit in talking it through with a therapist.
In this article, I will explain what the characteristics of a HSP are, how to live with emotional sensitivity, how to overcome emotional sensitivity, and finally how you can turn sensitivity into your biggest strength.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron came up with the idea of the Highly Sensitive Person in the mid-1990’s.
The HSP is a personality trait that is characterised by something called sensitivity processing sensitivity (SPS), an “increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.”
What this basically means is that if you are sensitive, your brain processes information differently. And what determines how you process information? Well, it’s mainly your genetics, partially your upbringing, environment and present living situation. It has very little to do with you intentionally being sensitive. Sensory processing sensitivity occurs unconsciously, and it is happening constantly. Studies have found that HSP scores are correlated with increased brain activation in regions related to awareness, empathy, and action planning.
“Theory and research suggest that sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), [is] found in roughly 20% of humans and over 100 other species.” – Bianca P Acevedo et al., The Highly Sensitive Brain
Why am I highlighting this?
Well, it’s because I want to make one thing clear. If you are either judging yourself or being judged by those around you for being sensitive, you need to know that it’s not at all your fault.
That doesn’t mean you can’t become more resilient and emotionally intelligent, and continually improve how you respond to things in your life. But if you are feeling even the slightest feeling of guilt, please, let it go.
Highly Sensitive Person Characteristics
The HSP has been classified using a questionnaire known as the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS). You can take the official HSP test at Dr Elaine Aron’s website. Here are some of the characteristics of the highly sensitive person, you may recognise a number of these in yourself.
Don’t panic, however, HSP is not a disorder, it’s a personality trait, and shortly I will be presenting some advice on how to live and thrive with a highly sensitive temperament. Keep in mind that there is a significant amount of overlap between HSPs and introverts, but not all introverts are HSPs and not all HSPs are introverts.
- Do you frequently experience tension and anxiety? Tension and anxiety are pervasive among HSPs largely because they’re not encouraged to express their sensitivity, and it’s common that fears and anxieties are bottled up which creates tension in the body and mind.
- Do you find yourself feeling emotionally exhausted? If you find yourself emotionally exhausted after dealing with people, this is a sign that you’re sensitive to their emotions. Essentially your interactions with others, and yourself, are taking you on a roller coaster of feelings, so it’s normal to get tired at the end of it all.
- Do you have a low tolerance to pain? Pain is largely psychological, so while your pain receptors may not be physiologically different from anyone else, the way discomfort is processed in your brain means you feel it a lot more than other people.
- Do you have a rich inner world? If you have a rich inner world this may be related to hyper-processing of cognitive stimuli; you may find that you think a lot, and have detailed dreams and fantasies.
- Are you sensitive to caffeine? If you find stimulants easily tip you over the edge, this is another sign that you are a HSP.
- Do you feel hurt more easily than others? Because HSPs feel things more profoundly, it’s a lot more common that they feel hurt easily. You may also find that you take things more personally than others, you hold onto them for a longer time, and you find it hard to let things go.
- Do you strongly dislike conflict? As a result of you being hurt more easily, it’s only natural that you don’t like conflict. When you enter an argument, you are risking a lot more than the other person, because they may return to emotional normality in a matter of minutes, while you may ruminate on what happens for days.
- Are you overly concerned with what others are thinking? Because HSPs are more emotionally reactive, it’s common that they get stuck in their head and can worry about what others are thinking. Because as humans we project our feelings onto the external environment, and there are more feelings being experienced by HSPs, there are more projections onto the environment.
- Do you struggle to accept criticism? This is related to taking things personally. Criticism may be more psychologically painful for HSPs, and it, therefore, may be harder to detach constructive criticism from personal attacks.
Sensitivity to the environment
- Are you uncomfortable in crowds? Crowds are typically overwhelming to HSPs because in their experience there is a lot more going on than others may experience.
- Are you more aware of subtleties in your environment? This is why HSPs may be uncomfortable in crowds. If you go to a busy train station or music concert, the experience may be deafening for HSPs. Most people can relate to this when they’ve been sick or had a hangover, and they are extra sensitive to light and sounds.
- Do you have a heightened Startle Reflex? The startle reflex is something that is very hard to change; it occurs deep in our central nervous system. People who are more sensitive to information tend to get startles more easily, which is also why the startle reflex has been linked with anxiety and rumination.
- Do you strongly dislike shock and violence? Again, this comes down to being overwhelmed by the incoming stimuli. The experience is simply too intense and therefore cannot be enjoyed in the same way some people may get a rise out of controlled violence and horror movies.
- Do you feels noticeably depressed by social media? This obviously wasn’t included in the original HSP Scale as social media wasn’t around, but it’s clear that if you are highly sensitive you’re going to be negatively affected by the overwhelming information on social media.
How to live with emotional sensitivity
While I made the point earlier that your sensitivity is not your fault, it is important to emphasise that you can become more skillful at using your sensitivity in everyday life. There are two ways to do this.
