Are You Highly Sensitive?
by Amy Scholten, MPH
About 20 percent of people are highly sensitive. This means that they are more tuned in to themselves and others. They are also more affected by their environment. As a result, they can get stressed more easily. So, is being highly sensitive a bad thing? Is it something that can be changed?
Paula is a community outreach worker who excels at her job. She understands her clients' needs well. She is kind, caring, and a good listener. She seems to know just how to help people reach their goals. Though she loves her work, she finds it exhausting. "There are too many meetings and social events. There is too much pressure," Paula sighs. She describes her work environment as stressful also. It is cluttered, chaotic, and too noisy. The bright lights are harsh. The gray walls make her feel sad. She also feels affected by her co-worker's moods. Their moods seem contagious.
What It Means to Be Highly Sensitive
Paula is a person with unusual sensitivity. Her keen awareness is both a strength and a challenge. High sensitivity by itself is not a psychological diagnosis. It is a trait found in humans and other species. Some scientists think that it plays a role in survival. Extra sensitivity can make us careful and sense other's needs. This can help people be healthy and safe.
Traits that tend to be common in highly sensitive people are:
Highly sensitive people bring many strengths to their work and relationships. Sometimes they feel that they care too much.
High sensitivity can be challenging. In addition to stress, people with this trait may feel flawed or not valued. This often depends on the family or culture they are in. They may be with people who enjoy crowds, loud music, and violent movies. The sensitive person may not fit in or be told to toughen up. If sensitive people are with others who understand them, they will feel better.
Advice for the Highly Sensitive
The first step toward dealing with sensitivity is to accept yourself. Learn more about the trait. Do not judge yourself.
Find a Healthy Balance
Society pushes us to conform. Sensitive people sometimes get sick and exhausted trying to be "normal." They may push themselves into situations that do not fit. On the other hand, trying new things can help them grow.
The key is balance. Try to find work that uses your strengths. Look for a calm, quiet, environment. Do things with people who share your interests. Do not be afraid to take on some challenges and feel uncomfortable. At the same time, know your limits. Make changes to ease stress.
Take Care of Your Health
Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol can make some people feel more stressed. Try to limit them. Eat a simple diet. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean protein may work best. Regular physical activity can also help you cope with stress. Sleep is especially important for the highly sensitive.
Manage Your Environment
Make your environment relaxing. Use soft lighting, flowers, and pretty decor. Play relaxing music. Keep your surroundings neat, organized, and clutter-free. Close doors and windows to block out noise.
A support group or counselor can help you cope. Try to find one that knows about the sensitivity trait.
People have different traits. It is important to understand and honor that. Sensitivity is a good thing, not a weakness.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Greven CU, Lionetti F, et al. Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: a critical review and development of research agenda. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019;98:287-305.
Highly sensitive people. American Mental Health Foundation website. Available at: https://americanmentalhealthfoundation.org/2012/01/highly-sensitive-people-hsp. Accessed June 8, 2021.
The sensitive brain at rest. The Current—University of California Santa Barbara website. Available at: https://www.news.ucsb.edu/2021/020260/sensitive-brain-rest Accessed June 8, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/8/2021
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