The first is to adjust your life, so it is easier on your sensitivity, and the second is by rewiring your brain with meditation and therapy so you can exert some influence over how your brain processes information.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when designing your life to align with your sensitivity.
Live a slower, simpler life. By keeping your life slow and simple you will find it’s easier to manage and you are naturally buffered against being overwhelmed. When sensitive people are overwhelmed it can quickly lead to rumination and anxiety, so eliminating emotional triggers will go a long way to keeping the peace.
Take time to wind down. Most people in the modern world lead busy lives. However, because HSPs tend to become emotionally exhausted, it takes them more time and rest to recharge their batteries. If you are a highly sensitive person, make sure you allocate time every day to relax deeply so you can start every day afresh.
Have a quiet space. Our minds work like tuning forks to our environment, and this goes even more so for sensitive individuals. Spending some time in a quiet space, whether you are meditating or just doing something relaxing, is a perfect way to slow your mind down after an intense day.
Don’t judge yourself. This is more a psychological tip than life advice, but it’s essential that you aren’t critical of your sensitivity. Self-criticism will only create mental turbulence, and when you’re dealing with something as slow to change as your neurobiology, you’ll find that you’re fighting a losing battle.
Develop close meaningful relationships with like-minded people. Having an emotional support system with people that understand you is absolutely vital. If you see the potential to build relationships with individuals who think as you do, seize the opportunity. This isn’t always possible for everyone and can be supplemented by some professional help, like a therapist, if needed.
How to Overcome Emotional Sensitivity
If you find that your sensitivity is overwhelming and it is truly something that you want to change about yourself, there are a number of ways you can rewire your brain so that you don’t feel like your emotions are constantly getting the better of you.
#1. Practical Radical Acceptance of Yourself
Radical acceptance of yourself is a key theme in both Buddhism and therapy. When we fight back against who or what we are, we tend to create more internal conflict and whip up a psychological storm.
Radical self-acceptance is a term coined by the Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach. As she explains in her book of the same name: “the boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”
When we repress or resist our sensitivity, we create what are called meta-emotions – emotions about emotions. We become angry because we are sad or guilty because we are excited. It is these meta-emotions that can be problematic.
#2. Practice equanimity
Equanimity is one part of the three part equation for mindfulness (along with concentration and clarity) as outlined by meditation teacher Shinzen Young. If you are looking to use meditation to become much more emotionally intelligent, I highly recommend his teachings. They are scientific and precise and are a great foundation for greater self-control.
Equanimity, as it is defined by Shinzen, is the “radical non-interference with the natural flow of sensory experience.” In the following two videos Shinzen explains exactly what equanimity is, and how you can bring that skill and apply it to emotional sensitivity.
#3. Get to know your emotions
As people who live a much richer emotional life, HSPs will see great benefit in actively getting to know their emotions through the following practices.
- Meditation. In the long-term, any type of meditation is going to improve your emotional intelligence. However, if you want to focus specifically on getting to know your emotions as soon as possible, mindfulness is the technique that is going to get you there fastest.
- Journalling. When we journal consistently we bring form to thoughts that we otherwise would have missed. The longer we do so, the more we see the internal narratives that are dictating our behaviour. A daily journal practice can not only help you understand your emotions, but can lead you to better manage them.
- Therapy. Therapy is like a journal practice, but the journal you are working with is dynamic, active and has professional experience. There has traditionally been a stigma attached to therapy, but now many people are using it to better manage their lives and understand themselves.
How to turn your sensitivity into your biggest strength
The modern world largely associates sensitivity with weakness. However, when channeled corrected, this is far from the case. In fact, some have even suggested that sensitivity can become your superpower.
#1. Life a rich life by sitting with your emotions
Most people have an unconscious avoidance of both positive and negative emotions. Because you don’t have that filter, your emotional palette can allow you to have a deeper experience of the human condition than the average person.
It’s easy to avoid our feelings, we may read books, watch movies, or even meditate to live out lives that are built to avoid our emotions. When we learn how to live with intense feelings, however, we can truly enjoy the ups and downs of life.
#2. Take time to reflect and notice what others don’t
I mentioned earlier that taking breaks to rest is an important part of living as a HSP. However, what I didn’t say is that you can use these breaks to reflect on the emotional experiences that you’ve been having. Your sensitivity will mean that you pick up on a lot more information in your environment than those who would have otherwise filtered it out.
#3. Make use of your passion and creativity
If you feel emotions more strongly than everyone around you, your biggest strength will always be your passion and creativity. Since the beginning of human history great artists have tended to people more in tune with their emotions.
Ultimately, it’s finding the balance between channeling your feelings into a creative expression while not becoming overwhelmed by them. Existential Psychotherapist Rollo May wrote a great book on this topic called The Courage to Create.
Ultimately as a highly sensitive person you have nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Learn to manage your sensitivity and embrace it, as with any other personality trait. Engage in habits that buffer you from overwhelm, develop psychological resilience and express your creativity in a way that gives back to the world.